My Best Self

I woke up the Sunday morning after a full weekend with my family. I had walked so much and visited several historic places, and I had done it all without stumbling or growing tired. I had wanted to start my day with a workout before getting together with my brothers and their wives one last time. I asked my dad what time he would be going to mass in the morning, but before he answered, I realized that I was being overzealous. I would have to come home, jump in the shower, and get ready to go out and meet them for lunch. Rather than put Dad through all that, I might as well sleep in and have a leisurely day.

We met up at a restaurant on the northern edge of town. It had occurred to me to have lunch there so Sharon and Ivory could jump right on the interstate and head back to Saint Louis. I was so happy to be surrounded by everyone and thrilled to have more than enough money in my checking account to cover my expenses for the entire vacation. Since my stroke, I had sometimes been short for money when we got together. Living mostly on disability insurance meant that I might require help covering my portion of the bill. My family were helpful and weren’t condescending about it, but I still felt like a charity case.

I had paid enough of my bills in advance, plus I was expecting to have two Medicare reimbursement checks waiting for me once I got home, so I could just enjoy myself without worrying about how I would afford next month’s bills. I had even timed my return flight to coincide with the date of my September disability payment. That way, I could afford baggage fees, meals, and a taxi home from the airport even if I had managed to spend all the money in my account during vacation. That wasn’t the plan, but the feeling was liberating.

Now as we sat around the table, I listened to them talk about travel plans and when they could visit one another again. I wanted to be in a position where I didn’t have to plan my trips so meticulously. My goal was to be three months ahead of all bills by the end of 2019 and six months ahead by the end of 2020. It would require a lot more fiscal discipline, but once I was at that status, it would feel like I was living a comfortable retirement. I could easily afford a flight to Mississippi, Missouri, or Texas any month I felt like it.

I had been watching Dad play with Parker for three days now, She adored her grandfather. She was friendly with me, but I felt like I owed it to her to visit at least twice a year. It could be like when my brothers and me were growing up: we didn’t see Mama’s side of the family that often. But we saw them regularly, and it was always magical.

The next morning, it was back to business as usual. I got up early and had Dad drive me to the gym. By the time I got there, I was still feeling a little tired. I jumped on a stationary bike and started pedaling to wake myself up. I didn’t care for the bikes at this location. They weren’t comfortable to sit on, so it was a chore to ride for twenty minutes on a good day. But if I made it to five minutes, I could push myself to go to ten minutes. If I was feeling good after ten minutes, fifteen and twenty minutes were pretty easy.

I made it to ten minutes, but I was still feeling a little tired. I wasn’t ready to start lifting weights yet, but I wanted to find a new machine to work out on. There was a hand bike at this location. Although I had used the hand bike in almost every occupational therapy program in the last four years, there hadn’t been one at any of the fitness clubs I belonged to. But the last time I was here, I had seen one and planned to factor it into my workouts.

In therapy, the hand bike had been hard for me. My left shoulder hurt every time my arm was extended, and it was hard to maintain momentum because it was hard for my left arm to keep up with my right arm. The whole affair had felt like a battle. This time, I experienced no pain. I cranked up the resistance, expecting to at least have a difficult time maintaining rhythm with my left arm.

But hand bike was easy. With greater mobility in my arm and shoulder, every revolution was natural. My left arm could extend my farther, and I could even feel a little activation in my triceps. The last time I’d attempted this exercise, it was all I could do to make it to five minutes. This time was so much easier. I turned up the volume on the video I was listening to and tried not to look at the clock. Before I knew it, I was at ten minutes. After I hit fifteen minutes, I stopped and sat back, breathing hard. I was proud of myself.

I was motivated now, but I still wasn’t feeling great. I began setting up for lunges, as setting up a workout station down to the centimeter has always been one way I focus on days when I feel out of it. After setting up, I slid into place to begin. Right as I was about to start, I heard someone call my name. I looked around to see my friend Keri. She greeted me warmly, not having seen me since before I moved back to Minnesota three years ago. She told me how proud she was of all my progress.

Seeing Keri was just the motivation I needed. It no longer felt like an anonymous workout. Now it felt like someone was watching me. I banged out three sets of lunges on each leg. After that, I went on to do two more leg exercises and two upper body ones. It ended up being the second best workout of my trip. By the time I was finished, my energy was up. Keri came over and found me while I was seated at a table, waiting for Dad. I was happy to tell her how much more the workouts meant when I people were cheering for me.

I was going to be home for three weeks, so a lot of my visit would be learning how to do home chores again. Sure, it might seem mundane, but these were things I hadn’t wanted to spend time doing in occupational therapy. Since the assisted living staff normally did my laundry at home, I decided to do it myself while on vacation. I didn’t have a laundry bag in Mississippi, so I had to carry it in a plastic basket. This had been too difficult for me to carry in the past; I’d needed to walk with my cane, so I couldn’t simultaneously hold it in my right hand.

Now that I had been doing so much leg work, I just decided to carry the basket with one hand. I picked it up, surprised at how light it was. Not wanting to trip, I walked slowly. It didn’t take me long at all to get to the laundry room. From that point, it was a simple task. Bending down and reaching my clothes was no different than picking up after Mary each day.

A day or two later, I was eating burgers with very finely chopped onions. No matter how carefully I ate, a few fell on the floor. Ordinarily, I would have asked someone else to clean up the mess for me. But I stopped, remembering that this was going to be a trip where I reestablished a lot of my independence. I asked my dad to get the vacuum for me. He plugged it in and brought it over, ready to vacuum up the onions. I told him that I wanted to do it myself.

It was a one-handed task. Balancing was easy, I ran the machine back and forth, confident that I could put weight through either leg because I could move and reset either foot without much effort. The lunges had made me feel a lot more comfortable putting my legs in various positions without worrying about losing balance. The task was so easy that, after I got all of the onions up, I felt like I wanted to run the machine for another hour.

One thing I wasn’t able to do was take my pills on my own. I hadn’t brought a pill planner, nor was I able to open all the bottles. Opening the smaller bottles wasn’t hard, but the large ones were a challenge. I couldn’t grip the lid with my right hand, and I couldn’t grip the bottle with my left hand. I tried turning it either way; I braced it against the bed; I tried to grip it with a towel. Nothing seemed to work in helping me open the pills. It reminded me of the day I had the stroke. I kept trying to twist it off, but it only spun around and around in my left palm. It was so disheartening.

Then one afternoon while Dad was napping, I decided to try one more time, I gripped the pill bottle in my left hand, then tried twisting off the lid with my right hand. Again, the bottle just spun. So I turned the bottle upside down. Pressing the lid against my palm, I pushed down on the bottom of the bottle and twisted hard. I felt the lid click and twist off. My relief was boundless. I was quickly moving toward the point where I would be living completely independently again.

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