I was finally discharged on Wednesday, August 5th. It had been over two and a half months since my movements and diet were not carefully monitored. Unlike the majority of patients, I had not been impatiently awaiting my release from the hospital. Sure it would bring with it a greater amount of freedom. But to me, it also represented a line of demarcation: Up to this point, I would see rapid improvement; afterward, things might slow down, because I was no longer in an intensive inpatient environment. So, I acted as though I was also overjoyed to finally be going home to, even though I was terrified.
My dad and my nephew Braden took me out to eat as their first order of business. We went to Outback Steakhouse. Although I had regained the ability to walk, I could only do so tenuously, and under very controlled conditions. So I had to use a wheelchair everywhere we went. I wasn’t prepared for how it made me feel. Although, I had never looked down on people in wheelchairs, it was a completely different feeling now that I was in one. Sure, I had used one in the hospital. But that hadn’t mattered, because I was a patient. Now I was out in public. This was simply my body. I felt as though the only way people could see me was as someone to be pitied.
Once we were inside, we were seated next to a former high school classmate of mine. He recognized my father and introduced himself. He went on and on about his memories of Dad, who had no clue who he was. I remembered him well. I could still recall which elective class we took together, which hour it was, and who the teacher was. I could tell you what extracurricular activity he was involved in and which famous cousin he always bragged about. But he seemingly had no idea who I was. I assumed that it had to be because I was disabled. That felt humiliating.
When dinner came, I was relieved to finally be eating something other than hospital food. However, because I had ordered rack of lamb, I needed to separate the different ribs. I also needed to cut the meat up into smaller bites, as I had learned to do in the hospital, because my swallowing capacity had diminished. However, since I could not use my left hand, it meant that I couldn’t use a knife and fork. I asked Braden if he would cut my meat for me. He did nothing to make me feel lesser – the same as with my classmate – but something about not having the same abilities as the overwhelming majority of the people around me made me feel like less of a person. I felt like a spectacle, but I also felt invisible.
We went home after dinner. One of the first things I realized was that there was no way to enter the house without going up steps. When presented with this issue, I felt a sense of dread. The way we resolved this was by using the wheelchair to wheel me from the car to the steps at the front door. Once we came to the steps, I had Dad to lead me from the front by pulling on the gait belt. Braden pushed me from behind. So, even with my weakened leg, there was little chance of me falling.
Once inside, I was able to sit back down in the chair. They pushed me back to my room. I had lived in this room as a child, and I’d always wished it was bigger. Now everything seemed so far apart. It was disorienting. My mind began to imagine everything that would be a challenge. How would I get to the bathroom in time every time? Would I safely make it up and down the steps every time? And how on earth was I supposed to get in and out of the tub? It was all so dizzying that it made my head swim. I had Dad help me transfer from the wheelchair to the bed. Then I turned on the television for distraction and tried to go to sleep.
The next day, Dad announced that he and Braden were going for a ride around the city. He asked me whether I wanted to go. I was leery about going down the steps, but I loathed being home by myself even more. So I asked my father to help me to get dressed, and I was rolled out to the front door. I had one of them stand in front of me and the other behind me. Then we carefully walked down the stairs. When we got to the bottom, Braden had to run to the car, and my father had to go inside to grab the chair and lock the door. When they did so, they left me standing at the base of the steps, against the house, where I assured them I would be fine.
While I was standing there, I noticed that my shorts had started to fall down. Having the sort of brain damage I had really warped my sense of time and perception. I started worrying about my shorts coming all the way down. Would Dad or Braden be here to pull them up in time before people passing along the street could see them? I panicked and tried to do it myself. As I tried to shimmy in order to get them up around my waist, my left leg gave out and I came crashing to the pavement.
The whole thing happened so quickly that I have to reassemble it in my mind. I felt the shorts fall down my butt. I reached down to pull them up. I heard Braden yell, “Uncle Michael!’ Then I was lying on the ground clutching my bad shoulder. I had fallen right on it. It hurt, but not as much as I would have expected it to. Dad and Braden ran over to help me to my feet. I told them that I wasn’t hurt, and they helped me to my car. They wheeled me to the car, and we went for our ride. During our long trip around Jackson, the pain in my shoulder quickly subsided, but a dull sensation never stopped radiating from my humerus.
Throughout my entire ordeal, my friend, Howard and his parents were indispensable. Since the time I had moved into his house in March, before the stroke, I had planned to give him my father’s phone number. However, I had never gotten around to actually texting it to him. So when I found myself unable to move or speak during the stroke, I had no idea how anyone in my family would know what was happening. Later I would find out that Howard was the one who had gone to the gym to pick up my car and clothes. He was the one who had hosted my parents when they came down from Jackson. And his parents had fed my parents during the days they were on the coast. He is the closest thing I have to family in Gulfport.
I also began seeing my brother, Ivory, more frequently. He and his girlfriend, Sharon, had come down to see me when I was in my coma. They came down from their home in Saint Louis again after I had been transferred to Select Specialty Hospital. In fact, I once overheard Ivory tell Sharon, “This is the first time I’ve seen Michael every month since we were in high school.” We really hadn’t seen one another most of our adult lives, so it meant a lot that we were finally part of each other’s lives.
Ivory had three children who lived in Vancouver, Washington. Each one came out to visit Granddaddy for a month or longer that summer. Briana, the middle child came while I was still in Select. She told me one day that my being in the hospital was helping to bring the family together. This was something I didn’t want to hear at the time. In my mind, not being in a more physically active role meant that I could no longer be a subject in the drama of life. My ego was not ready to accept a diminished role. Since then, I have come to realize that this is a rather limited way to think. In fact, I have come to appreciate that I can be an inspiration to others.
Braden’s turn to visit came in late July. He was the youngest and the most soft-spoken, but always very helpful and respectful. He shot several of my videos, including the first footage of me walking. Whenever I needed to be pushed in my wheelchair, or when it needed to be packed or unpacked from the trunk of the car, Braden was there to help. Because of his intelligence, kindness, and willingness to help, I told him that he would be an ideal candidate for a patient care position.
Brandi is my brother’s first born, and she was the last to come. She arrived in August and would be staying to attend college. We would both be starting the next chapter of our lives at the same time, under on roof.
So, while the stroke and the three months following it had been disorienting and had changed the course of my life, I had a good support network. It would not be nearly as difficult to put my life back together as it would be for others. I am truly fortunate to have the quality of people I have in my life.
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I was on vacation in the South for the entire month of August 2017. One of the most important things I wanted to do was go to New Orleans. Although I had been there several times since leaving the hospital, I had to use a wheelchair each time. My desire was to be able to walk around the French Quarter without assistance. I wanted to walk on the crooked sidewalks and cobblestone streets with confidence and without care.
We left at noon on Thursday, August 24. Three hours later, we were in New Orleans. The first place we stopped at was Pat O’Brien’s. I hadn’t planned to dine there; I just wanted to pick up souvenir Hurricane drink glasses. Dad found an empty parking space directly across the street from the restaurant. The air was steamy and the sun was bright. I had to walk through the shadows of a dark walkway that opened into a large courtyard. There were tourists laughing and talking. It made me feel like a normal person again. To get the glasses, I had to go to a small bar off to the right. I walked up and told the bartender which glasses I needed. He grabbed them, rinsed them out, and boxed them up.
The next order of business was to find my friend, Heidi. Heidi was someone I’d met in a Facebook group, when I’d created a meme from a comment of hers. We had agreed to meet at Acme Oyster House. However, when we got a couple of blocks from the restaurant, we ran into road construction. We parked in a garage so we could walk the rest of the way. When we emerged from the garage, we realized that we couldn’t walk straight to the restaurant. Instead, we had to walk a full block out of the way in order to get around the construction. This gave me a chance to really test my endurance.
We finally made it to Acme, Heidi was waiting outside. We had been waiting to meet for almost a year. We went inside and got a table. I ordered the oyster po-boy and poured a ton of Tabasco sauce on it. We joked, took pictures, and talked politics. It felt like we had known each other for years. When we were finished, I told Heidi about my desire to go down to the Riverwalk to take a picture in front of the bridge. So she volunteered to drive Dad and me over to the river.
When we got out, we had to walk over a set of train tracks and past the mall to get to the river. I stepped onto the ties gingerly at first. I was surprised at how steady my footing was. I walked across the tracks with ease. The step presented no challenge either. Then I walked past the mall, until I could see the Crescent City Connection bridge. I walked the few hundred feet to the guardrail, where I could take a picture. I had dreamt of this moment for over a year. Now it was happening. I was surrounded by the sounds and smells of New Orleans. The murky river crawled next to me. Walking was an afterthought. Heidi snapped the picture I had been dying to take.
After we said our goodbyes to Heidi, Dad and I headed to the French Market to meet my cousin, Rosalind for dinner. We found a parking space and had to walk two blocks to get to the restaurant. We walked past all of the little shops that my brothers and me used to peruse as children. There was still a mix of new and classic toys and other merchandise in the windows.
We finally arrived at French Market Restaurant, where Rosalind had assured me that I could order a platter of fried oysters. We had a lot of disagreements whenever I came down to visit New Orleans while growing up, but I had always admired Rosalind for her intelligence. She had always been a voracious reader and a straight A student. Moreover, she also belonged to a writing circle. We talked a lot about what had happened during childhood, the years since, and Hurricane Katrina. I told her about the blog I was planning and that I really wanted her input as an editor.
When dinner was over, Dad and I walked back to the car. We drove back along I-55 in the blackness, just as we had done when I was a child. I uploaded all of the pictures I had taken that day. It felt so thrilling that I would not need a wheelchair to enjoy New Orleans again.