It was now late April and my life was really coming along well from a standpoint of physical rehabilitation. I had now been released from all forms of therapy at the transitional care facility, and my days focused more on independently fighting for a return to a more normal life. This took place in the form of daily trips to Planet Fitness, lifting as much weight as I could. But I still felt as though I was doing the bare minimum. I was only performing four exercises regularly – and those I was lifting with very light weight, and often with compromised form. While it did feel good to be back in the gym full time, I must admit that it was frustrating.
One of the things I had been proud of for years was having a strong chest. I had always done multiple exercises to ensure that it was a fairly prominent part of my physique. However, most chest movements required the ability to thrust one’s arms forward. The stroke had robbed me of the ability to extend my left arm. Because of this deficit, I could no longer do exercises such as bench presses.
I could do butterflies, because all that required was squeezing both sides of my chest together. However this exercise placed an unreasonable amount of strain on a left shoulder that often experienced a great deal of pain. This problem was exacerbated by the machines at Planet Fitness, which were set in such a way as to incorporate a wide sweeping arm motion to complete the exercise. Thus I decided that I wasn’t ready to actually try butterflies. Instead I begin by loosening up my left shoulder with single-arm movements on the same machine.
Getting started with this was difficult. I couldn’t reach out with my left arm to grasp the handle beside me. Instead I would need to swing the arm of the machine toward me with my right hand, then reach for it with my left hand. Upon doing this, I found that the motion of the exercise placed too much strain on my left wrist, because it couldn’t move freely enough to properly absorb the pressure from the angle imposed by the machine. Instead I was forced to use a closed fist. This didn’t matter that much, because the purpose of the exercise was to ignore arm movement and focus on the effort of the pecs.
I started off on what seemed like an extremely low setting of 30 pounds. Even that amount of weight really hurt. I did this for fifteen reps. I repeated this set, then I increased the weight by ten pounds, then performed two more sets. Each time, the shoulder pain was still intense, but it decreased ever so slightly. So I reasoned that the shoulder was loosening up. It was nowhere near as limber as I needed it to be, but it was a long way from being the appendage I had drawn tightly to my side in order to prevent the slightest irritation.
My birthday was on the 28th. I didn’t want to do anything lavish, but I did want to celebrate my continued reclamation of my life. Since Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War would be hitting theaters the day before, I felt as though going by myself would be a great way to celebrate the occasion. Up to this point, I had been going to movies with other people. With my weekly trips to Target becoming so easy, I knew that venturing alone to other places would only be a matter of time and adequate planning.
I booked a trip with Metro Mobility to make it to the first show at Lagoon Cinema. The bus arrived at Chateau about an hour before the movie started. The theater was only about ten minutes away, and there was almost no traffic. When we arrived, it was still about 45 minutes prior to showtime. The doors were still locked. The driver informed me that he could not leave me sitting alone outside per company policy. I asked him to leave me at the restaurant next door instead.
There was a bartender and one patron at the bar. I told them that it was my birthday and that I had half an hour to kill before my movie started. She mixed a complimentary birthday cocktail for me. I told them the story of how I had been living in Mississippi, and how a near-fatal stroke had delayed my return to Minnesota for a year. It had been almost three years of travail, during which I always had been forced to live with one foot in the future. I knew that I had to keep pursuing the primary goal of five-year recovery. I am not guaranteed a total recovery, but I have to live each day as though that is what’s planned. The birthday outing was just one of the many celebrations of milestones that helped me to see life’s purpose. In addition to the larger path, it’s also about living in the tiny moments.
I had spent the last month sleeping very little. Although I had secured food, housing, and healthcare, it was only a temporary solution. Chateau was billing me $1000 per month. And while we had agreed to an informal payment arrangement, I would accrue several hundreds of dollars in debt each month that I stayed. I would often see a county housing representative working with other residents to help them find apartments. I had no idea when I would be assigned one, but I was eager to start searching now that I was no longer being seen for therapy.
Towards the end of the month, a county housing worker finally did come to meet with me. I explained to him that I was looking for a place to rent for less than $800 per month. I wanted it to be in Hennepin County so all of my services would still be valid. I also needed a fenced yard because I have a dog. In order to afford living in such a place, I would eventually have to find a part-time job, but for now I could at least afford to move in. He said that he would start searching immediately and that he would stay in touch with the business office so they wouldn’t worry about my deadline for meeting the payment arrangement.
I was now at ease about my own living situation. The only thing that worried me was finding a temporary home for Mary. She was not allowed to live with me at Chateau, so she had been living with my friend Willa. I needed her to be somewhere she could be active and happy. I had tried various friends and foster organizations, but nothing seemed to be working out.
Then, out of nowhere, my friend Kevin offered to let her stay at his home in Saint Paul. I had met him and his then-girlfriend Katie while playing soccer my first summer in Minneapolis. In the sixteen years since then, they’d married and had two children. They also had a dog who was around Mary’s age. This would be a perfect living environment for her. Here she would be well cared for and she would play constantly. With each of us now in secure living situations, I began sleeping better than I had in decades.
One of the most frustrating daily tasks was the struggle of eating and drinking. The stroke had left me with a diminished swallowing capacity. Not only did I have to take smaller bites and chew them more times, but it would also take longer to swallow anything. This would wreak havoc on my ability to eat anything spicy. The granular texture could tickle my throat, making me cough. Any food with stronger than mild seasoning could send me into spasmodic fits of coughing.
Once my friend Sandra and I discovered a Jamaican restaurant nearby, I began ordering from there regularly. They had wonderful fare that was fresh and that came with the sauces on the side, so the diner could season it herself. The meats were so fresh and well-prepared that they could be eaten by themselves. Nonetheless I always experimented with the hotter sauces. Eventually I was able to get my tolerance to a level where my lips would burn before my throat. At this point, I considered my re-acclimation to spicy food a complete success.
Drinking was a different matter. First I had to master drinking from straws and cups. With straws I had to learn to coordinate my trachea and my esophagus. I would have to draw air in, then switch to swallowing without getting liquid down my windpipe. I would choke for months before I would learn to time this correctly. Next it was the cups. All of the muscles on the left side of my body had atrophied, including my lips. At first, if I tried to swallow anything but the smallest amounts, liquid would spill all over my shirt. Over the span of a year, I had gradually gained enough strength in my lips to drink from a cup without spilling.
Cans were different. Once a certain amount of liquid passed through the opening of a can, it had to be swallowed. Otherwise it would spray immediately. This was so difficult to do correctly that I refused to fool with cans at all. I would pour the contents into a cup instead. Then one day, I had such a thirst for a cold Dr. Pepper that I just opened a can and drank from it directly, without remembering that I needed to wait for someone to bring me a cup.
What was different about drinking from a can now? It was probably the amount of lip exercises that I was doing in speech therapy coupled with an increased swallowing capacity. These had combined in such a way as to make any sort of drinking a mere afterthought. It had been astounding to have to break down so many basic functions of human life in order to do them correctly. Now, after years of relearning the mechanics, at least eating and drinking were becoming automatic again.
Willa would typically bring Mary to see me twice a week. Mary had made many friends in the building and in fact was given free rein to roam the second floor. I didn’t mind her wandering around, because she couldn’t get off the floor without help. The only time she would be allowed to go down to the first floor would be for bathroom breaks. When she had to do this, I would ask someone else to take her, because I was petrified of her breaking free of my left hand. I rarely let her out for this, since her visits were normally less than four hours long.
On the last night Willa brought Mary to see me before taking her to Kevin’s, it was to be for less than three hours. While she was visiting one resident’s room, he began asking to take her outside to use the bathroom. I told him repeatedly that she did not have to go out. I began feeling suspicious because he seemed overly anxious to get her outside, but finally I relented so he would stop badgering me.
Soon my worries got the better of me, and I went out to the front door to wait for them. When I made it outside, the same resident who had taken her was empty-handed and looking bewildered.
“Where’s my dog?” I demanded.
“I told Doug to walk her down the block.”
“I thought you hated that alcoholic. Besides, you know you’re the only one allowed to take off the floor who isn’t on staff!”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll go look for them.”
I was worried sick. All I could do was wait as he too disappeared into the night. What if something happened? If Mary ran off and got hurt, I might not see her again until it was too late. I had her microchipped, but that could only be used to track her down. It couldn’t prevent her from being hit by a car.
After about fifteen minutes, Doug appeared with Mary. Luckily he was in a wheelchair, because he was too inebriated to speak properly. He announced that he had purchased a box of Milkbone dog treats for her and meekly handed the grocery bag to me. Now I seethed even more. If he had just been to the store, he would’ve had to leave Mary outside. Anything could have happened to her.
I was angry at Doug. But he was only doing what someone with a compromised brain might do. I was even more angry with the resident who had given Mary to Doug. When he finally arrived back, I told him that Mary would never be allowed off of the second floor with a resident again. I was still responsible for her well-being. If something happened to her while she was visiting, I needed to be able to hold a staff member liable.
By the next afternoon, Mary was safely at Kevin’s house. He sent a Facebook message so that I would be at ease:
Mary is good. After some extended butt sniffing, her and Fitz played themselves into exhaustion.