Ease of Life

It was now the first week of March. I had been pushing myself in the gym because I wanted this summer to be a much more active one. I planned on walking Mary across the Stone Arch Bridge and on city sidewalks; I wanted to be able to go around the metro area to blog at different coffee shops; I wanted to do some sightseeing and to be able to walk around without feeling tired. So I had to exert my body in the gym at every opportunity. It had been, after all, this kind of dedication in the gym that had led to my being prepared to face the early days of physical rehabilitation.

I made sure to pair leg press and squats during every leg workout. I also forced myself to walk at least a tenth of a mile on the treadmill every time I went to the gym. This dramatically improved my posture. I noticed that I was walking with a narrower gait, but I was no longer worried about falling over. Every step felt natural because the treadmill had forced me to continuously place one foot in front of the other. It was something other people noticed whenever I walked around the building.

The assisted living staff had begun stretching my shoulder every day as well. It was excruciating, but it was something that had to be endured if I ever wanted to be able to use it regularly. I went to the gym every other day. To assist with loosening my shoulder, I would try to perform at least one upper body exercise. I felt as though my range of motion was gradually improving, but I had no metric to measure how well this was really working. It could all have been taking place in my head.

One day I decided to go down to the basement to work on my blog. I packed my laptop into my backpack as I normally did. Since I usually require assistance to put on my backpack or to remove it, I have to carry it in my hand. This time I decided to see if I could do it myself. It slipped right on. When I got to the basement, I was able to slip it right off. This was thrilling. Not only did it mean that my shoulder was more functional, it also meant that I would never need help with the backpack again. I could take my laptop anywhere I needed to, and I could carry it hands free.

I didn’t want to merely improve the flexibility of my shoulder. It was my goal to eventually be able to start building muscle in it again. At present, all I could do was manipulate it. But that was enough to get started. If I just began trying to lift weights with my shoulder now, I might start to see a modicum of results by, say, Summer.

So the next time I went to the gym, I performed a couple of my normal back exercises. Then I pulled a bench over to the Smith machine and set the bar just above shoulder height. I walked up behind it, grasped it with my left hand, and sat down still holding on. This stretched my shoulder ever so slightly. From this position, I turned slowly in either direction, stretching my shoulder just a bit more. After I was satisfied that I had loosened up considerably, I started performing shoulder presses.

I placed each hand on the bar and tried to pull myself forward to create separation between it and my upper back. My shoulder was too stiff to move much, so I sat there for a moment, letting my shoulder stretch gradually. When my body was ready, I pushed the bar up. It scraped the back of my head even as I attempted to lean forward. My left arm wasn’t doing much, but I still tried to engage it. After I had pushed as hard as I could, the bar still had not cleared my head. I was disappointed, but I pressed nine more times. I rested when I was done, then I tried two more sets of ten reps each.

I was never able to move the bar much higher. By the final set, I was barely moving it at all. But I told myself that every bit of movement was contributing to the overall pliability of the joint. If I tried to perform shoulder presses every time I came to the gym, I would see a difference before long. Once the shoulder was more moveable, I could begin adding other shoulder exercises to my split. Before long, I would be working out my shoulder again. None of this was guaranteed to be successful, but it gave me a long-term goal to focus on and helped to keep the frustration at bay.

As I stated before, the goal of all this work was to be able to lead a normal life. So when I ran into my friend Joo-hee at the gym and she invited me to her monthly Sunday dinner, I jumped at the chance. I knew she had stairs inside her house and many steps from her sidewalk to her front door, so it would be a challenge. I now had something more immediate to work toward for the next two weeks. I switched my workout focus back to legs, making sure to get a minimum of four sets every time I did leg press or squats. I knew it wouldn’t make the stairs a non-factor, but each rep would help.

During this period, my workouts became so intense that I found myself having to cancel some sessions. My body had overtrained and required additional days of rest. During this time off, I would run errands or spend more time with my dog. I noticed that I could spin more easily and move my left leg in more directions. As I had suspected, the constant exercise was having effects on my leg without me trying to work on every conceivable motion.

The day finally came for dinner. I told the Metro Mobility driver that I needed to be dropped off in the alley behind the house to avoid the many steps, but he pulled up to the front of the house anyway. There was still a lot of snow on the sidewalk, so I had to turn sideways to sidle across to the steps. When I got to the steps, I saw that there was a handrail, but it was only on the left side. Since I needed to be able to hold it with my right hand, I told the driver that I would need to go up backward, while he held my left arm.

I was nervous, but I trusted him to support me and watch where I was going. So it now just became an exercise in patience and precision. It was a matter of stepping up and back with my right leg, then binging my left foot next to it. I carefully balanced much of my weight on the handrail, but it was made of unvarnished wood, and I didn’t want to lean on it too heavily. After an interminable number of steps, we finally made it to the house. Joo-hee greeted us at the door, and I went in and sat down on the couch. I hadn’t felt so relieved in months.

Joo-hee has a policy of removing ones shoes in her house. This meant that I couldn’t wear my brace either, because it is too slippery to wear alone. This didn’t worry me, as I often walk around my apartment barefoot. So I removed my shoes and brace, secure in the idea that I wouldn’t trip and fall if I was careful. I was the first guest to arrive, so I joined Joo-hee in the kitchen, where we caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives as she prepared food.

Joo-hee believes in doing as many things as possible as a community. Cooking is no exception. So after most of the other guests arrived, she began passing out ingredients so we could make steamed buns. We began talking about life and politics as we all rolled our pieces of dough and folded them around fillings. Then we would pinch them closed and hand them to Joo-hee, who placed them in a steamer. This was difficult work to do with one hand, so after Joo-hee helped me to pinch closed two dumplings, I retired to the living room couch.

Soon it was time to have dinner. Most of the other guest had brought side dishes, so there was more than enough food. I enjoyed fried tofu, chicken and glass noodles, and dumplings. I no longer was cognizant of how I was socializing. My eyesight was clear and I didn’t have to work at the strength or quality of my voice. I enjoyed the food and felt like I was just another guest. It felt wonderful just being at ease with myself.

One thing I am always aware of wherever I go is where the restroom is. My incontinence is gone now that it has been over three years since my stroke. However, I still like to use the restroom at least once if I am anywhere for longer than three hours. That way I know that I won’t need to use it again until well after I have to be back at home. As it became closer to the time when my ride was scheduled to arrive, I made my way to the restroom.

Joo-hee’s restroom is on the second floor. There was a handrail on my side as I went up, so I wouldn’t require help going up. It was a rather steep staircase, so I asked Joo-hee to walk up behind me, keeping a hand in my back to prevent me from falling backwards. Coming down would be more difficult. There was no handrail on the right side until I got halfway down. To keep from falling downstairs, I sat down against the wall next to the staircase. Then I swung my legs around and placed my feet on the second stair from the top. Now I scooted down the stairs, always keeping my feet two stairs below my butt. When I made it to the handrail, I was able to stand up and safely walk down the rest of the way.

I had just sat down on the couch and put on my shoes when Metro Mobility called, alerting me that my ride would be there in ten minutes. I got help tying my shoes and zipping my jacket. When the driver appeared at the door, I had him to hold my left elbow even more securely than the first driver had, as I really feared falling forward.

Using the handrail on my right side and the driver on my left, I walked slowly down the long flight of steps. When we got to the sidewalk, I breathed a sigh of relief. My left leg had grown stronger in the past few weeks, so I was able to place my right foot on the bottom step and step over it with my left on the way to my seat. As trivial as this now seemed to me, it had until recently been an ambitious feat of strength.

I sat down and buckled myself in. Then I pulled my left foot back so it was out of the way of the bus steps. These were just two more things that I had recently been unable to do without great effort or help. I rode home feeling inspired that I was beginning to enjoy the ease of life again.

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