Friends Like These

It was probably my haste to move back to Minneapolis that had originally led, more than anything else, to my high blood pressure. I had moved back to Mississippi in 2011 with the intention to only stay for one or two years. However, each of the jobs I landed had offered the chance to work over ten hours of overtime each week. So I felt it was irresistible.

I worked for Comcast in Jackson for about 2.5 years. While I wasn’t happy living in Jackson, I thoroughly enjoyed the increase in income coupled with the lower cost of living. In addition to other trips and shopping, I would take an annual excursion to Wisconsin. I would visit friends in Milwaukee and Madison, then the weeklong vacation would culminate in a trip to cheer against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. I packed a lot of living into each of these vacations. Some of the people were friends I had not seen in a decade. I was having so much fun that I slowly let years slip by.

In January 2014, I started a different job with AT&T on the coast. That position offered a great deal of overtime too. However, it was structured so that you had to have a break of at least 45 minutes between an overtime shift and the start of a regular shift. In addition to this, I tried to go to the gym three or four times a week. I also began helping on Howard’s (my roommate in Gulfport) family’s cattle ranch every Saturday. Since this was a thoroughly draining all-day affair, I would have to do all of my regular work, overtime, and weightlifting in five weekdays left. That way, I would have all Saturday to work with the cows and all Sunday to recover, so I could repeat the pattern for the following week.

The primary reason that I was pushing myself so hard was that, in 2015, I had finally resolved to move back to Minneapolis in August. After four years, I had begun to fear that I might become trapped in Mississippi. My friends list was full of people who had dreamt of one day escaping the Magnolia State, only to end up bogged down by unforeseen complications. Leaving successfully meant planning well. I knew that I would need three consecutive months of good performance scores, a certain amount of savings, and a position to come open in the Twin Cities. Before I could get all of that to line up, my body decided one day that it had finally had enough.

From the day I woke up in the hospital in May, all I could think about was being able-bodied and returning to Minneapolis. As much as I had enjoyed living there before, the place now seemed mythic, given my dire situation. Playing soccer and socializing was the stuff of dreams for someone who had lost the ability to walk and talk.

I soon started receiving cards from my friends in Minnesota, and before long, we were exchanging phone calls and text messages. We didn’t just talk nostalgia; they would tell me how they had gotten married and started having children. It would make me feel that life was leaving me far behind. I would grow lonely and restless. Once it became clear that I was not going to heal in time to go back to work and save my job, the focus shifted to just getting strong enough to get back to Minneapolis.

My January disability payment hit my bank during the week I was in St. Louis. I immediately booked a two-week trip to Minneapolis for the end of April to coincide with my birthday on the 28th. Then I convinced the physical therapist I was seeing for my shoulder to let me start doing leg exercises. My thought process was that if I could make it safely in Minneapolis for two weeks, I could move back before the end of the year.

Wednesday, January 20th finally arrived, and after a great deal of anticipation, I went to the airport. Since it was the first time I would be traveling alone. I was nervous about falling along the way, but I was eager to conquer this new challenge. Getting through check-in and security was no problem, so I was confident that I could get to my gate safely without tripping. However, they stopped me and brought me a wheelchair. It had not even occurred to me to ask for one, but it definitely made my trip easier.

My friend, Allene picked me up and drove me to dinner in Richfield. I couldn’t believe I was back. It felt like I had stepped onto a separate plane of existence. After dinner, she drove me to her house in south Minneapolis. Her dogs were welcoming and affectionate, even though they hadn’t smelled me in four years. Izzy, the Pitbull licked me for over half an hour. All I could do was laugh. It felt so life affirming.

I had to sleep on a narrow couch that night. It was uncomfortable, but how could I complain about having a place where I could stay for two weeks? Allene offered to take me to Mystic Lake hotel and casino the following two nights. There, we got a room with a handicapped shower where I would have my own bed. The shower was wonderful, because it was a walk-in. I sat down on the bench and let the hot water cascade down. Because Allene is a nurse, she helped me wash myself. I put on clothes and slipped into bed. It felt heavenly. Allene decided to go downstairs to play slots, but I was asleep by the time she left the room.

After two nights of getting the most thorough showers I had in eight months and sleeping in the most comfortable of beds, I was ready to start going around the area. My first weekend, I went to Madison, Wisconsin. All of my friends from Wisconsin were invited to a birthday dinner in my honor. My friend John would drive me. We had known each other when we lived on the Gulf Coast, where I had encouraged him to accept an offer to move to Minnesota. For all of 2015, until my stroke, he had been pressuring me about moving back. Now it felt much more tangible.

 

John helped me into his SUV and we sped eastward. As he drove, he raved about how he loved living in St. Paul. Few people move to Minnesota because of the weather, but John couldn’t stop talking about how much he loved how cold it was. We stopped to take pictures at a rest area, the Wisconsin State Capitol, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation building. John was impressed with Madison. I told him that we could revisit the city after I moved back.

My friend Janet came all the way from Appleton. She is the one with the Packers season tickets. We hadn’t gone to Lambeau Field together in 2.5 years, but it seemed like it had been half a decade. Now that I was able to travel again, I promised that I would visit eastern Wisconsin very soon. After dinner, John and I went to the UW campus bookstore. I had to pull myself up a flight of stairs, then walk around shopping. Afterward, we walked over a block to get back to the parking garage. I was so worn out by the end of the day, but I felt deeply satisfied.

The next day, I packed a suitcase to stay with my friends Johnny and Sarah. John is one of several friends I have in the Minneapolis Irish community. He drove me to Kieran’s Irish Pub for the 100th anniversary of the Easter 1916 uprising. I had an Irish breakfast and reunited with many friends. There was a drum and bagpipe band. Someone read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Afterward, they passed it around and we all signed it.

Over the next few days, I spent time with several people I had not seen in years. I went to many ethnic restaurants, because the thing I love most about city life is rubbing elbows with people from all over the world. After months feeling lonely in hospitals, I wanted sensory overload from the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the city. I needed to feel alive. On the day after my birthday, Allene and I went to a Minnesota Twins baseball game. The Twins lost badly, and I felt miserably cold, but I didn’t complain because I was experiencing so much joy at being back. I had two hotdogs loaded with relish, onions, and mustard. All of those textures and tastes exploded in my mouth, as I reminded the days when it felt like I would be fed by a stomach tube forever. It was all so perfectly Minnesotan life, and I was here to be a part of it again.

Saturday the 30th was the central focus of my trip, the day of my Minnesota birthday party. Two months earlier, I had rented a bouncy house. When the workers came to install it, I realized that it was as tall as the neighborhood houses. I wanted to make certain that everyone understood just how much I had missed them, so I had purchased more than everyone could possibly consume.

Guests began arriving before we were ready. Robb, the former manager of my soccer league, helped Allene’s landlord, Frank start putting meat on the grill. My friend Kristina helped me put on my shoes. Then I went outside to greet my guests.

People started pouring in, bringing gifts and so much more food that we didn’t even have enough room. Frank had to find another table. We had to put all of the beverages in the garage refrigerator. The bouncy house – conceived as a novelty for the adults – became a make-shift babysitting device. While the adults ate and drank to their hearts’ delights, the children were able to wear themselves out in the bouncy house.

I was still dragging my left foot quite a bit, and the party was on grass, so I had to concentrate every time I moved – and because there were over twenty people in attendance, I had to move around a lot. Many of these people hadn’t seen me in almost a decade. I wanted to give them as much individual attention as possible. The years of moving around the country had made me understand what it felt like to be a stranger in social gatherings. So I felt like it was my responsibility to keep all of my guests involved. It became my duty to make each person feel like it was really a party planned around her or him.

The camaraderie reminded me of all my years in the soccer league. There was a lot of humor, but we talked about politics and other deeper topics as well. This was what I had adored about all of my years of playing soccer: there was multiculturalism, fun, intellectual engagement, and exercise. People were happy to see one another. No one felt like a stranger. This made my heart swell. How exhausted my body grew that day did not matter.

I wouldn’t be leaving until the following Wednesday. My friend Bernie held one more outing for me with old soccer friends. This entailed parking at the top of a hill and walking down the steepest incline I had attempted to date. My old weightlifting partner, Van, walked me down the sidewalk. When we were about halfway down the hill, my left foot got caught on the pavement. I felt myself swing about 100 degrees to my right. Noticing that I was about to fall, Van caught my left elbow and pulled me back upright. His voice never wavered in tone or in cadence. It let me know that, with friends like these, I could safely move back to Minneapolis in a few months.

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