Coming Together

Now that I was going to work two days a week, I was ready to start therapy. The closest hospital to me was Park Nicollet in Saint Louis Park. I went there in November. When the physical therapist asked me what my goals were, I thought of all my dreams about driving, playing sports, and lifting weights again. I knew these would sound like I had unrealistic fantasies, so I told her that while I would love to say that I wanted a full recovery, I would settle for being able to walk without a cane and to be able to walk my dog again.

The physical therapist said that she could definitely help me with the walking without a cane. My doctor when I was inpatient had told me that he could not guarantee that I would ever walk again – and I believe that was due solely to medical ethics. This therapist seemed more confident about what she could do for me. After she gave me my evaluation, I went to occupational therapy. When the occupation therapist asked me about my goals, I admitted that I knew my left hand would probably never regain complete dexterity. But I was really at peace with the idea that I would never be able to keyboard with my left hand. I would be content with having the ability to fully extend my left hand so I could do things such as lift weights and carry boxes.

After I finished my evaluations, I went down to the coffee shop. There I ordered a hot chai tea and a burrito, and I sat down a window. The world outside was unseasonably warm. I had moved back to Minnesota with the blind hope that my body could be restored to some sense of normality. I had only a vague sense of what muscle functions could be restored, but I was feeling optimistic again.

At home, Mary was having the time her life. For my morning routine, I would let her out to use the restroom. After Mary came back in, Liz would yell down that I could let her go upstairs to play with Charlie. Mary would scramble upstairs, and the sounds of the two dogs wrestling would last most of the day. Every so often their play would be broken up by Mary coming downstairs for a few minutes to eat, drink, or just to spend time with me. I felt a little lonely with her spending most of her days upstairs, because I couldn’t go up and down safely. But I was so happy to see her get tons of exercise because it was something I could not give her.

Liz was immeasurably helpful with Mary. When I got Mary spayed, Liz was the one who drove me to the vet. After they gave me pills for Mary, Liz would help me to administer them. Most of all, she would take the dogs to the dog park a couple of days a week. Thanks to Liz, Mary was even healthier and happier than I had imagined she would be in Minnesota.

Towards the end of November, a Hennepin County worker came by to perform my needs assessment. When it was finished, she informed me that I would be receiving food support through Meals on Wheels. I would also be receiving PCA services – someone to come into the home to assist with meal preparation, housekeeping, and bathing. By the end of November, I would have the tools I would need to start living an independent life.

The most daunting concern I had now was finding housing. Although Alan and Liz had been wonderful about giving me somewhere affordable to live, my disability check still severely limited my options. Our deal had been for me to move in in September and live there for six months. I would need to find a new place for Mary and me to live before December. Trying to live alone would mean paying twice as much in rent as I was currently managing to eke out.

I was always broke with about ten days left before I received my check at the end of the month, so I developed a significant amount of anxiety about the upcoming housing deadline. Going to work, therapy, or to socialize were the easy parts of my life. I would spend as much time out of the house and interacting with people as my body could stand. My life at home was starting to feel hopeless. I felt isolated much of the time, and I started drinking more and becoming withdrawn.

As Thanksgiving approached, I knew I was running out of time. I also knew my friend Allene and her housemate Frank had been having financial concerns. One evening, I took Metro Mobility over to south Minneapolis to talk to Frank. We had a long talk about economic concerns and social dynamics. We decided that it would make things easier on everyone if I moved in. Frank had a bedroom where he kept nothing but clothes. He said that he could clean that out for me by December. By the time the Metro Mobility bus arrived to pick me up, we had agreed on a rent amount that was the same as I had been paying Alan.

My one big dilemma was what to do with Mary. She was still less than a year old. The only other dog she had ever lived with was Charlie, who was the same age as her. Both Frank and Allene had dogs who were older and used to the dynamics of living together. I didn’t know how introducing a puppy into the pack would disrupt things. I had nightmares about one of the dogs attacking Mary and my not being able to break them up. Ultimately, I decided to leave her with Liz for the month of December. It would be the longest we had ever been separated, but I wanted her to be somewhere where she could be safe and happy while I dealt with the chaos of moving.

After I had been living in south Minneapolis for a month, I made arrangements for Liz to bring Mary over. Liz pulled up in her jeep on the last Saturday of the year. Frank took all of the other dogs out to the backyard. Then he let them in one-by-one so each one could have a few minutes to meet Mary individually. I held my breath, but made sure not to act alarmed. Despite my fears, there was no incident. I would still be vigilant for the next few days, but Mary was effectively becoming a member of her first pack.

I was still going to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays and going to therapy two days a week. Each morning, I would wake up and let Mary out. After she came back in, I would feed her. If I wasn’t going anywhere that day, I would let her play in the front room all day. If I were going out, I would send her to her kennel until I was home. After a few weeks, I began letting her stay out as long as someone else was there to watch her. Frank tried to assure me that nothing bad would happen to her, but I had never left her unsupervised, and I wasn’t about to start.

I often felt guilty about how much time Mary spent confined to her kennel, but I reminded myself that this was no different from the times when Alan, Liz, and I were all away. Furthermore, the majority of the people I know place theirs dogs in kennels while they are away at work. Most of those dogs are kenneled for nine or ten hours, five days a week. So Mary was barely getting any kennel time, by way of comparison. On top of that, we had a fenced backyard where she could run and play with several other dogs. One day, I would be able to walk her and drive her to the dog park.

Mary has never had a problem getting along with humans, and she took to Frank and Allene immediately. She would offer affection whenever either of them entered the room. She also quickly took to her new playmates – Wally the Labradoodle and Izzy the Pitbull. Wally was a large, older dog, who wasn’t rough or energetic. He played with her in a way that reminded me of an affectionate grandfather who lets children win at games of strength. Izzy was the smallest and youngest of the other dogs. She was better able to keep up with Mary. She and Mary would often spontaneously go from lying around bored to playing sudden, intense games of Tag. I would continue to search for more ways to keep Mary learning and active, but I could live with her receiving this level of stimulation for the next half year.

One of the biggest pitfalls during stroke recovery is spending too much time at home between therapy sessions. It is easy to lose motivation because one doesn’t have the same amount of energy as before. To keep my momentum going, I would try to find places to go on days when I didn’t have to go to work or therapy. Some weeks, a friend might invite me to dinner or a show. I also spent a great deal of time at the Caribou Coffee on Cedar & Minnehaha. None of this would have seemed like real exercise to me before, but I had lost the habit of constant activity.

My therapy was still taking place at the hospital in Saint Louis Park. Since the cab rides there and back were free, I would make a day out of each trip there. I would arrive an hour before my first session and pick a wheelchair at the front door. Then I would wheel myself around the first floor. My therapy sessions usually ran consecutively. After therapy, I would go to the coffee shop and have a late lunch. I would stare out the window, drinking a warm chai, eating a burrito, and chatting with all the people who had followed my ordeal via social media.

This was life for Mary and me our first nine months in Minneapolis.

* * *

A friend of mine had attempted moving to Minneapolis about a decade ago but had moved back to his home state, largely because he had never really developed a social life. When we talked about his decision to leave Minnesota, I wondered aloud why things had been so different for us. He retorted, “You always nurtured relationships.” This had never occurred to me. All of my adult life, I had been organizing teams, pickup games, and social events. But the point of this was basically so I wouldn’t be bored. Any social aptitude I’d managed to gain from these interactions was purely coincidental to my trying not to be lonely.

One person I met through soccer was my friend Dave. We had never been on the same team, nor had we been close, but after I moved back to Minnesota, he became one of the brightest stars in my galaxy of friends. We started hanging out more after I settled back in Minneapolis. He even took me ice skating once! I had never tried it before, but when he made the offer I jumped at the chance, thinking that it would be a unique challenge for my body and brain.

We went to the oval track in Roseville; I was nervous from the time we parked. Once downstairs, Dave helped me get the skates on. I felt somewhat unwieldy standing up on skating blades, but much more stable than I thought I would. Using my cane, I was able to get to the bathroom, out the door, and down the steps to the ice oval.

The ice, of course, offered no friction. Because I couldn’t move my left leg much, I couldn’t generate enough thrust to actually skate. Instead, I pulled myself a few feet along the wall before stopping to rest. Dave went and grabbed a sled so he could push me around. Once he got me moving on the sled, I couldn’t stop laughing. I held on as tightly as I could to keep from falling as the icy air smacked me in the face and invaded my lungs. I could not believe how exhilarating life was again.

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