Days Without Solitude

I finally had everything I needed in my apartment. There was a place to sleep. I had my kitchen and bath set up. I could even blog and access the internet. Materially I had all the trappings of a normal, modern life. After weeks of scrambling to get all these things in the house, to catch the blog up, and even to be cleared to move in in the first place, I was finally able to kick back and relax. As the chaos settled around me, I realized that I was quite lonely. I had been around family, roommates, staff, and pets since my stroke. After three years of seldom being alone, I was not used to days filled with solitude.

My friend Allene had just moved to Wisconsin to become a travel nurse; now she was coming back to Minnesota for a couple of days. I have known her for two decades. She was the one who had set up my Gofundme account and who had kept all of my friends on Facebook posted while I was in my coma. I wanted to make sure that we spent some time together. She also wanted to catch up with a former coworker. So we met at a restaurant in Apple Valley.

Since the restaurant was the same one we had gone to the previous winter, I got to see how much my body had improved half a year later. Stepping up onto the curb and walking through the restaurant had seemed hazardous before. Now it was simple. I hesitate to label it “an afterthought,” because while I don’t have to fixate on every little detail, I still make myself think about things like lifting my foot and stepping down with my heel. Once we were inside, I noticed that my foot didn’t drag on the carpet. I also had us sit at a “high-top” bar table just because I wanted to revel in the fact that it was now easy for me again.

After we were seated, I began looking around the room. I often had double vision, so I needed to track things at various distances to try to get my eyes to focus properly. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust, but soon I could follow the movement of people in the dining room and on the TV screens. A few moments later, my eyes were able to read the menu. Once my order was placed, I spent the remainder of the meal looking around as often as I could think about it. I wanted to challenge my eyes as much as I could.

Because we were there to socialize, I easily added speech to the equation. Volume was no longer a challenge for me. Instead I experimented with things like pace, sentence length, and inflection. In the past, I would have been out of breath just trying to keep up with the conversation. I would have felt completely exhausted by the end of the night. Now I had regained so much stamina and control of my body that the experience of a night out was electrifying.

Even though I had just moved one street over, it felt like I was living a completely different life. On 2nd Avenue I had been living in a skilled nursing facility largely populated by elderly patients and people in wheelchairs. We had scheduled meals in a cafeteria, and the other patients seldom left the facility. It felt very drab and institutional. On 3rd Avenue I was living in public housing for the disabled, but I was in my own apartment. I had privacy and could lock my door. There wasn’t always noise creeping over from the other side of the room. I could write and sleep in peace. This was a home in which I could unwind.

Having a peaceful home life made it easier to go out too. Living in the heart of the city was something I had long been dreaming about. Even before the stroke I had felt lonesome back in Mississippi. Then I was confined to a hospital bed for three months. For a year after that I was living with family in Mississippi. Even after moving back to Minnesota, I had lived in suburbs, small towns, and outlying areas. With my compromised body, things had seemed even more remote than they were from the city center. Now I was healthy and could see downtown from the backyard. This was where I had always wanted to be. It kept the magic of recovery alive. My days didn’t get stale.

I was near a major intersection, so people could easily get to my building from most places in Minneapolis. Once I told my friend Dave that my laptop volume was not loud enough. He and our soccer buddy Conor decided to get me a set of speakers. We all met at a Vietnamese restaurant not far from me. It reminded me how fortunate I am to live only a few blocks away from all the international cuisine of a section of Nicollet Avenue known as Eat Street.

Although I have had Vietnamese friends since high school, I had never eaten much Vietnamese food. Then while I was back in Mississippi, I worked close to a restaurant where I fell in love with Bánh mi. After the stroke, I had ballooned up so much that I had started eating more Southeast Asian food, hoping that the seafood and vegetables would allow me to lose weight. Since Dave could eat Pho every day, he always knew of a Vietnamese spot near any neighborhood. Conor brought the speakers and we all had noodles and tea. It felt amazing to be living this ordinary, urban life. I was an average person having lunch at one of many exotic eateries conveniently located in my neighborhood.

I now had every piece of furniture or electronics that I really wanted to use day in and day out. Now it was time to get my dog Mary. My friend Willa said that she would help. Knowing how hot my apartment would be because I didn’t have air conditioning, I had waited until mid August to move Mary in. By then it would be cooler. I could buy an air conditioner at a discount during the winter. Willa had also just accepted a position teaching middle school in western Washington, so I told her that I would treat her to dinner.

I didn’t have much money, so I took her to my favorite tacqueria. When we got to dinner, Willa recounted how she got the job and decided to move. She hadn’t been planning on leaving Minneapolis, but the opportunity had come out of nowhere. Two years earlier, Mary and I had not been looking for a new friend, but Willa had helped us in ways that were unimaginably kind. She had driven me back and forth during my time in Sleepy Eye and had even housed Mary for a few months. I could not have kept Mary without her.

When we finished eating, we went to Saint Paul to retrieve Mary. I had never been to the front door of Kevin and Katie’s house. It had a few wide steps up to the front door. This should have made it easier to climb, because the width of the steps would allow me to reposition my feet each time I stepped up. However, had the steps been more narrow, it would have been easier to walk with a natural rhythm. As it was, my brain had too much to process. I kept worrying about falling over. To make sure this didn’t happen, I asked Willa to support my left elbow so I could concentrate on walking.

As we stepped into the house, Mary greeted first Willa then me. I felt sad that I couldn’t bend all the way down and hug her, but I didn’t want to lose my balance and fall over. Kevin told me that the kids wanted to know if they could visit her some time. I told him that would be fine. He could pick her up on a Friday and keep her all weekend. This would allow Mary the opportunity to frolic with kids and another dog, while I could go to the gym all weekend without feeling like I was neglecting her.

Everyone said goodbye. The kids even made a gift bag for Mary. I felt a little bad for taking her. I could tell that she had bonded very well with the family. They had developed a genuine affection for her, and her days had been filled with play. I worried that I would not be able to provide Mary with enough activity to keep her healthy and happy. Would I be able to grip her leash in my left hand? What if I fell over while picking up after her? I really did not know whether I could care for a dog by myself yet.

It was still hot in my apartment that night. I wanted to take Mary outdoors to use the restroom and to cool down. I wasn’t sure about my balance or my grip strength, but it wasn’t Mary’s fault which caretaker she was stuck with. So I made sure I had a full charge on my phone so I could call the nursing staff if I fell. Then I leashed Mary and led her out the front door.

Luckily my apartment was only on the third floor, so it wasn’t a long elevator trip to the basement. I tested my grip several times before walking out the door. It was tight enough that Mary couldn’t get away. I now walked her out to the patio. I let her retractable leash unspool all the way so I could walk safely on the pavement while she did her business in the grass. I had walked Mary on a sidewalk outside the skilled nursing facility for a few feet before. However, that sidewalk had had a grade to it, and the uneven surface had caused me to feel trepidation. This one was smooth with no cracks, so I was at ease.

Then Mary defecated. This was the moment I had been apprehensively awaiting. I stepped gingerly off into the grass. I tested my footing. The ground seemed solid without a lot of divots. Now I slowly walked over to the droppings, replaying a scene of me falling face first into them over and over again in my mind.

When I was within a couple of feet, I stopped. Just as when I had first learned to bend over and pick things up again, I positioned my feet just behind my target, with my right foot a little closer. This way, my body weight would still be supported, and I could shift more of it to my stronger leg. Now I opened the plastic bag around my palm and bent down.

I got most of it on the first scoop, then I stood back up, as I didn’t want my legs to get tired. I surveyed what I had missed then gathered myself to bend down to scoop it up. I was surprised at how easy it was to maintain my balance. Then I remembered all the months of squats and sidesteps I had been doing. I had been conditioning my legs to engage in everyday functional use. The meticulous positioning of my feet had been one more way to put my body in the best position to succeed. It was all about using as many failsafes as possible so nothing would be left to chance.

I had lived my life before the stroke assuming that even if I procrastinated or did things on autopilot, I wouldn’t have to worry about a disaster. Then a disaster happened. So much in my post stroke life was easier than I thought it would be. It just took planning and slowing down.

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