Another Year Stronger

April was only slightly warmer than March. While I wasn’t thrilled with the weather, I did have a birthday coming up. I was really hungry for Thai food. As I had done for my monthly dinner meet ups the first year I was back in Minneapolis, I created a Facebook event and invited everyone on my friends list who lived in Minnesota. I knew that only a handful of people would actually come, but it would be a magical time just the same.

This would be my fourth birthday since the stroke. Every year I was a little more active than I had been the year before. I felt really good about this year. I was far more energetic because I was exercising so much that I had managed to lose 11 pounds – the first real weight loss since my stroke. I was sleeping better at night and more alert during my days. I was talking a lot more and walking to develop my lung capacity and endurance. This outing would be far more enjoyable than any I’d had since 2014, because I would feel like being there the entire evening, as opposed to wanting to go home and collapse from exhaustion after an hour.

On the day of the party, my friend Allene came over from Wisconsin. Since she was giving me a ride to the restaurant, I had asked her to come early. She arrived over 2 hours early, so I told her that we could go to the department store in the suburbs and still make it to the restaurant on time. So she drove me down to Bloomington; I picked out a brown leather belt; we stood in a line that was way too long; we still made it back to the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis with around fifteen minutes to spare.

We parked then had to walk through a large building and across the street. This amount of walking would have been too much exercise for me the year before. Every time before, people had dropped me off at the front door and gone on to park without me. Now parking and walking along with people was an afterthought. I was a little slower than Allene, but I didn’t even have to stop to rest.

When we got out to the street, it was full of tents, seating, and people. The entire block was cordoned off, and there were police and loud music. It was too early in the year to be the Uptown Art Fair or the Pride Festival. I couldn’t tell what it was, so we just continued to the restaurant. Allene got to the door first. She told me that it was closed. I was incredulous and had to check it for myself. Apparently there was a Thai festival that I hadn’t seen when I checked the website. Allene suggested that we just go to one of the restaurants in the building we had just walked through, since people would probably be parking nearby. That sounded like as good an idea as any, so I updated the Facebook event page.

Allene and I were seated immediately. Shortly thereafter my friend Sandra started texting me for my whereabouts. She found us and sat down. After a few minutes, my friend Kari showed up, completing our foursome.

Within a few minutes of conversation, both Sandra and Kari were remarking about how much clearer my speech had become. I see Sandra every two or three months, and it had been almost two years since I had last seen Kari. Unlike with physical rehabilitation, there aren’t many tangible markers with speech rehabilitation. So it’s something that I need to hear from others before I can assume that I’m making progress. It always feels wonderful because progress is so gradual. It’s also a compliment I’m never anticipating. Where I was once very reluctant to speak, it now makes me eager to talk more. So this becomes progress on top of progress.

In the time I have known them, Kari has earned a Ph.D. and become a tenured professor; Allene has gone through nursing school; Sandra has moved across the country and back. There was a time when these accomplishments would have made me feel woefully inadequate – as though they were experiencing life while I was simply running in place. But now that I am reaching so many people online, constantly working out, and improving my financial situation every month, I am able to keep everything in perspective. I am doing more with what I have now than I ever did before It has been an amazing journey and I have overcome more than most people seem to think they could. And it is still a story only I can write.

Knowing that it was that much easier to understand me gave me confidence to continue speaking. I told them about my plans to practice walking outdoors without my cane. I spoke with enthusiasm about how I was starting to lift leg weights without my brace. My fitness level had increased so significantly that I had the energy to stay out for a few hours. During the course of dinner, I had to get up and go to the restroom twice. I walked across the room with so little effort that I was practically gliding.

My birthday wasn’t until the following day. It was going to be a long one, too. A month earlier, I’d made plans to see the new Avengers movie the evening of my birthday. Then someone I was seeing ended up inviting me over to her place for a few hours. In order to accommodate both, I decided to have Metro Mobility drop me off at her place at 11:00 then pick me up at 3:00. On the day of the movie, I told my friend Manny that it would be difficult for me, but I might be able to be home by 4:30. That would give us a thirty-minute window to get to the theatre in Minneapolis. But he told me that the theatre was in the suburbs, so I was afraid that I probably wouldn’t make it. Manny suggested that he could come and pick me up from my friend’s house. I told him that I would be far away in east Saint Paul. He simply asked me for an address and the time I would be ready.

The person I was visiting doesn’t cook very often, but she wanted to make food for me. She decided to try her hand at making an omelette. It was something I don’t usually make, but I knew that I could basically guide her through the process from memory. She had me select the ingredients – red pepper, sausage, and provolone. She chopped them up, poured four eggs in and sprinkled the ingredients on top. I made sure that the eggs on the bottom were good and brown before I had her to flip them. I asked her to flip them twice more so the inside didn’t come out runny.

When she slid them onto the plate, they were neither too undercooked or overdone. There were just enough of the ingredients so that every bite had the correct balance of textures. It was a great job for her first attempt at a dish. As I sat down to eat, she remembered to present me with a small birthday cake. It was very sweet, so I took alternating bites, the saltiness of the eggs and sausage followed by the sugary, frosted cake.

We ate and watched television for four hours. Because I had never been inside her house before, I had to walk slowly and let my body become accustomed to walking around. I wasn’t in any danger of falling, but my mind always benefits from having fewer things to think about. Falls often come when a person tries to concentrate on something else while the mind is negotiating an unfamiliar environment.

The movie Manny and I were going to see was Avengers: Endgame. As silly as it might seem, I enjoy watching athletes and superheroes even more since my stroke. Their feats inspire me in the gym. Even though I’m just pushing to restore normal muscle function, it helps me to imagine my struggle as an epic one. I learned years ago that, in the gym, you take your motivation from wherever you can get it. If it helps you, you don’t ask questions.

Since we had more than enough time, Manny stopped for gas and to get us food. Even after he took twenty minutes in the gas station, we still arrived at the theatre early. He dropped me off in front and went to park the car.

I wanted to use the restroom before the movie started. Although my incontinence had been resolved, I still usually had to go once during most movies. Since the run time for this one was three hours, I was virtually guaranteed to have to miss part of it. When I got to the restroom, my cane slipped on the floor. I looked down to see the entire floor was covered in water. I walked cautiously over to the urinals, convinced that I was going to fall before I got there. I had to negotiate several children and the first sink I tried didn’t work, but ultimately I made it out still on my feet.

When I came out, I was able to go right to my seat because Manny had purchase two rows to include everyone in his group, Nerds of Color. As implied, we were a collection of minorities of all types. There are Latinos, Asians, black people. Some are straight; some are LGBT+. The bottom line is we are progressive, brown people out enjoying a positive experience that centers around superhero movies.

The movie had everything it promised. It was visually stunning. There was a riveting storyline. The stakes were high, but it was easy to get lost in the outlandish details of the internal universe. The writers were tasked not only with resolving the story of last year’s blockbuster but with tying together the threads of a decade’s worth of semi-related movies. There were scores of characters to fit into the narrative. No one felt neglected or tacked on. After three hours, I felt thoroughly satisfied.

I got up and headed to the restroom when it was over. I was surprised and a little proud that I had made it through such a marathon film. It was another obvious example that my body was returning to normal. What had once seemed as though it would take forever was now just a matter of actively working every day. The stakes were high, but I looked forward to the challenge.

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