I spent most of the first week of July, 2018 in Dallas. We were having a mini family reunion. That week, Candice’s mom joined us so we could all go out to see the pre Fourth of July fireworks. Candice and Jonathan’s daughter Parker had just turned eleven months old. Everyone delighted in making a fuss over her.
Parker was born the night before I flew to Dallas last year. Because it had been so early in my recovery, my left arm was of minimal use. I didn’t have the strength or dexterity to hold Parker safely. Although I was happy to meet her so soon after she was born, I felt inadequate at being so limited at my ability to interact with my niece.
Now I had been lifting weights with the arm as best I could for over a year. I also tried to use my left hand to grasp and hold things, or to balance when I was sitting upright. Occupational therapists had told me that one of the best ways to regain use of the arm was to try to incorporate it as much as possible into everyday use. This would remind my brain that it needed to control the arm, thereby aiding neuroplasticity. With all the work I’d been doing, I now felt strong enough to hold Parker. I asked Jonathan to pass her to me. At first she just stared at me. We teased and cajoled until she was laughing and grinning from ear-to-ear. We both started to laugh uncontrollably. The little vibrations of her laughing tummy reverberated delicately against my ribcage. This was one of those tiny moments that put all my years of hard work in perspective.
My older brother’s grandson was there with him and his wife. Now three years old, he was much more communicative and active. His name is Trystan, and he now remembers me from previous visits. I was barely able to walk when I first met him. It makes me proud to be able to play with Trystan and Parker. I’m not 100% recovered, but I am starting to feel like an uncle now. While I know that being an uncle has nothing to do with physical abilities, I have always been active and fun around my nieces and nephews. I will try as hard as I can to share that with Parker and Trystan. If nothing else, it’s more incentive to keep pushing myself.
Around 5:00 in the afternoon, we set out to watch the fireworks. It was Texas in early July, so of course the weather was sweltering. The temperature was over 100°, so my brothers had begun hydrating before we left the house. Because incontinence is always a concern of mine, I did not drink any fluids preemptively. I wanted to see how close we would be to a toilet before I began drinking a lot of liquids.
We ended up being two of the first vehicles to park. Everyone unloaded camping chairs and arranged then by the sidewalk. I felt a little uneasy. So I carefully sidled around Jonathan’s SUV and sat on its rear gate. Although I had worried about weighing too much and damaging the vehicle, the gate held me easily. I slid further inside and relaxed. Jonathan asked me whether I wanted anything to drink. Before deciding, I asked where the restrooms were. He assured me that they could drive me over, if I needed to go badly. With that. I drank a bottle of water, a can of Dr. Pepper, and a can of local beer.
To my surprise, I still did not have to use the restroom an hour later. However, I heard Candice say that she and Sharon were going to get food from her company tent. So I decided that it was a good time for a preemptive trip to the men’s room. Jonathan drove the SUV over to the tent with me in the passenger’s seat, while Sharon and Candice went ahead on foot.
As I got out of the SUV, I still had a vaguely unsteady feeling. I slowly walked over to the office building. When I got to the curb, I could see that it wasn’t even a four-inch step. However I was still feeling light headed, so I asked Sharon to hold my elbow to steady me. Candice directed me down the hall to the restroom. As I walked there, my foot dragged several times. This frustrated me; I was wearing my brace, which should have prevented any foot dragging. Still I dragged myself safely to the restroom and back.
When I came back out of the front door of the office, I was still having difficulty walking, but Candice offered to help me to prepare a plate. Recently I had begun losing weight, so I had been very careful not to overeat. However this was Texas, and they had a spread of barbecued meat. I decided to temporarily suspend my diet in favor of enjoying myself. Who knows how long it would be until I was able to attend a Texas Fourth of July barbecue again? I selected several cuts of beef and pork, with some baked beans and potato salad. After I had amassed a heaping plate of food, I decided to make my way back to the SUV.
I walked back along the narrow strip of ground past the table. I had to draw my legs close together so I could stay on the grass. As I go ready to step down, I lost my balance and fell. It happened so quickly that I couldn’t catch myself. I was suddenly lying on the ground. I rolled over onto my back and looked up at the sky.
Several people rushed over to help me back to my feet.
“Are you okay?”
“I just was trying to move too fast.”
“What do you need us to do?”
“Each of you grab one of my arms and help pull me up.”
Within a few seconds, I was back on my feet. Jonathan pulled the SUV up and helped me walk back over to it. I slid back into the passenger’s seat. My elbow was stinging, so I checked it for blood. Seeing none, I asked Jonathan to tell me if my elbow was bleeding.
“Nah, you just look like you cut yourself shaving.”
I was satisfied that I was okay, so Jonathan drove back to the parking site.
Once we got back there, Jonathan asked me if I wanted help walking back to the rear gate of the vehicle. I was feeling inexplicably drained and queasy. So I told him that I would rest in the truck and eat there. My plate was on the dashboard. Since I couldn’t sit up and reach it easily, I asked him to place it on the console beside me. He gave me several napkins. I ate gingerly, as I was wearing a new shirt and could only use my right arm. After a few bites, I stopped eating and sat back.
Grabbing a few napkins, I carefully cleaned the sauce of my fingers. Once I was satisfied that my hands were clean, I sat back and tried to rest. As I sat there, I started trying to figure out why I was feeling so lousy. I was still sweaty, so it occurred to me that it was probably because I was hot. The stroke had happened when I was extremely hot. Maybe it was what had caused me to lose my balance. The heat had probably drained my muscles and affected my ability think. Therefore it had made it more problematic to plan and execute my steps.
As I sat there going through all of this in my head, my heart rate began to slow and my thoughts became clearer. Part of it was that the air conditioning had lowered my body temperature. Analyzing the problem had also given my mind something else to concentrate on. Soon I was feeling well enough to go back outside and enjoy the company of others. So I texted Jonathan and told him he could switch off the car and help me move from the passenger’s seat to the rear gate of the SUV.
It was now just after 6:00; the fireworks would not begin until after dark. We were far enough south that this would be just before 9:00. Most of the people in our party passed the time by played with Trystan and Parker. My brothers were talking about sports and flight patterns. I pulled my right leg up in the back of the SUV and asked Jonathan to hand me my plate. Knowing how I would be cutting down on my caloric intake in a few days, I decided to feast during this rare trip to a Southern barbecue.
A lot of the meat was very spicy. Two years ago, it would have almost caused me pain to eat. I would have choked on it. Those days when I’d had a taste for spicy food but no ability to swallow it comfortably had been depressing. I had been afraid that I would be consigned to eating bland food for the rest of my life. But soon I realized that this was more a matter of my throat’s diminished swallowing capacity. Large morsels of spicy food would be more difficult to swallow, leaving them more time to collect in the back of my throat. If they sat there too long, my tonsils would start to get irritated.
So, just as when I had first started eating solid foods again, I had to take small bites and chew them meticulously. In the hospital, this had been boring and time consuming. Because it had taken weeks to go back to solid foods, my mouth often got tired from all of the chewing. Many times I could not even finish my meals, because I would lose interest in chewing so much. Instead I began trying to save my Boost meal supplements from every meal. After a while, I had amassed so many boxes of it that I always had something to tide me over between truncated meals.
However, hospital food had been bland by comparison. It was a lot easier to enjoy the foods I was eating on the outside. Chewing smaller bites for longer periods of time allowed me to savor it even longer. It drew out the meal, making it a more sensual experience rather than somethingg to be endured. I took tiny bites of the juicy meats. I let the rich sauce slide lazily down my tongue. Each time I would let it linger and burn a little. Then I would swallow it down, chasing it with root beer.
After I finished eating, my back started to feel cramped from sitting against the wall of the SUV. My left leg was starting to go numb from dangling from the truck bed. Moreover I was feeling a little isolated, and the whole purpose of this trip had been to spend time with family. I asked if there were any more lawn chairs that were not being used. Ivory offered me his.
Since I would be climbing down onto more lumpy ground and because my affected leg was already tired, I asked for someone to support my left elbow. The lawn chair I was offered was made of a canvas material. I walked carefully over to it and pressed my hand down on it. It felt like it was all sticks and cloth, like a spindly old mess of bagpipes. I asked Ivory to told the back steady while I held the armrest with my right arm, sitting down as gently as I could. I sat back carefully, and the chair did not fall over.
An ice cream truck played its electronic calliope in the distance, and Candice’s mom went down and got frozen treats for everyone, We watched people start a spontaneous game of softball in a field that got smaller and smaller as the lot filled up with cars. There were even a few airplanes performing flying stunts a few fields over. When the darkness finally came, I cheered, surrounded by family, as flickers of light spiraled down from the heavens.