Old Friends and New Friends

I had been working hard in the gym. I had also gotten to travel a bit recently. What I wanted more than anything was to start trying to walk around Minneapolis and see how I performed moving about the city. After all, rehabilitation is supposed to be about reintegrating yourself back into the community. I knew that recovery of muscle function could be agonizingly slow – and even then, your outcome wasn’t guaranteed. So I was always pursuing opportunities to run errands or socialize.

One night in October, some members of Nerds of Color were dropping me off after seeing a movie. Luis indicated that he lived near me. Naturally I retorted that we should get together some time. A couple of weeks later, when I posted a picture of my friend John and me watching the New Orleans Saints at a sports bar, Luis replied that he loved the place. I told him that we should go some time. We talked back and forth, and he ended up suggesting that we should go there to watch the SEC football championship game. Since LSU was playing, I wanted to see it anyway, so we agreed on it.

Almost two months later, on game day, I took Metro Mobility to the bar. When I got out, there was almost no ice on the ground, but we were late for kickoff; I got off the bus so quickly that I still almost fell. The driver asked if I wanted her to hold my arm. Embarrassed, I admitted that I had just gotten too eager for a second and reassured her that I was fine.

Luis came out to meet me, telling me that he had gotten us a good table up front. In the past, I might have wanted to sit in the rear of the restaurant, closer to the restroom. But this wasn’t a concern. For one thing, I hadn’t had to worry about incontinence in a year. For another, the floor was really smooth. I glided across the surface more quickly than any floor I had walked on in years. These factors when coupled with my increased speed from working out would guarantee that I always had more than enough time to make it to the restroom.

Luis and I sat down a few tables away from a large TV. I knew exactly what I wanted. My favorite menu item is their spiciest burger. I ordered it and a dark beer. It just felt so good knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about the prices of anything. I wouldn’t be worrying about my dragging foot or whether I could make it safely to the restroom on time. It suddenly occurred to me how much planning and anxiety had gone into every evening out over the last few years. It was only through constantly placing myself in uncomfortable positions that I was able to finally sit back and have a relaxing evening.

My friend Manny had started the Nerds of Color group around movies. He had always invited me along with the group. During the earlier days – as with other social outings – I had kind of sat back and not talked that much because I needed to preserve my breath. Now I had the breath support to joke and laugh freely. Where my eyes had once had difficulty tracking the ball, I could now spot violations in real time again. It was a wonderful night out, and I was so happy to have a new friend to share it with.

Trying to stay active after the stroke meant that I tried to leave the building most days of the week. If I didn’t have to go to the gym or physical therapy, I would try to go shopping or run other errands. These activities still drained a lot of my energy. Then I started my blog. I had never been good about meeting academic deadlines before the stroke; I had a natural tendency to procrastinate about writing. I developed anxiety about how much I had to write each week for my blog, and that only added to my lethargy. I managed to stay ahead of the blog, but it was often at the expense of canceling a trip to the gym or shopping.

After I got back from Thanksgiving in Texas, I was inspired to be more active. I committed myself to a minimum of four days a week in the gym. If I needed to work on my blog or run errands on days that might conflict, I just did two or three things that day. Getting back to feeling like a complete person would mean redeveloping the capacity to get several things done in the same day.

One Saturday, for instance, I still wanted to finish 1000 words for my blog. I had lunch scheduled at 1:00 with a couple of transplants from my Mississippi atheists’ group. Knowing how much I hate the idea of missing a ride, I gave myself over an hour window to be idle before leaving at 12:40. I went down to the basement at 9:00 and gave myself two hours to bang out 500 words. When that was done, I packed up, went upstairs, plugged in my computer, and took my dog out to use the restroom. Everything was scheduled and efficient.

After I got to the Jamaican restaurant, I felt like I could relax and enjoy my friends because I was on schedule. We talked about how the weather and politics differed from Mississippi; I told them about the advancements I was making in rehab; we joked about the intense spiciness of the jerk chicken. I didn’t feel any rush because I knew I was going to accomplish everything I had set out to do that morning. I could have fun and I could simultaneously meet my goals. Everything was as it should be.

A couple of days later, I wanted to go out to watch the Saints play on Monday Night Football. My friend Dan and I hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, so we decided to go out. Dan lives on the north edge of Saint Paul; I live just south of downtown Minneapolis. For the sake of convenience, I told him that we should go to the bar across the street from the Vikings stadium.

When Dan drove up, I was waiting in the lobby. As I walked up to the car, he got out to help me in. While it was a kind gesture, I told him that I had been getting in and out of cars by myself for two years. I was okay. On the way to the bar, Dan marveled at how much better I looked than the last time he’d seen me. I was walking straighter and was more sure-footed. When we arrived at the bar, the parking lot still had chunks of ice everywhere. Dan asked me if I needed him to hold my arm. I didn’t. I prefer having people walk alongside me. I only want help if I slip.

When we got inside, the bar was relatively empty. I hadn’t been there in a decade. Back then, it had looked more lived in. It had undergone a name change and was now under new management. The renovated dining area looked new and polished. The bartender told us that we could sit anywhere. We took a space at the bar and asked him to put on the game.

The Saints had a record-setting game, so even though I have jitters whenever one of my teams plays, they didn’t last that long. Soon Dan and I were reminiscing about old times. A couple of mutual friends texted, asking how the other was doing. After the game was over, I walked outside and took pictures in front of the Vikings’ longship. As I walked back to the car, I could tell that I still had hard work to do in order to walk with real ease, yet I had overcome the hardest years.

The highlight of the month was my friend Manny coming back for a visit. He’d timed his vacation to coincide with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Nerds of Color had ordered an advance block of tickets for the first show at a fancy theatre in the suburbs.

When I’d moved back to Minnesota, Manny would always invite me out when he had groups going to games, movies, and cultural events. Sometimes I would become exhausted just imagining how much effort it would take to get there. I would have to sigh and say, “No, thank you.” But most times I would try to go. Manny would come inside, zip my jacket, help me down the steps to the car, and buckle my seat belt for me. Once we got where we were going, I would have to stand up and drag myself inside.

Manny was helpful and persistent for years. If he hadn’t pushed me to do as much as he did, working out wouldn’t be as easy as it is now. When I think of how much willpower it once took to drag my left foot across a floor, stacking on additional increments of weight at the gym now is definitely the easy part.

True to form, Manny had committed to getting several people to the theatre. He already had Luis in the car when he picked me up in Minneapolis. He still had to zigzag all over the metro area to pick up someone in Saint Paul, another person in the suburbs, and then back to the suburb where the movie was playing.

As we were on our last stretch of highway, we were hit from behind. This was that perfect slice of chaos we didn’t need to screw up our evening. Manny and the other driver got out to inspect the damage to the cars. There didn’t appear to be any. So we went on to the theatre.

I had a beer at the movie. That was a big deal for me because I was used to having to leave the cinema at least once during a movie to use the restroom. And that was when I’d had nothing to drink. Drinking a beer during the movie would really test my bladder. But I wanted to try.

The movie began with the iconic text crawl. My vision problems since the stroke had never allowed me to read more than a few lines. I would get through the first two. But after that, I wouldn’t be able to scan from the end of one line to the beginning of the one beneath it. The text would get all blurry. This time, I read all three paragraphs as quickly as each line appeared on the screen.

I missed the Nerds of Color group photo after the movie because I had waited so long to finally go to the restroom. Nonetheless, I was triumphant that I had held it so long. Everyone was still standing around chattering when Manny made the announcement that we had to hurry across the street before the taqueria closed.

Once we were seated with our food, Manny had us each introduce ourselves and say our pronouns of choice and favorite character. Although he is an introvert, Manny is a natural organizer. People volunteered why they liked certain characters, giving us windows into their personalities as well. I love these get togethers because there is always a broad range of ages, a kaleidoscope of skin tones, and an orchestra of different voices. This is a sliver of the life that I knew I could pull myself back to when I took those first shaky steps in 2015.

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