A World of Change

I had been lifting leg weights for two years. And while I had been seeing some gradual increase in strength, my walking didn’t seem to be getting that much better. This was due to the fact that my lower leg was still not very involved. There are so many muscles from ankle to toe that we recruit while striding that we never think about. Once these muscles were dormant, walking effortlessly – even with a cane – was next to impossible. The thing that really changed this was when I started using the stationary bike.

Biking wasn’t an exercise for building brute strength; I used it to restore fluidity of movement to a body part that rarely received individual attention. Unlike walking, where my lower leg was fairly static, biking focused on me spinning my lower leg in continuous revolutions. This increased blood flow, which in turn made it easier to control the muscles. Where I had once needed help lifting my left foot onto the pedal and required it to be strapped tightly, I could now kick my foot into place and pedal without having someone tighten the strap.

While my foot and calf were working hard, my inner thigh was working even harder, fighting to stay upright and over the knee. If my thigh was allowed to drift to the side, my foot would start banging into the housing of the gear box and eventually fall off the pedal altogether. So having to strain to keep the thigh upright strengthened it, and it in turn activated more when I wasn’t on the bike. Now foot clearance had become such an afterthought that I could focus on correcting other parts of my gait.

Shortly after I had begun doing the stationary bike again, I saw a video of myself from when I’d first started doing leg curls. It was from two years ago and it instantly made me realize how much I had advanced. In the video, I struggled as hard as I could, but the amount my leg moved was almost imperceptible. The only way you could tell my leg was working at all was by hearing the gentle clang of the machine as the top weight moved up and down against the rest of the weight stack. Staring at the video, I was reminded of how painful and frustrating just trying to move my leg had been.

Now, the little range of motion I was achieving on the same exercise was much more encouraging. My leg wasn’t going all the way up, but you could definitely see how much it was moving with every rep. I had been upset because I could still remember lifting in high school and being able to lift the whole stack. But now as I watched the ten pound weight going up and down, I was reminded that all I needed to do was keep going in several times a week and doing my best. The only person I needed to compete against myself.

All of the leg work in the gym was paying off in “real world” functionality. Every six months I have to go to the Hennepin County building in order to renew my social services. When I go there, one of the pieces of documentation I need to provide is a checking account report. Since there is a branch of my bank located directly across the street from the county building, I decided to have Metro Mobility drop me off there. I also wanted to grab a burrito from the restaurant on the corner across from the bank. So once the bus dropped me off at the bank, I could pick documents and walk across the street to Hennepin County; then I could walk back across the street and cross a second street to the Mexican restaurant, where the bus could pick me up and return me home.

As I waited for the bus to pick me up the next day, I saw that the skies were cloudy. I checked the weather app, and it showed me that there might be light rain in a couple of hours, but there wouldn’t be thunderstorms until around noon. By then, my business should be finished and I could wait it out safely in the restaurant. I was hopeful, but I had no confidence that the rain would hold off. By the time the bus was halfway to the bank, raindrops were hitting the windshield. It was raining in earnest but the time I emerged from the bank.

It wasn’t a downpour yet, but because I was slower due to the stroke, I expected to be drenched by the time I walked to the corner and crossed the street. I waited beneath an awning, hoping the rain would let up, but it didn’t. So I finally just went for it. The rain was steady, but I didn’t get soaked. The hardest part was when I had to cross the street. There was a wide puddle at the intersection, and I had no way to avoid it nor could I step in and out of it quickly. Having no other alternatives, I held my breath and stepped down.

It took me less than thirty minutes to complete my business, so I came back outside to wait for a break in the rain. The sidewalk was slick, but it wasn’t a slip hazard. All I needed to do was walk carefully but with intent. I hustled back to the intersection, where I had to cross both streets. As soon as I got to the strip mall where the restaurant was, a light rain started to fall. But at this point, all I needed to do was walk past two other businesses. I sat down to eat my burrito with over two hours to spare, but more importantly, I no longer needed to have anxiety about getting stranded in the rain.

The Women’s World Cup happens once every four years. In 2015, I had just suffered a stroke a month before it started, so I’d had to watch it while confined to a hospital bed. Moreover, I had been in Mississippi. So the few people who were around didn’t care about soccer or women’s sports in general. While I was happy the US won the tournament, it was a very lonely experience for me. Dad and I watched the final on my tiny TV in room 505. As we celebrated alone, I silently vowed that I would be watching in Minnesota in four years.

My friend Liz contacted me from a bar downtown after the US won their quarterfinal match. She wanted to meet there for next week’s semifinal against England. I told her that I’d be there, knowing that there was no way I’d miss it. I didn’t know how well a women’s match would be attended, but knowing that I wouldn’t be able to stand for several hours, I made plans to arrive over an hour early. With the stroke had come a sense of losing control of my schedule because I was not able to drive. So even though I had a plan to arrive early, I still spent the next few days worrying about when my transportation would get me there.

On the day of the match, I had an appointment with my ILS worker. I ran errands for an hour then had him drive me to the pub. This gave me a chance to relax more about being on time, but I would be lying if I said that I was completely at ease. I did beat the crowd (by a lot) and was given a table up front. I ordered a Guinness and settled down to finally relax.

Liz and her husband arrived thirty minutes later. They were meeting friends at a table on the rooftop patio and invited me to join them. I was enjoying not being in an apartment with no air conditioning, so I told Liz that I would come up for the second half. She refused to take no for an answer and hustled me up to the rooftop to join them.

When I got up to the patio, they had preemptively ordered me a regular chair so I wouldn’t experience pain in my thigh. However since they were seated at a high top table, I decided to sit at a bar stool too. My leg had recovered so much that I could be okay for a few hours.

The crowd was large and passionate. The patio was hot, but we were so full of excitement that it wasn’t unpleasant. The whole building erupted as the US scored the first goal. Liz was as nervous as a coach or parent. Soon England equalized, and the single table of England supporters began singing at the table next to us. The US has always had the best women’s squad in the world, so I wasn’t bothered, because I always feel like they will pull off the win. The US scored again, and everyone in the bar other than Liz breathed a sigh of relief.

At halftime, I went downstairs to the restroom. I was surprised by how easy walking was. Thanks to the lunges and leg press, I could walk leisurely and speak to other patrons. Because I wasn’t so frantic, it didn’t feel like an emergency. I didn’t feel like I had to rush to a latrine. I walked back to the table feeling refreshed and blissfully awaited the second half. It felt good to be regaining so much control of my body.

The US survived a scare in the second half and held on to win. Now people clapped and cheered. Liz began smiling and interacting now that the tension had finally lifted. This was the type of World Cup crowd I had been dreaming about when I was lying in that hospital bed in Mississippi. Many of the people were probably there to cheer on Team USA in any sporting event; a lot of us were true soccer fans. I was able to raise my voice, move around the room safely, and thoroughly enjoy the life I had worked so tirelessly to regain.

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