Champions

The list of people who have helped me along the way is so long that I could fill a separate blog with personal anecdotes about them. However, I do want to keep myself on track, so I will purposefully keep the people I talk about a great deal to a small number. I sincerely hope that no one feels slighted as a result. My life would not be livable without the influence of everyone who has helped to make it more normal. I have nothing but immense gratitude for each person who has made even the smallest contribution.

Karine and I first met during the weekend of Thanksgiving 2013 – a year and a half before my stroke. That was the only time we had gotten an opportunity to spend any time together, because she lived in Georgia while I lived in Mississippi. We maintained a Facebook friendship for a year after that, but I moved to the Gulf Coast and she moved to Virginia. Then she began contemplating a move to Oregon, while I was longing to return to Minneapolis. Somewhere between all of the moving, planning, packing, and unpacking, we lost touch.

One day, my father was driving me back from a rehab appointment in Jackson, when it occurred to me that Karine didn’t have a clue what had happened to me. I had not talked to her in well over a year, so I checked my phone to see if her contact info had transferred from my old phone. It had. I called her immediately.

Karine was aghast. She apologized profusely for having been such a bad friend. I assured her that it was not as though she was at fault. Life is complicated and things happen. She was not responsible for a lack of reaction to my stroke because there was no way she could’ve known about it. She promised that she would come and see me before long. I told her that it would give me something I could look forward to.

Karine came to see me one Saturday in November of 2015. My dad was away in the Mississippi Delta for a funeral. It had only been about three months since my discharge from the hospital, so I was still taking almost twenty minutes to dress myself. When Karine arrived, she had to help me to put on my left shoe. Then we went for Japanese. I had just begun using chopsticks a few weeks before. I was proud of myself because, even though I was using my unaffected side, I was still battling minor complications of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

After dinner, Karine drove me back to the hotel so I could meet her friend, Miranda. I was still dragging my left foot, so the walk through parking lot and down the hall really tired me out. Once we were in the room, Karine presented me with a Zinadine Zidane French National Squad jersey (Karine is from France, and I love soccer). Miranda had been sleeping most of the day since she had done the bulk of the driving; now that she was awake, we all went for a drink..

The only immediate seating available was in the bar area. Despite the fact that sitting on a stool could be very uncomfortable for my bad leg, I couldn’t bear the thought of standing in line. Speaking also still took a great deal of travail. Nonetheless, I wanted to make a good impression on Miranda, so I did my best. In those days, speaking well meant speaking as loudly as possible, because I needed to make each syllable as audible as possible. I gave a minimal amount of attention to enunciation, pacing, or pitch. It was not an easy time, but by the time we had finished our drinks and h’ors d’oeuvres, I was content with my efforts.

Next, Karine and I went for a drive. We ended up at the state Capitol. The night was black under a cloudless sky. The building was illuminated by floodlights, so bright that I found it completely enticing. I turned to Karine and asked, “Will you help me climb up?”

“You mean up there?”

“Yes?”

“How high do you want to go?”

“All the way to the top.”

“Well, sure. As long as you think you can make it.”

I got out of the car and walked the long straightaway up to the steps. Once I got there, I stopped to rest. After I had caught my breath, I asked Karine to hold my left arm to prevent me from falling. I tried the first three steps, and Karine held me firmly. Now I felt completely safe. She was clearly strong enough to keep me from slipping. She would step up each time I stepped up with my right foot, then brace me as I dragged my left foot up to join it. We arrived at the top of the first set of steps much more quickly than I’d anticipated.

Despite that I was making very good progress, this was more walking and climbing exercise than I had ever attempted. And there were still two more flights of steps to go! I told Karine that this was enough work for one night. I gave her my phone to take a picture because I knew that my therapists were never going to believe this. I found a bench where I was able to rest as Karine went to get the car. I caught my breath in the faint shadows between the blaring rays of light. I had accomplished so much, but half the task still lay ahead of me.

* * *

The South was never really what Karine was looking for. She wanted to settle down somewhere with a climate that was similar to that of Germany. I would frequently hint that she should try Minnesota, since it was cooler and more progressive. This was mostly idle talk, though. She had two young children whose father lived in the South. It wasn’t like I was actually expecting her to move to Minnesota.

Then one day in early 2017, she asked me about good Minnesota communities to move to. I was sitting at Park Nicollet Clinic at the time. I had just finished another round of outpatient therapy, so I was about to call my taxi when her call came through. From what I knew of her situation (having children to consider), I figured that some of the suburbs in Hennepin and Dakota counties would be relatively free of crime and have good schools. Minneapolis would have been my preferred location, but the cost of living was probably too high, given that she had two dependents.

I told Karine that it would be quite fun to be living in the same state. Although we’d had so much fun when we’d spent time together over the years, we had only actually seen one another two times before, because we lived several states apart. I named a few suburbs she might want to look into. She had concerns about being able to secure a job because she is an immigrant. I advised her that she could move into one of these towns for the first year, just to get herself and her family into the metro area. After that, it would be easier to find a different job and a more permanent housing situation.

A few days later, Karine called me back. She had looked into the communities I’d suggested, and they were too expensive. She wanted to purchase a house right away. Rather than try to afford living in the metro area, she had begun pricing home prices outstate. As a minority, this was something I would reflexively warn a minority or foreigner against, but this seemed to be what she really wanted to do. This was a woman who spoke three languages, had lived in three different countries, and had been raising children in America for over a decade. She knew what she wanted, and I had no doubt about her ability to find it.

I didn’t hear from Karine for a few months, except on Facebook. Then in June, she texted to let me know that she had settled on the town of Sleepy Eye. The purchase price of the home had been just right. She would move there, then turn to the issue of finding work. I was genuinely concerned that she might not be able to find anything, but she was confident that it would all work out. I wished her the best and asked her to visit once she was in Minnesota.

A week later, we were talking on the phone. Karine had just moved her household belongings to Sleepy Eye. She raved about how the peal of the Catholic church bells reminded her of her childhood in a small town in France. With a sense of nostalgia, she listened to the church bells mark the hours. This was just one more thing that would never had occurred to me. I reminded myself that “small-town” and “diversity” are not necessarily antonyms.

Karine’s children were away for the summer, so she visited me in Minneapolis the following weekend. She has a lot of experience as a pet owner and from working for a veterinarian. She knows just how to interact with dogs. Mary fell in love with her at their first meeting. They played together for half an hour before Karine and I went out for Asian fusion.

The restaurant was in a busy area, so Karine couldn’t pull up to the corner and let me out. Instead, we found a parking garage and walked from there. As usual, I was worried about having to walk a block. However, I knew that if anyone could help me to walk there, Karine could.

In September, I had hit another plateau in recovery. I ended up going to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, which I had heard was the best place for stroke rehab in the entire state. Because my stay would last for two weeks, Karine volunteered to keep Mary for me. Karine owned a dog who was Mary’s age and knew dogs very well, so I felt quite comfortable letting Mary live with her.

I spent the next two weeks throwing myself into the rehab program at Courage Kenny. The specialists issued me an orthotic that would fit inside my left shoe to keep my foot from dragging and my knee from buckling. Most of my inpatient stay was spent learning how to walk with the orthotic. When I put it on, I could instantly tell how it would help, but I had to get accustomed to the feel of it. While I was in rehab, Mary was in Sleepy Eye with her new best friend, living with a family who knew how to keep a dog healthy and happy.

Because my job had recently ended, and because my new landlord had died during the month, when my two weeks at Courage Kenny were drawing to an end, I had to decide where I would be spending the next phase of my rehab. They wanted to send me to a skilled nursing facility. Unfortunately, this option seemed too expensive for me. Then Karine offered to let me stay with her. I liked the idea of staying in a place where my dog had settled in well, and it would be fun to hang out regularly with Karine. However, it seemed so far from the metro area. What would I do for transportation? The last thing I wanted to do was be a burden.

There were so many uncertainties, so many things to worry about. I could have spent weeks vacillating about each variable of the decision. But in the end, I thought about how Karine would have made the decision. She would have simply said, “Here is where I need to be. I will find a place to sleep safely. Then I can start to organize the details of life.”

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