After picking up my dog from the airport, Allene and I drove out to my friend Alan’s townhouse in Hopkins. Alan and I had had agreed tentatively to my living there for three months, but I needed to see whether the living space could accommodate my needs. Since I would largely be living in the basement alone, it would need to be easy to enter and exit, and I would have to be able to move around with minimal effort.

It turned out to be just what I needed: I would be staying on the bottom floor, which opened out into the garage. The floor had its own restroom with a stand-up shower, so bathing would not be a problem, nor would bathroom emergencies. There was a downstairs living room with a large flatscreen television and a bedroom. To top it all off, the laundry room was on the lower level, too. Everything I needed was easily accessible.

Alan’s girlfriend, Liz, owned a puppy named Charlie. Charlie was one month younger than Mary. He was the first dog she had ever been introduced to. They spent five minutes sniffing and inspecting one another. Then they started chasing one another as if they had been friends for decades. Mary has greatly benefitted from the fact that I only have introduced her to other dogs who have good owners. As a result, she has almost complete trust in dogs and humans. After thirty minutes, I told Alan that it was exactly what I was looking for. Mary and I moved in one week later, at the beginning of September.

Living at Alan’s was a new adjustment. Other people had previously taken Mary out for me each morning. Now I had to do it all by myself. Because she does not always come when I call her, I would have to keep the bedroom door closed until I could hook a leash onto Mary’s collar. The fact that I could barely stand made this exhausting. Additionally, my depth perception was off, so I had to grab her collar with my right hand then hold it with my left to stabilize it while I hooked the leash onto it. This often took several attempts, but it had to be done each morning so Mary would not use the bathroom indoors.

Once Mary had gone outside, I would feed her. Then I would go to the shower. Because it was a stand-up shower, I did not have to lift my foot very high to get inside. Once inside, I could lean against the rigid walls and shower. After I emerged from the shower, I would sit on the toilet lid and loop my underpants over each foot so I wouldn’t leave the restroom naked.

By the time I got back to the bedroom, Liz would normally have let Charlie out of his kennel for the day. Hearing him running around, Mary would start whining. Liz would yell down that I could let Mary come upstairs. I was always relieved when she took Mary on weekdays, because it meant that I could finish getting dressed in peace. I would generally try to get dressed in the living room because the bed was so tall that my feet couldn’t reach the floor. It was easier to put on pants and shoes by sitting on the low couches.

It would take me about ten minutes to get myself dressed. I could do everything on my own but put on a left shoe and tie my shoes. The muscles in my left foot wouldn’t allow me to work the shoe on, nor did I have two hands with which to pull it on. So I would call Alan or Liz an hour before my bus was scheduled to come. They would help me, then I would give myself at least twenty-five minutes to complete what should have been a five-minute stroll to the bus stop.

Before I left, I would have to pee as much as possible and check several times to make sure that I would have everything I needed, because once I left, there would be no turning back. The bus stop led up a small incline, across two roads, and up a flight of steps, with no place for me to stop and rest along the way or at the bus stop. I had to stand or walk the entire time until the bus came.

Once the bus finally arrived, I could pull myself up the steps and have a seat. This was a local Hopkins route, so it would only travel a very small circuit before depositing me at the Knollwood Shopping Mall in Saint Louis Park. But at least the bus shelter had a roof and a bench where I could relax until the Number 17 bus arrived. The 17 would go from Saint Louis Park into Minneapolis, through the neighborhoods of Uptown, Whittier, and Downtown, before finally dropping me off at my workplace in the Saint Anthony Main district.

The first day the bus dropped me off on Central Avenue, I realized that I had not planned out how to get from the stop to work. I took several wrong turns. I also had to walk down a steep hill just to get to the correct street. Once there, I still had to walk a couple of blocks. The whole affair drained my energy more than any workout ever had. I decided to take a shortcut through a building. Once I was inside, I heard someone call my name. It turns out, it was Matt, another friend from soccer. He told me that he could get his car and give me a ride the rest of the way.

I walked outside and leaned against a railing while I waited for Matt to bring the car around. I couldn’t have been more relieved. He told me that he could give me a ride back to the bus stop after work as well. And as I only worked Tuesdays and Thursdays, he was happy to give me rides between the bus stop and work. With that, the most arduous part of my commute was now eliminated. I still had the treacherous walk between the house and the bus stop – and most days, I dreaded not simply being able to drive it – but the walking I had to undertake was now much more manageable.

Once I started work, there were a few more hurdles. For one thing, I was still experiencing mild double vision. It had been subsiding, but I had never tried to read professionally. Since these were patient records, I didn’t want to screw up anything. To fight this problem, I would close one eye. This was not a serious problem, and I was soon reading with both eyes. The other problem was that I had to wear khaki pants to work. I had put on so much weight as a result of the stroke that I could no longer wear the same pants. Nonetheless, I reasoned that I would recoup the cost of the purchase with one day’s worth of wages. So I didn’t gripe about it.

Working for Sarah was a fun and stressless job. The staff was like a family. The break room was full of snacks, everyone was chatty, and Sarah gave everyone snacks and decorative socks each holiday. It was the perfect way to return to working. There were rules, but it didn’t feel like policies were being mandated by an impersonal human resources department. By the time the December holiday party came around, I felt as though I truly belonged.

It didn’t take very long for the new employee jitters to subside. At first, I didn’t look up from my computer monitor, because I didn’t want to misread files. Consequently, I became familiar with names and voices. Over time, as I became more comfortable with my scanning ability, my eyes began to roam around their environment more. I now became more familiar with the faces of my coworkers.

As autumn gave way to winter, the weather would make walking to the bus stop very hard. I knew that Metro Mobility was a bus service that catered to disabled residents, so I called them to get details on how to use the service. The representative told me that, once eligible, the bus would come directly to my front door and drop me off at the front door of wherever I was destined.

“How do I make sure I’m eligible?”

“Your doctor will evaluate you and fax a note to us.”

“What is the normal turnaround time for that process?”

“It takes about three weeks to go into our system from the day we receive it.”

Armed with an understanding of the process, I now knew I had to see a doctor. I had been working since September, and I earned more than $65 a month, so I knew that I qualified for medical assistance. My next phone call was to them county offices. They told me that my employer would need to submit records, and I would have to submit pay stubs and write a check for two months’ premium. I wasn’t able to afford the premium until October, but I went to see a doctor I as soon as it was covered.

This was the first doctor I had seen outside of Mississippi since my stroke. She gave me a routine checkup, but since it was out of the hospital network, I had to give her my complete medications list. It made me feel empowered to be able to recite which medications I was on and which times of day I took each. I had vowed that, if I ever suffered another stroke, it would not be due to high blood pressure. That meant being meticulous about my pill regimen.

Before I left, the doctor wrote me a referral for physical and occupational therapy. This was something I had eagerly anticipated. Because Mississippi is ranked last among US states in public health, I had really wanted to see what rehab would be like elsewhere. I had fantasies about walking around like normal and playing sports again, but I tried to temper these thoughts with a measure of realism. I had no idea what to expect, but I was ready to fight like hell through whatever exercises they gave me.

The doctor promised to sign my Metro Mobility request form. This was important, because my only options at present were buses and Uber. The bus was not that convenient, and Uber was expensive. On days when it was cold or rainy, or when I just didn’t feel like walking, I would call Uber and have them drive me directly to the bus stop at Knollwood Mall. This would eliminate all of the walking and it would shave almost an hour off of my commute. With the tip, this trip cost ten dollars. I couldn’t afford to do this regularly, but when I did, it felt like a holiday.

Two weeks later, it occurred to me to call Metro Mobility to see whether they had received the application from the doctor. The customer service representative told that, not only had they received it, but I had been approved. A letter had gone out in the mail; I just had not received it yet. From then on, each trip anywhere in the metro area would cost me a maximum of four dollars each way. I had been back in Minnesota for three months. I had housing, my dog, health care, a job, and transportation. A shot at a normal life was starting to look like an attainable goal as opposed to something I only dreamed about.

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I made it safely back to Minneapolis the first Sunday evening in August, 2016. While I was excited to be back, I barely had fifty dollars to my name. I had no idea how I was going to feed myself for the next two and a half weeks, but I knew that securing health insurance was my first priority. As long as I could secure affordable health care in a state known for quality patient care, I felt everything else could be handled eventually. So Allene told me that she would take me down to the Hennepin County building to sign up for benefits the next day.

We got to the Century Plaza building around 10:30 AM. The parking garage was already quite full. We parked and started walking toward where we thought the doors to the building were. By the time we got about halfway there, we realized that we could not see any door. As I didn’t have the stamina to walk around searching for it, I told Allene to go find the door while I stood in place. She disappeared around the corner.

As I waited for her, I began to worry about falling over. What would I do if I ended up on the ground? I would have to wait for her to come back and find me. Would I be able to yell loudly enough if she lost track of where she had left me? What if someone robbed me for my wallet? I didn’t have much money, but I had just come a thousand miles across the country, and it would take me days to replace the documents that I needed in order to sign up for assistance. Luckily, I was still using a quad cane. Since it could stand up by itself, I knew the cane could support more of my weight than a single point cane could. I leaned a little on the cane and prayed that Allene would get back soon.

Once we were indoors, Allene asked the security officer to bring me a wheelchair. He said that we would need a driver’s license to release it. As Allene had recently misplaced hers, I offered my ID card. The officer said that it specifically must be a driver’s license. Since we didn’t have one between the two of us, I resigned myself to the idea that it was going to be a long day.

The line was moving so slowly that Allene pulled up a chair so I could sit while waiting. When we finally got to the front of the line, the lady at window handed us a stack of forms to fill out and told us that we would hear or name called over a loudspeaker. Because I was still having vision problems, Allene filled them out for me.

When they called my name, we went in for my first interview. The county worker told us it would be for food support. She asked me how much I made in monthly disability payments. I told her. She said that it was close to the maximum amount. I got very excited, assuming that, if the federal government thought that my case warranted a high cash payout, the same would true of food.

She looked at her monitor and said, “You’re gone be mad when I tell you how little you get.”

“How much?” I asked, thinking that I could at least do something with fifty dollars per month.

“Sixteen dollars a month.”

“Sixteen dollars?”

“I’m sorry. I know that’s not even worth your time.”

“It’s alright. You did what you could.”

Allene and I went out to the hall to wait for them to call my name for my medical benefits interview. That was the main reason why we were here, anyway. When they called me, we hadn’t quite finished the form, but we went to the cubicle anyway because I didn’t want to lose my place in line.

The lady here was young and very friendly. She was the most animated county employee I had ever met. She really wanted to help me out, so she told me, “You can get medical assistance, but you’re gonna have a $270 pay down before we start paying.”

“So I have to pay that much like a yearly deductible?”

“That’s actually every month.”

“I can’t afford that on what they give me!”

“Well, if you can get a job making $65 a month, there’s no pay down.”

I had lost my job because I could not return to work. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should even look for another. But there had to be some way I could make that minimal amount. We were talking fifteen dollars a week, about nine hours of minimum wage. Even I could probably find something I could do for that.

I spent the next two weeks

trying to stretch my food money and looking for a part time job. Because of the difference in cost of living between Mississippi and Minnesota, I was always desperate and always tense from worrying about when I would finally go broke. I was worried that I was not in physical therapy because I was sure that I was missing time I should be capturing in a vital recovery window. Would my body lose the ability to stay on track for recovery if I went too long without rehabilitation services?

Helpless, I asked my friends on Facebook to let me know about any jobs that required a low number of hours and a minimum amount of physical ability. An hour later, Sarah, an old soccer buddy, told me that they there was an opening for an office assistant at her clinic. My job would be to scan in and organize paper files to an electronic system six hours a week. She asked as though I would be insulted to take such an unskilled position. I told her that I was learning to work again and that this was more than I had anticipated. My first day of work at Look + See Eye Care was on August 31st, the first month I was back in Minneapolis, meaning that I would have additional money and I could start my therapy soon.

Now that I had secured a job, housing, and a foothold in the Hennepin County social services system, it was time to ship my dog Mary up. I had gotten her from my niece that June, while I was living in Mississippi. Mary had been living in the home since March, so I played with her a few times each week. My niece had ultimately decided that she could not afford a dog and asked me if I wanted her. I had been toying with the idea of getting a dog since before I left the hospital. When she offered Mary to me, I couldn’t say no.

My thinking was as follows: When I was in a coma, my doctors had advised my parents to consider taking me off of life support, because my survival chances were slim. After I was awake again, I had asked my neurologist at Methodist Rehabilitation Center when I was on schedule to walk again. He told me that he couldn’t say that I would walk for certain. I told him I understood that it would be against a professional code of ethics to provide a patient with false hope, but I assured him that I would walk again. Likewise, when I told them that I was considering adopting a puppy, they advised me that it might be too difficult for me to handle one. I took that as one more challenge to overcome. My plan had been to get a dog from a shelter, but Mary had fallen into my lap.

Mary has two coats and sheds a lot more fur than an average dog, so I knew that she did not belong in a warm environment. She also had not been socialized much in her young life. Minneapolis was a cold city with many dog-friendly establishments. I was sure that it would feel like heaven for Mary.

On the day before my niece gave Mary to me, the dog had become gravely ill. She was vomiting in the backyard. I rushed her to the vet, and they advised me that it would take four days of treatment at $300 per day to save her. We dropped her off at the vet and went next door to Petsmart. Mary had heretofore been an outside dog, but now that she was sick, I bought her an indoor kennel, toys, and dog treats. When we picked her up that evening, she was lethargic. I tried to offer her dog food, but she would only sniff at it then turn away. I tried offering her treats instead, but she was equally uninterested. So, I put her in the kennel and let her sleep.

We dropped her off the next morning, and when we came back, there was a different vet. This lady was beaming. She declared, “This is the most resilient dog I’ve ever seen! Feed her these pills twice a day, until they run out. Watch her, and if she gets worse, bring her back in.”

I swiped my card thinking about how grim the chances of survival had been for each of us. Neither of us had been guaranteed to pull through. Now we were going home together. It felt as though Mary was destined to be my dog.

Keeping Mary meant getting a lot of help. For one thing, she would have to be housebroken. Since I required a cane to walk, people had to let her out for me. At first, we just let her out at random times throughout the day. She generally only used the bathroom outdoors, but she didn’t know how to let us know when she had to go, and she had a few accidents in the house. We worked out a schedule where we let her out three times a day. She learned very quickly, and it didn’t take her a month to stop using the bathroom in the house.

My dad had never let a dog live in the house before. As children, we had begged him to let us keep a dog in the bedroom with us, but he would always tell us that he didn’t want dogs in the house. I am convinced that the only reason why Mary was allowed indoors was the stroke experience. After witnessing everything I had suffered through, Dad knew how much joy having a dog would bring me. He also recognized that there was no way I could visit her outdoors. And since she had fallen ill outdoors, it was just too big of a risk to send her back into the same yard. Thus, Mary became the first and last dog who was ever allowed to live in my father’s house.

On the day I accepted Mary, it was with the promise that I would always give her a better life than she’d had in her first months. I played with her, gave her treats, and gave her affection every day. After all of the isolation, it made my life so full to have company that would never leave. She loves human beings, so I made sure to have her microchipped before my friend Amanda came to drive us to Minneapolis. I had nightmarish visions of her following a family of strangers from a parking lot in Missouri. However, when the time came to move back to Minnesota, I decided that it would be too chaotic to try to move Mary before I was settled in there. Besides, I didn’t have space for her kennel with my car being full. I left for Minneapolis, promising Dad I would have Mary flown up in three weeks. Mary got to meet Amanda the night before we left. She was so loving that it made it doubly hard to say farewell.

Three weeks later, I was finally working and ready to move into a friend’s basement. I paid $400 to ship Mary on a Delta cargo flight. When she came out of her travel kennel, she looked tiny compared to what I remembered. She trotted out to me for a hug. I held her for a very long time. Then I loaded her in the rear of the SUV so I could show her Minnesota.

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My two week vacation to Minneapolis had rejuvenated me. After almost a year of the most dire existence I could fathom, I had gotten a chance to experience the life I had been dreaming of returning to. But the two weeks had not been merely about getting away; they were meant to gauge how realistic the idea was that I could safely circumnavigate the big city. I did not suffer any falls, and I never found myself in danger of any sort. So I returned home with the confidence that I would shortly be ready to move back to Minnesota.

Originally my plan had been to move back in January of 2018. Now it didn’t seem necessary to wait that long. People might assume that I was restless to move back because of boredom with life in Mississippi. While this was a motivating factor, it doesn’t take into account the obvious: Mississippi is ranked last among US states in public health. I worried that every month I spent in rehabilitation there was a month I was possibly missing out on better health services, thereby diminishing my chances at recovery. I was also set to lose my job on May 20th. That would mean losing my health insurance in a state that does not make it easy for poor people to find alternative options. The way I saw it, trying to move forward with rehabilitation in Mississippi was no longer an option.

Now I resolved to move back in the summer. I began focusing on walking exercises at Quest Rehabilitation. My physical therapist was happy to get aggressive, having me try out new and different equipment. At the outpatient therapy facility, I performed single leg press every day. I started with a set of 60 pounds. I would do twelve to fifteen reps. Then I would go up by ten more pounds for the next set. I would do two more sets, increasing each by another ten pounds. Every week or two, I would increase my initial set by ten pounds, thus going up on the subsequent sets. My ultimate goal was to be able to lift 150 pounds on my affected thigh by the time I returned to Minneapolis.

My left leg had barely been able to sustain half of my weight for months, Now it was slowly growing strong enough to support me without help from my right leg. I would still have to use my arm to steady myself, but this amount of leg strength had been unimaginable until recently. I didn’t have command of all of my leg muscles, but I would work to make the ones at my command as strong as possible. I was still working with my left arm, which didn’t seem to be responding nearly as quickly.

I decided to set my move date to the first weekend in August, one year since my discharge date. I told the staff at Quest my plans. They decided to discharge me in June. The physical therapist made a German chocolate cake for me, and the staff had a brief ceremony for me. My relationship with them had been rocky after they had made me use the safety chair, but I had not used it in over a month and I had since returned to being pleasant and talkative.

For the rest of June, I just went to outpatient therapy, to stretch my shoulder and strength my thigh. When I started, I had not even been able to raise my arm to shoulder height. By the end of June, I was able to tuck my hand behind my head. When I lay down in this position, my elbow would drift upward because I was still incapable of achieving a full stretch. It was still an amazing amount of progress, considering that I hadn’t been able to elevate my shoulder at all a year before. By the time I finished therapy, I was able to press 130 pounds with my left leg. I had originally been unable to move my leg at all. With this increased amount of physical ability, I felt it was time to return to Minneapolis.

My disability payment always arrived at the end of the month, so I reasoned that I could move with my July check. I made arrangements to live at the same place where I had stayed during my April vacation. My friend Amanda agreed to fly down and help me drive my car.

Having to make so many plans gave me a lot of external details to focus on. Inside, I was a ball of apprehension. Sure, I had worked out a rental agreement, but could I really afford food, medical care, and transportation? My friend Allene assured me that everything would work out. I wasn’t sure how it could, but I had spent the last fourteen months having to rely on the actions and judgment of others, so I tried not to panic. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t being reckless so long as I was moving somewhere where I would pay rent and keep pursuing physical rehabilitation.

The night Amanda arrived in Mississippi felt like something out of a dream. I had been back for half a decade, but none of my Minnesota friends had come to visit me. It didn’t feel real having someone from that world here in Jackson.

We started out of Jackson at 10:00 AM on Saturday, August 6th. It was already a hot day, so Amanda and I kept the windows closed and the air conditioning on high. Amanda told me about some of her adventures traveling around the world. Places like Irish pubs in Istanbul sounded truly enchanting. One day, after I was able again, I wanted to travel the world. I had never had a list of things I wanted to do before I died, but living in the hospital for months had given me a wanderlust and a thirst for life that was heretofore unimaginable. Just feeling the car lap up the miles of road made me feel as though I was putting distance between living and dying

At 2:00 PM, we settled onto the patio outside of B. B. King’s blues restaurant on Beale Street. It had always been my fantasy to drive the length of the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Minneapolis. There is something almost enchanting about the river, and I wanted to share Southern port cities with someone who had never been this far south.

Then Amanda looked up and asked, “Wait, isn’t that your Dad?” I looked over, and sure enough, he was walking over to the restaurant.

“Yeah, that’s him!”

In her sarcastic way of joking about the obvious, she announced, “I just met that guy. Didn’t we just leave his house a few hours ago?”

It turned out that Dad was meeting my brother Ivory and his fiancee in Memphis. It was an incredible coincidence. They pulled up chairs next to us, and I shared one more afternoon with family in the eternal Southern sun.

We spent the night at a hotel outside of St. Louis, and the following morning I woke up first. Since it had been a hot day the day before, I wanted to get a shower. However, neither my dad nor the shower chair was there. I didn’t want to be naked in front of Amanda, so I couldn’t ask her for help either. I sat down on the rim of the tub and gingerly turned, sliding my legs in. Knowing that I couldn’t ask for help if I slipped, I showered with much care. After I finished, I dried off and dressed in the bathroom. I was so proud of myself, because it was the first time I had bathed independently.

That final day of driving went slowly. We left the interstate and drove mostly through Iowa, stopping to take pictures whenever we passed through a new state. Thant evening, we arrived in south Minneapolis. We unloaded one of my suitcases, and I settled on my friend Allene’s couch, where I would be staying for the rest of August. It had been a 36-hour trip, and I had traveled over a thousand miles from the place where I was born and raised. But I had come home.

* * *

The first year back in Minnesota was full of challenges and triumphs. In August of 2017, I visited home. It gave me the opportunity to travel to Jackson, the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans. In the months immediately following the stroke, traveling around the region had been extremely difficult. It had meant using wheelchairs, needing assistance to climb into trucks, requiring frequent rest breaks, and always making sure that I was near a restroom. Now, I was stronger and in greater control of my body. Thus, my time back was relaxing.

After a month back in Mississippi, it was time to return to Minneapolis. My first year’s lease had ended on August 1st, so I had left Minnesota temporarily, because I had nowhere to go, as I did not have the money or courage to move out on my own yet. The case worker called me during my third week in Mississippi. “Can you meet with me next week?”

“No. I will be out of state until the end of the month.”

“We cannot keep you on a CADI waiver if you are out of the state for more than thirty days.”

“The only reason I had to leave the state for a month is because I’ve been begging you to help me find housing for three months. It was either, the streets or leaving Minnesota for a month.”

“We can’t keep you on the CADI waiver if you’re out of state for more than thirty days.”

“But you’re the reason I had to leave Minnesota for the month! This isn’t my fault!”

“I can meet you the day you get back, so we can reopen it.”

“Okay, I can meet you on Friday, the 1st.”

I talked to Amanda about my situation. She told me that her apartment was completely furnished and no one was living in it. She had just gotten married and was moving in with her husband. So when I stepped off of the plane, I had somewhere safe to stay that would allow me a base of operations from which I could work out and look for a place of my own.

I arrived late on Thursday night. Amanda gave me a warm hug and helped me up the steps. There was a long walkway to the front door. Once I was inside, she helped me up to the second floor. Her apartment was down the hall and around the corner. By the time I got to the apartment, I felt winded. The buzzer to the building’s secured entrancewas routed to Amanda’s cellphone, so I would have to walk down to the front door in order to let anyone in. If I ordered food, I would have to go down to get it. Then I would have to carry it back up in my affected hand. Things like pizza were completely out of the question, and anything else would have to be in a bag with handles. It was all ntimidating to think about.

Amanda went out to grab me some juice and a pizza from a local market. I turned on the TV and tried not to worry about the distances to the various rooms around the apartment or down to the front door. It would take a lot of concentration and time not to fall. Being behind a locked door would mean that there would be no one who could help me to get up if I did fall.

Nonetheless, I told myself that it was going to be okay. The odds had been high against me coming out of my coma or ever walking again – and moving back to Minnesota a year after being discharged from the hospital was not something my caretakers had even fathomed. Yet, with friends like Allene and Amanda, here I was. I got up and looked out the living room window. It was time to face my future.

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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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One of the things that has always served as a bulwark against tragic events in my life was Lego. Lego was there for me when my mother died. It was something I have always come back to since. I even used Lego sets as part of my therapy after the stroke. So while other people might see them as trivial, these toys have always occupied a special place in my heart.

For Christmas of 1983, I asked for a Lego castle set. At the time, I adored medieval knights and lore. I had vaguely remembered having Lego sets when I was younger, but as a nine-year-old, I didn’t own any. I imagined knights assaulting and defending legendary castles. I dreamt of them subduing dragons and rescuing princesses. The castle was something I had to have.

I told Mama that the castle was the main thing I wanted for Christmas in September, then, I spent the next few months staring at the Service Merchandise catalog, admiring the set. As I fantasized about all of the battles my Lego knights would fight, I couldn’t believe how slow Christmas was in arriving. In my excitement, I sometimes would let a boast slip: “I’m getting’ that Lego castle!”

Mama would admonish, “You don’t know you’re getting it for sure.

Embarrassed, I would go back to whatever I was doing. I would remain mollified for two or three days, but eventually I would be unable to contain my excitement and I would begin my low-key bragging again.

Then in November, the unthinkable happened. One Saturday, Mama started having breathing trouble. She knew it was her asthma giving her problems, but she insisted on going to Ivory’s and my soccer matches in southwest Jackson. By the time mine was finished, it was late afternoon, and she was in full distress. Daddy rushed her to the emergency room at Baptist Hospital after dropping us off at my godmother’s house. He came back home to give us dinner, but he didn’t stay long. He went right back to the hospital.

That night, my brothers and I lay in strange beds wondering what could possibly be going on. While it was customary for us to lie awake in bed talking, Daddy didn’t come in to yell at us. Completely bewildered, we couldn’t sleep. We were just passing the time, waiting for dawn for our parents to come to take us to church, for everything to be normal again.

The next day, Daddy came back to get us. When we got home, there was an infestation of church members cleaning and preparing food in every room. Daddy took us outside so he could talk to us. We gathered near a metal lamppost beside the driveway. Daddy knelt down before us and quietly told us, “Y’all are gonna have to be really good from now on. Mama died today …”

All of the oxygen had been sucked from the universe. No other sound registered to my ears. I stared at the chipped, white paint of the light post, then at the street – anything to avoid looking at Daddy’s face.

I remember going to school the next day. My combined third-and-fourth grade class would have sharing time after lunch. Mr Greene, our teacher asked if anyone knew what “tragedy” meant. I wasn’t sure, but I thought it had something to do with literature, so I sat back and didn’t say anything. After a lengthy discussion, my classmate, Marcus said, “I think it’s when somebody dies.”

“That’s right,” said Mr. Greene. This was just the opening he had been waiting for. “Michael’s mother died last weekend.”

Marcus was also a member of our church and had attended the prayer vigil at the hospital. I listened to this third grader tell the class about how spirits rose and fell with every change of my mother’s status. I felt appalled, as it all seemed so intrusive that someone a year younger than me knew the intimate details of how my mother had died, and that he was now sharing them with the class.

A few days later, we held the funeral. My grandparents came down from Seattle, and Aunt Maxine and Uncle Larry came over from Georgia. I remember being in the back of the limo with my grandparents. Grandmother talked about how she’d been planning to come down and they would go shopping. She talked about how Mama might be having a bad day with her breathing, but she would grab her inhaler and say, “Let’s go!”

I kept thinking that all of the memories were just making everyone sadder. At the funeral, I kept looking at my godmother and Aunt Maxine crying. I looked at their mascara running and tried to concentrate on that. Whenwe got back to the house, many relatives were there. We watched movies, ate, and tried to laugh.

A month later, Christmas came. It was a somber event. However, my Lego castle was there under the tree. My older brother helped me put it together. I kept thinking that Mama had gotten it for me as her last gesture on earth. For the years following that Christmas, Lego toys would become my favorite. I would assemble new sets and play with them for a week. Then I would disassemble them and consign their components to the jumble of pieces I kept in my Lego bag. Even my Lego bag was an homage to Mama. It was a purple-and-yellow UW Huskies bag I had gotten one summer when we visited my grandparent in Seattle.

For years, I would obsessively design and build new products. More than once, I heard adults remark that I would grow up to become an architect because I was so patient with my experiments. I didn’t really understand what architects even did; I just knew that if I kept thinking of new building strategies, eventually, my creations would stop falling apart.

Once I started high school, I no longer devoted my days to Lego sets. However, after college, I would occasionally buy a set out of a sense of nostalgia. I would assemble it at home in a few minutes and take it to work the next day to add to the various knickknacks on my desk. Although I no longer considered myself a collector, keeping Lego sets was a way of constantly keeping Mama nearby.

* * *

After I woke up from my coma, I had horrible double vision. The muscles of my right hand had atrophied so much that I had great difficulty holding on to anything. One of my first visitors was a coworker named Val. When she first came to see me, it was like seeing someone from another world. Spending time with someone from my former life took me outside the mental space of the hospital walls. Val was friendly, compassionate, and – most importantly – familiar. Our conversations were not limited to “How are you feeling?” or “Tell me about your life before this all happened?” We could talk about people we knew and things we had done together. One day, when this was all over, we would be able to go for sushi in D’Iberville again, and talk about work and soccer.

Before Val left, she gave me two small presents. Recalling that I had always kept Lego microfighters on my desk at work, she had bought me two sets: the AT-AT and the Snowspeeder. I was deeply grateful, but I knew that I was in no position to put them together in my current state. I would need assistance because of my lack of vision and manual dexterity. And even then, the person helping me might drop pieces under the bed or on the floor. I wouldn’t be able to get down and scrounge around searching for Lego pieces. So I kept the sets in boxes, eagerly anticipating the day when I could do them myself at home.

 

Once I got out of the hospital, Val and I decided to meet for coffee at Starbucks. Before we met, I asked Dad to drive me to Target so I could pick out a gift for her. Knowing that Val was a fan of Marvel Comics, and because Avengers: Age of Ultron was the last movie I had seen before waking up in a hospital bed, I bought her an Ultron vs. Ironman Lego set.

Once we were settled at a table, I gave Val the present.

“You didn’t have to get me anything.”

“I know. But it’s the least I can do, after all those times you came to see me in the hospital.”

She looked at the set and exclaimed, “Ultron! That’s so cool!”

We spent the next few minutes putting the set together. After we were done, she told me about the managerial job that had brought her from the coast to central Mississippi. She also raved about the Museum of Natural Science. I hadn’t been since it had changed locations, but now I desperately wanted to see it. Being with Val always made things feel warm and more normal. After months of feeling like a mere hospital patient, I needed to just feel like a normal guy.

All of my belongings were kept in a room adjoining the one I lived in. I kept the Lego sets there for months after I was discharged. I was still worried that I wouldn’t be able to put them together by myself. But one night after I had stopped using the wheelchair, I couldn’t sleep. I began wondering if I could actually assemble a Microfighter. For over an hour, I debated whether I should try it or if I would just frustrate myself.

Around 3:00 am, I put one a shirt and shorts. I grabbed my quad cane and hobbled over to the room next door. Once there, I marveled at thingsI hadn’t laid eyes on in half a year. I had to dig through several baskets and bins, all while trying not to fall over. Finally, I found the sets. I looked at the Snowspeeder. It was only 97 pieces. I thought, Okay, it’s not even a hundred pieces. You can try that. I put it in my affected hand and carefully carried it back to my bedroom, worried that it might slip.

After I got back to my room, I tore open the box and gingerly poured its contents onto the dinner tray by my bed. Then I unfolded the instruction booklet and placed it beside the pieces. I began to meticulously attach one piece to another. This required a massive amount of concentration, as I only had one hand to work with. I dropped pieces several times and had to stop to pick them up. There were several times I thought about quitting, but I convinced myself to persevere.

I finished the Snowspeeder just before 4:00am. It had taken so much patience and so much nerve, but it was done. A few nights later, I assembled the AT-AT. That one proved even easier. After that, I began going to the Lego online shop to buy even more sets. Every week or so, a new set would arrive in the mail, and I would quickly put it together.

As my eyesight improved and my left hand regained more movement, I started putting together bigger and bigger sets. In January, I ordered the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1 hearse. I set aside one week to give myself time to rest between periods of work. However, once I started working on it, I finished before dinnertime. That set was over 550 pieces, so I was quite proud of myself. I was ready for more!

It was time to try the full-sized Star Wars AT-AT. At over 1,100 pieces, it would be the crowning achievement of my collection. However, by the time I looked online, it had been discontinued. I was very disappointed. I had seen it at Target on the coast for $99, so the next time I visited Howard in Gulfport, I tried there. They were out of stock there too. I tried eBay and Amazon. Each site had them for $200. After two days of deliberation, I convinced myself that a 100% markup was an acceptable expenditure if it added to my journey.

When the package arrived, I was awestruck. It came with two instruction booklets and seven bags of parts. Each of these bags was marked with a number, and you were supposed to work through each bag in order, until you had finished the entire machine. On the first day, I finished the first two bags. On the second day, I finished three more. On the third day, I finished the entire AT-AT.

Now I was able to sit back and admire my handiwork. It had taken so much work and determination to get to this point. I realized how many people across the country were pulling for me from afar. But most of all, if she were standing beside me today, Mama would be proud.

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I was now going to therapy three times per week and going on road trips every other weekend. My body was still obviously compromised, but I was getting back out into the world and seriously challenging myself. Furthermore, I was traveling all over the state to meet members of my online group. They had followed my story very closely, and many had begun to reach out to me. The event and the subsequent tour unified us through various face-to-face meet ups. This was the kind of camaraderie I had wanted for us during the past year, but it apparently took me almost dying to make that vision a reality.

With every tour stop, there seemed to be more enthusiast about group get-togethers. This cohesion built to a logical outcome by the end of the year: we had a holiday party in Jackson. A group member named Lori offered up her house in a nicer area of town, and we organized a potluck for the affair on Saturday, December 19th.

I remember having to get out of the car and maneuvering up several steps, then a long walkway, followed by a few more steps leading to the porch. Once I got on the porch, there was another large step to get up to the front door. By the time I knocked on the front door, I was out of breath. Lori answered the door and giggled “You know it would’ve been easier if you had just come in the side door!”

After I got indoors, I decided not to use my cane. Walking was difficult and took a lot of my energy. Still I mingled and took many pictures. There were people I had never met and people I hadn’t seen since before my stroke. People had come from all over the state, and a few came from out of state. We were finally under one roof, and the feeling of love was almost tangible.

Because I still couldn’t lift weights yet, I wasn’t aware of how much exercise I was getting. Instead, I laughed and talked, only periodically sitting down to rest. The food and the company were great, and the energy in the house was undeniable. I was soaring emotionally, and I often had to sit down and rest. We ended the night by playing two separate games of Cards Against Humanity. That culminated with my friend Robert playing a card that said “Something white folks do.” The whole party exploded in laughter. We slowly dissipated after that, but that line has become a recurring joke in the group since.

My friend Meagan was home for the holidays. We met up at the party, then drove to Meridian, Mississippi the next day for the East Mississippi stop of the F*** College World Tour. Several people had initially said that they were coming. However, once we arrived at the restaurant where the meet up was to be held, we saw that it was closed, and only a member named Gerald was there. So we all went to an Outback Steakhouse along the interstate instead.

Gerald is a political firebrand whose flame has only grown brighter with age. He has long, silvery hair, and he never seems to stop moving. Whenever I feel that change is hopelessly slow in my home state, all I have to do is spend time with someone such as this, and my faith is restored. After dinner, he took us up on a hill overlooking the city. There he told us about the history and politics of Lauderdale County. As the sun set behind the hills in the distance, I thought of how lucky I was to be given a chance to experience scenes like this again.

The next day was December 21st. The New Orleans Saints were playing Detroit on Monday Night Football. Knowing that Meagan was a diehard Saints fan, I had bought tickets. We drove down to New Orleans in a downpour. It let up briefly right before game time, allowing us the chance to park the car and walk to the Superdome in a light drizzle. Once we got inside the stadium, the staff saw that I was walking with a cane. They sent someone to get a wheelchair for me and pushed me to handicapped seating.

The handicapped section was on the lower level. So just like when I had attended the play in Memphis, we were upgraded to better seats. The game was not a good one. The Saints played so poorly that it was effectively over after the third quarter. Nonetheless, I hadn’t been to a Saints game since before my stroke. I cannot describe how wonderful it felt to sit there eating seafood nachos in the Superdome after months of lying in a hospital bed while being fed through a feeding tube.

When the staff wheeled me out of the stadium that night, we realized that we had no idea where the car was. Rather than have me tire myself out, Meagan left me at the door and went looking for the car. After a lengthy period of time, she came back and told me that she couldn’t find it. She called a friend to make arrangements to stay at her place if we couldn’t find the car. Meagan was able to locate the car at last, and we left New Orleans slightly before midnight.

I spent Christmas on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with my friend Howard. I also got together with the Gulf Coast members of our group. Having gone to several new and distant places, I now concentrated on meeting the members in Hattiesburg and on the coast each month. Of course, I still went to happy hour in Jackson every Thursday. This did much to dispel the loneliness, because I was probably going out more socially than the average person. Therapy was going well too. I was still going about three times per week. My gains, while modest, were steady.

The only thing that was not progressing anywhere near quickly enough was shoulder pain. When I had first emerged from my coma, my entire left arm had been full of pain. Every time you touched any part of it, it hurt. Over the last few months, the pain had subsided. First, the fingertips stopped hurting. Then the pain left my entire hand. After that, I stopped experiencing pain below my elbow. Ultimately, it receded to my shoulder, where it caused a lot of mobility problems and didn’t seem to be going away.

I couldn’t raise or rotate my arm.I couldn’t not roll onto it at night, because the pain would be excruciating. Instead, I spent every night trying to fall asleep on my back or right side. Since I was accustomed to sleeping on my stomach, this meant that I did not sleep very well. So, between near constant pain during the day, and lying awake at night, I was never rested. The need for constant vigilance about the position of my arm was turning me into a nervous wreck. So I went the clinic to get a shot for the pain.

When I got the cortisone shot in my shoulder, they told me that it would take three or four days for me to feel the effects. I was excited, because I assumed that it would lead to me regaining the full use of my shoulder. However, after a week, I still felt the same level of pain. Now I grew despondent. I complained about the problem at Quest. They had me to get a referral to the physical therapy department.

On the day I went to physical therapy for my arm, they set me up with several exercises. First, they set me up on a pulley contraption. They put my left fist through a trapeze and I was instructed to use my right hand to pull down, lifting my left arm to shoulder height. It really hurt, but I knew stretching my shoulder was vital to getting it where I wanted it to be. Next, I was set up on a hand bike. The therapist strapped my left arm onto one pedal, then asked me to turn the opposite pedal with my right hand. I began pedaling. As my left arm extended forward, it really hurt, then the pain would stop as my arm retracted. This cycle repeated itself over and over. After five minutes of this twenty-five minute exercise, the pain started to go away. When it was done, I was excited.

For the final part of my session, the therapist had me lie on my back. She placed electrodes on my shoulder. She turned on the machine, and I felt the muscles in my shoulder began to jump. Now she turned up the power and told me to tell her to stop when the pain of the shock became too great. Once I told her the level was high enough, she helped me to stretch my arm behind my head. I told her when it became intolerable. So she cushioned it with a towel and let the machine send current through my shoulder.

This machine worked on my shoulder for about ten minutes, and I could feel it loosening up. When the machine cycled off, the therapist came over and held my wrist and elbow, gently guiding it back down to my side. Since my shoulder felt slightly better after this session, I made an appointment for later that week. The second session loosened my shoulder a bit more. I began going to physical therapy twice a week. In addition to helping with my arm pain, the sessions filled up even more of my idle time during the week. Thus, between therapy, happy hour, and road trips, my weeks were becoming quite full.

The F*** College World Tour came to an end in late May. We had an outing in Hattiesburg on Saturday, the 21st, at a restaurant with an outdoor dining area. We sat on the patio under large oak trees that stretched overhead, giving the feel of being in a sheltered room. We ate and had drinks. It had been a year and three days since I had passed out from a stroke. I tried to take it all in: the feel of the warm air, the taste of the fish, the sweetness of my drink, the soft chatter and laughter reverberating against the walls. I felt truly alive, and I just wanted to bask in it.

The tour officially came to an end on the 28th. We had another potluck at Lori’s house. This time, it was composed mostly of people from Jackson. It had been five months since the holiday party, so I was much more mobile and energetic. I laughed and hobbled around the room almost without care. The night came to an end in Lori’s backyard. I had to take a large step downward to get outside. At first, I was uneasy, but I did not have any trouble with my balance.

It had been a perilous journey. There had been times when it seemed that I wouldn’t make it, or, if I did survive, that I would never walk again. Many people would remark over my strength of will during my ordeal, but in truth, I could never have made it through without my group. From the day I fell into a coma, they had mobilized to support me. They had posted on Facebook, and they had shown up at get-togethers. I have never felt so loved by any community. Their affection and their constant presence whenever I needed them was how I have made facing this unimaginable catastrophe look easy.

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As I’ve said before, I had become very lonely during this period. I was isolated by necessity while I was in the hospital. Once I returned home, I was reminded of how few people I still knew in Jackson. However, several people from the Jackson a statewide Facebook group had heard about my stroke and had organized a brunch for me at a local restaurant.

On the day of the brunch, I had Dad give me a bath. It was always a perilous affair, but I wanted to be clean for my first time in public. I climbed into the tub and let the warm water rise around me. I took a long bath, because I wanted to be exceedingly clean that day. When I was done, Dad helped me out of the tub and back to the wheelchair.

He helped me put on a polo shirt, khaki pants, and loafers. I was so excited because I had spent the last three months wearing hospital gowns, t-shirts, and shorts. Now I didn’t feel like I was merely a patient; I was going out dressed better. We loaded me in the car and Dad drove me to Highland Village shopping center.

On the way there, my excitement grew exponentially. First, I had been on a feeding tube. Next, I had been on a pureed diet. After that, I had been allowed a regular hospital diet. Now, I was eating restaurant food again, and it was like returning from the dead.

It was afternoon on a Mississippi Sunday, so the restaurant was packed. My party was at a table in a dining room off to the side. When I got there, I could not believe how full the room was. In addition to them having to pull tables together, the staff still could not fit everyone at the newly formed table. I was overwhelmed at how many people had shown up. There were well over twenty people, and I had never met most of them in real life. It felt wonderful being there. I had never felt so loved.

My Facebook group had an inside joke about people who are convinced that they can be professionals without the requisite education. We call it “F*** College.” Since I had taken to this most enthusiastically, people had begun identifying me with the catchphrase. So I decided to embark on white I coined the “F*** College World Tour.” I would travel regularly to different parts of the state in order to meet with members from the various parts of the state. This would give me the opportunity to have my bi-weekly travel, and it would allow me to practice speaking. I would complete the tour in late May to coincide with the first anniversary of my stroke.

I had already dined with members of the Gulf Coast and Hattiesburg groups a month before I started the road trips; now I began going to many places I hadn’t been. The first stop was Starkville, the home of Mississippi State University. Starkville was smaller and more rustic in appearance than I had imagined. The restaurant we ate at was small, but it had a wooden ramp at the front door, so Dad was able to wheel me up directly to the hostess stand.

I had dinner with three other people in a room that felt like little more than a porch with glass windows. Speaking still took a lot of effort, but I tried, because I was so happy to be out in the world and experiencing life. There seemed to be a curious lack of air conditioning, because it felt almost no different inside than it had been outside. There were rain drizzles that were just enough to make it a steamy late August day. It was a tad uncomfortable, but I was just so happy to be alive.

I told them about the stroke – the event, how I survived, and the aftermath. My meal was delicious; I’m sure that I ordered some form of Southern fried fish. We shared many laughs, and after we were done, I asked them to go to Davis-Wade, the home stadium of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. I had to be wheeled up the walk, but after I got there, I took several photos. It was hard for me to believe that the stadium belonged here, because it seemed too large and modern to be in the middle of nowhere. Soon the light rain started again, so we said our good-byes. Dad drove back home through the rainfall, but I passed out in the passenger’s seat and didn’t wake up until we were pulling into the garage.

A month later, I had to go to north Mississippi again. This time I was going to Tupelo and Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi. When I woke up, I noticed that it was pouring rain. Dad asked me if I still wanted to venture out. While I wished the weather were better, I didn’t want to miss my road trip. These trips had become like oxygen to me, because it felt like all I did all week was go to physical therapy or rest alone in my room. In fact, I pushed myself as hard as I could in order to have the strength and energy to enjoy my weekends.

It was still raining when we got to Tupelo. We met the group members at a coffee shop. My friend Megan made me a gift of a board she had split during one of her Tae-kwon-do demos. She carved a Green Lantern insignia on it because Green Lantern was known by everyone in the group to be my favorite superhero. And because a Green Lantern’s superpower is based on imagination, willpower, and overcoming great fear, she also wrote an inspirational message:

Overcome your fears
Harness your will
Imagine the possibilities

The gift was simple and inexpensive, but it was a sterling testament to the strength and willpower each of us had needed to mine in order to overcome the challenges we had each lived through. I made sure to wrap it carefully in plastic, because there was no way I was going to let it get warped by the rain outside.

Next, it was time to go to Oxford. I was worried about having a low turnout since the rain had barely let up. By this time, I had been working so diligently in therapy that I told Dad we could leave the wheelchair in the trunk, because it would be too much trouble trying to use it in the rain. We parked right in front of the restaurant. The curb was very low, so I didn’t have any trouble walking up to the front door. When I got there, a dreadlocked gentleman exclaimed, “F*** College!” I was overjoyed, as he was the one person I had desperately wanted to meet.

Merv is a professor at Ole Miss (UM), and we had always enjoyed one another’s posts in the group. I love talking with such erudite black men whenever I’m in Mississippi because they never fail to leave me with a sense of awe and hope. The only two people with me were Merv and Dad, but they were both college professors, so it was all of the conversation I needed. I felt a little guilty because I had never lived up to my potential in the classroom. I was the only one at the table without a Ph. D., and I knew it was solely due to my own laziness. Nonetheless, Merv and Dad are as down to earth as they are brilliant, so I felt easily at home in the conversation.

We talked about the difficult challenges facing Mississippi educators, but they also talked about many of the triumphs they had witnessed in the classroom. Merv is from the Bronx and grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. Dad lived on the West Coast during the Sixties for his entire postgraduate student career. I had gone to college in Wisconsin and had lived in the Midwest most of my adult life. We compared notes about the state of affairs of black life and race relations across the nation and through the decades. The exchange of ideas was so engrossing that I was almost sad when it was time to go.

In addition to the road trips, I devised another way to get out even more regularly. Several of the members of the group and I concocted the idea of having a weekly happy hour. We decided on The Bulldog, which was within easy driving distance for most of us because we tended to live in Rankin and Madison counties or near State Street in Jackson. I had known that the largest concentration of our Facebook group lived in central Mississippi, but I had never had the opportunity to fellowship with them. Having to live in Jackson again gave me the chance to get to know them quite well.

Every Thursday I grew nervous around 5:00, because I was obsessed with the fear that I might be late. The first Thursday we went, I tried to take a nap from 2:00 to 4:00, the time Dad normally takes his daily nap. However, I was too excited to sleep. By 3:30, I still had not slept a wink, so to save Dad the trouble, I tried to get dressed by myself. I thought it would be difficult to put on casual clothes by myself, but it wasn’t. I was able to put on everything without help but may belt and left shoe. After Dad woke up, he helped me put on these final two items.

When we went to The Bulldog, we parked in the handicapped space. Dad got the wheelchair out of the trunk and pushed me along the large stones of the sidewalk. Once inside, several members met us. We got a table near the game room. At first, I experienced the kind of nervousness one does on the first day of school. Everyone was friendly and funny, so the mood quickly dissipated. The evening and those following it feltso natural that I eventually started to see the Jackson chapter of the group as my home chapter. I left The Bulldog that evening knowing that I had found the weekly social outlet that I would need in order to practice my speech and eye contact the way my speech therapist had advised me.

The next stop along the FCWT was in Hattiesburg. My friend Christine rented out a pavilion at a local park for us to have a statewide meet-up. It was early November, and the weather was still warm. I caught a ride down with my friend Michael. We referred to each other affectionately as “Other Black Michael,” because we had never met each other in person until the Sunday brunch.

Michael had been in the group longer than I had, so when we got to Hattiesburg, he introduced me to several people. Once I got to a picnic table, I sat down to rest. There were several people I had not seen in months, and others I was meeting for the first time. One person I was meeting for the first time was my Facebook friend, Brittany. I had promised to buy her a t-shirt when I went to Tiger Stadium, and it happened to be identical to the one she was wearing that day, only with the colors reversed.

I had a wonderful time. I talked with many people and took several pictures. The food was heavenly – which sounds like a redundancy when you mention that you’re at a cookout in the South. I enjoyed myself so thoroughly that I was barely conscious of the fact that it wasn’t easy to talk. I lost myself in the joy of the afternoon. When Michael and I left several hours later, we spent the entire trip back talking about life and what a great time the day had been.

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I was finally getting into a regular rhythm now. I was going to outpatient therapy three times per week and traveling every fortnight. It felt like I’d been through a fierce grind whenever I finished a therapy session or road trip, but on the days between activities, I felt bored and eager. Since then, I have learned of the importance of resting after periods of intense exercise, but at the time, it didn’t seem like I was doing enough. So I was delighted when they informed me that it was time to graduate from outpatient therapy in mid-November.

I was hoping for a small ceremony that might cause all of the activity at the outpatient center to grind to a halt. I didn’t have any pretenses about how important I was. It was just that I was at a time when I felt powerless. My world seemed so small that – like a small child – I wanted every milestone to be celebrated with me, no matter how miniscule. However, there was no ceremony. A few of the staff members merely posed for a group photo with me. They had to work with other people who were trying to get their own lives back on track, so it was kind of them to help me document one moment on my journey.

The following week, we went to Quest Rehabilitation Center. The other two facilities were where they treated me for the acute effects of the stroke; at Quest, they would help me to work on the skills it would take for me to return to work. As I realized that AT&T was only required to hold my job for me for another six months, I became almost singularly focused upon the task of returning to work. If I needed to be cleared to return to work by May, I would be ready by February.

The thing that stands out the most about my first day is how arduous speech therapy was. A lot of the speech therapy in the hospital and in outpatient had involved cognitive tasks. Here, it was all breathing and speaking practice. And while this was specifically what I had wanted, it was draining. They trained me to breath from my diaphragm, to take in large gulps of air and to slowly exhale as I tried to speak in phrases with natural pauses. I practiced consonant drills and tongue twisters. At the end of each speech therapy session, my vocal chords would be hurting, and I would leave Quest speaking to people as little as possible.

Just before the first weekend in December, I suffered my first setback since waking up from my coma. I was walking toward the front door at the end of my session when I fell, bringing the physical therapist down with me. Several people rushed in order to help me to my feet. They wanted to have me kneel on one leg, then push myself up with my arm. This was very difficult, and I ended up flailing around as I had done at the hospital, when they had tried to teach me the proper technique to get up off the floor.

Finally, I cried, “Can I just have you each hold one of my arms and help me up?”

The psychologist answered, “That’s not the correct way to do it.”

“That’s how I do it at home!”

“You shouldn’t do it that way; you could injure their back.”

I was still trying to lift myself, and I kept falling. My frustration was mounting. Finally, I spat out, “Well I don’t have four people at home barking instructions, and pushing and pulling on me!” I tumbled onto my side, desperate for anyone to help me and not knowing when I would get up off the floor.

Realizing that I had to stop and compose myself, I quit moving and caught my breath. I asked someone to hold my left shoulder, since I couldn’t use my left arm to push myself off the floor. Next, someone else planted and braced my left foot. Yet another person grabbed a chair for me to balance my right elbow on. One of them counted to three, and I pushed upward with every muscle that could still function. My body rose just high enough for them to help me pivot onto the chair.

I was relieved and completely out of breath. The physical therapist got me a drink of water and told me to take deep breaths. The other workers went back to what they were doing, and the physical therapist asked me what happened to make me lose balance. I didn’t have a clue. With such a lack of control and awareness, everything had happened too quickly for me to even gather my thoughts. I just knew that I had fallen.

The next day, I had a morning physical therapy sessions. The person working with me was a substitute with whom I had never worked. She had me attempt a step exercise that I was not familiar with. My right foot got trapped, and I didn’t have enough movement in my left foot to correct. I tumbled onto the floor again. Embarrassed, but not thinking much of the incident, I left for my weekend in Memphis.

When I came back the followed week, they brought out a safety chair they wanted me to sit in, so they could wheel me to the back. Assuming that they would refuse to treat me otherwise, I consented. They had me perform standing and walking exercises that day before using the chair to bring me back to the front. I assumed it was a temporary thing.

However, over the next few weeks, it became obvious that they had no plans to stop using the chair. Every step I had achieved to this point had been exhausting, very hard won. So it felt insulting to be asked to move backward. If the staff at Quest were empathetic to my feelings of being a humiliated patient in their charge, they in no way made that empathy known. They seemed to be preoccupied with liability as opposed to humanity.

I felt powerless, so I began complaining and displaying a bad attitude. When this had no effect, I began swearing loudly and regularly, because I assumed that it would offend their Bible Belt sensibilities. Eventually they wanted to have a talk with me about my treatment plan. I asked shortly into the session how long it would be before we could stop using the chair.

The psychologist said something like, “We have to make sure that you’re safe.”

I was profoundly annoyed, because I felt like he was insulting my intelligence. It wasn’t like I didn’t already understand the liability issue.

At the end of the meeting, an elderly woman said, “We’re gonna have to ask you to watch your language.”

I fired back, “The chair makes me uncomfortable, so I guess we’re all just going to have to deal with things that make us uncomfortable.”

They ended the meeting. Their body language didn’t suggest that anything had been resolved. We were at a stalemate. I needed their services. They needed my insurance to keep paying. It was little more than a transactional relationship. I don’t think there was animosity, but neither party was happy.

Outside of therapy, I was continuing to get back to a normal life. I had overheard my brother, Ivory, tell his girlfriend that this was the first time he’d seen me every month since we had lived together, plus I had not seen his new home in St. Louis. We decided that I would come for a week in January. This would be another cause for nervous optimism: I had been on several road trips, but this would be my second time away from home. It would mean coping with negotiating a completely different living space.

The thing I remember most about the trip north was first seeing the open faces of the hills of southern Missouri. I always feel close to the Mississippi River when I see bluffs. It was dark when we arrived at Ivory’s house. I had to walk up an inclined driveway, then step up into the house. That seemed a little intimidating, but I was able to step my right foot over the threshold and lift myself inside

My room was at the end of the hall. Even though I had to walk over carpets, I didn’t have trouble walking. The bed was low to the ground, which would make it easier to dress at bedside because my feet would be squarely on the floor. I had to place my urinal atop a chest of drawers, so standing and urinating would be something I would have to do very carefully. Finally, the wall plug was too far away for me to lie in bed with my phone. Ivory brought an extension cord in for me to use. Now I was able to go to sleep knowing that the room was set up to accommodate every need I might have.

I didn’t go anywhere Sunday or Monday. Instead, I concentrated on walking 6,000 steps each day. I would get up around 9:00, go to the kitchen and eat breakfast at the island. During the course of the meal, I would try to walk back and forth between bites, until I had my first thousand. After breakfast, Ivory would switch on ESPN and use his company laptop to work from home. I would walk intermittently, getting my next 2,000 steps in by lunch. After lunch, I would walk another 2,000 steps, getting rid of some calories in the bargain. Then I could casually walk the last 1,000 steps during the NFL night game.

On Tuesday afternoon, we went on our first sightseeing tour. Ivory drove me down to University City and showed me where the colleges were. Then he took me to Ackert Walkway so I could get a picture of the Chuck Berry statue. Ivory had to park the minivan, so I walked up to the statue by myself. It felt a little unnerving to walk the twenty feet or so alone, but I was proud when I got there. I steadied myself by holding onto his guitar. When Ivory got there, he snapped several pictures.

The next day, we went downtown. First, we parked and walked down to a park so I could get a picture of the Gateway Arch. I was surprised at how easy it was to walk. After we left the Arch, he dropped me off across the street from Busch Stadium. This was the first time I would have to cross a street. I was still very slow, so it took me two cycles of the traffic light to get across. However, there was virtually no traffic, and I made it without incident.

When I got to the stadium, I was awestruck by the statues of legendary Saint Louis Cardinals. I paused to take several pictures, then went inside to the gift shop. The entire experience felt surreal because this was a storied stadium for a storied franchise. Moreover, just half a year ago, I had been lying in bed dreaming about the day when I would walk again. I finished most of my 6,000 steps before I ever got back in the minivan.

The week in Saint Louis offered many moments that were challenging and intimidating. But most of all, it was inspiring. I did a lot of walking indoors and outdoors; I fell off the couch twice and was able to lift myself back onto it; I had to figure out the layout of the house and plan how to move safely around it. When I returned to Jackson, it was with the knowledge that it would be possible to live away from home.

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Once I stopped using the wheelchair, I began to feel supremely empowered. I started walking indoors every day, counting thousands of steps each day. At first, I began by calculating how many steps make up a mile – 2000 – then walking that every single day. I achieved this step count consistently for one week, so I increased my step count to two miles.

Finally, I looked up online how many steps the average person walks in a day. It was 6000. This seemed like a daunting challenge. However, after I had built up a lot of endurance, I realized that I was pausing more time than was necessary between sets of steps. I decided to only rest a maximum of fifteen minutes between intervals of three hundred steps. On the first day I tried, I achieved my goal by 10:00 pm. I couldn’t believe how easy it actually was.

Outpatient therapy was so easy that it was almost becoming an afterthought. A couple of weeks after I stopped using the wheelchair, I was told that it was time to graduate from the program. On my last day of therapy, we went through exercises. The only problems I was still having were that my left arm was not working and my shoulder hurt. However, since my leg had slowly started working again, I assumed that it was only a matter of time before I would start using my arm again too. We took pictures, then I left Methodist Outpatient Rehabilitation.

We drove down Lakeland Drive to Quest Rehabilitation Center. It was also part of the Methodist network. Inpatient and outpatient were structured around getting the patient through the trauma of injury; this new stage was about getting the patient back to work and life in the community. The first thing I learned at Quest was that they expected you to know your own schedule. This was to help jumpstart independence. I also began seeing many more people for each type of therapy. As a result, I couldn’t even remember all of their names.

Outside of therapy, I was still traveling every other weekend. In early December, I connected with a classmate from fourth through twelfth grades. Monica had grown up a couple of miles near my houseand was now a veterinarian practicing in suburban Memphis. I chatted with her on Facebook, and we decided that I that I should visit her the following weekend.

On Friday, December 12th, Dad drove me to a meet Monica. We went to a Greek restaurant for dinner. Over gyros, we talked about dozens of things from childhood. She told me how she had always been intimidated by my father. I told her that she was one of the best students I had known. She recalled how I had teased her so often. I replied that I honestly had no idea that it had caused her so much anxiety. We talked about how we both had felt like we were living in the shadows of older brothers as children, and what they were doing now. We could have talked all might, but eventually our waitress informed us that they were closing.

When we arrived at her house, I discovered that Monica had several cats. I am highly allergic to cats. Hoping that they wouldn’t affect me, I sat down on the couch. Naturally, the cats slowly started crowding around to explore. We shooed them away, but there was so much dander in the air that I started wheezing. I took out my rescue inhaler and took two puffs That only helped for about five minutes, then the tightness in my chest returned. So she took me to the guest room where I would be sleeping.

The first thing I noticed was a large wall map of the United States. There were keychains on almost every state.

“Have you been to all of these places?”

“No. But whenever somebody a state, I ask them to bring me a keychain.”

“Too bad you already have Wisconsin and Minnesota. I could’ve gotten you those.”

“You still can. See? I have multiple ones for a few states.”

Monica finished setting up my things and left. I lay down on the bed on tried to relax. The wheezing returned, so I took two more puffs of my inhaler. That worked temporarily, but before I fell asleep, I needed it again. I was growing fearful of having an asthma attack. Eventually, I did fall asleep, but I had a very fitful night. I woke up the next morning around 6:00. Since I didn’t want to be a burden, I decided to wait for Monica to wake so she could take me to an urgent care, so I could be ready to go out for the day.

At urgent care, they gave me a breathing treatment. As I breathed in the medicine, I felt my lungs begin to open up. My breath grew stronger, my energy returned and my anxiety fell away. After ten minutes, I felt completely rejuvenated. We checked out at the front desk and left to go to the Memphis Zoo.

The day was overcast and just a little chilly. So I put on shorts and a light jacket, because I knew that I would be warm after a few minutes of walking. Monica dropped me off at the entrance and parked the car. I was just a little nervous about falling over, because I had never been left standing alone for this long. However, if I was here to challenge myself, this was the time to start.

I was quite impressed by the zoo. It had an ancient Egypt motif because of the city’s namesake. It was also clean and well laid out. The thing I liked the most was that it was sprawling to me. It might not have been larger than the average zoo, but this was the first time I really had the opportunity to walk around a large area. I really challenged myself that day, walking from exhibit to exhibit. I would pause to rest every thousand steps or so, resting and admiring giraffes, elephants, or exotic animals, but mostly I was thrilled from all of the walking.

One thing I didn’t know about the Memphis Zoo was that they had pandas. According to Monica, they had to jump through several hoops before the Chinese government would let them have them. This included building a section of the zoo that was devoted entirely to animals from China. There were guardian lions, a giant pagoda, other pieces of imitation Chinese architecture, and a separate gift shop devoted to paying for it. The pandas themselves were doing nothing more remarkable than chewing on stalks of bamboo. They had no idea that the city had gone to such extraordinary lengths to acquire them. They were simply another pair of animals being held in captivity.

I stopped and bought a couple of things at the panda gift shop because I definitely wanted to support the enterprise. Then we made our way to the entrance., where I stopped and bought a few souvenirs at the main gift shop because I wanted to amass a collection from all of my travels from the first year after almost dying. I imagined building a display case one day that would serve as an inspirational testament to never giving up on oneself.

Monica had season tickets to Memphis Theatre. She was planning on going to see Newsies that night, so we had to hurry across town and change, and speed back downtown. The play was at the Orpheum, an historical theatre. Our seats were on the upper level. However, since I was special needs, they took us to handicapped seating. Since this was lower level, the seats were even better.

My eyes had been bothering me for a while. Each eye could see farther than average, but since the stroke, I could not get them to work in tandem. So I had a problem with double vision. It had gotten much better, but it had not gone away completely. Thus, I worried about being able to adequately enjoy the show.

However, as the curtain came down, I was pleasantly surprised. I had no difficulty moving my eyes from one side of the stage to another. I could track each performer, and I was even able to follow the movements of the people changing the stage between scenes. The music excited me as well, causing my heart to beat faster. I felt rapturous throughout the play.

When it was over, we went out to eat with a friend of hers. We laughed and exchanged stories about our lives. I am always self-conscious about my voice, but I have to force myself to use it, because the only way to get it back to normal is to work the muscles required for speech. By the time we had finished dinner, I was exhausted. I had walked more miles in one day than I had in months, and the amount my lungs had worked speaking only exacerbated the feeling of having put in a long day’s work. So after we got home, I had no problem falling asleep and staying asleep.

The next day we were going to the National Civil Rights Museum. But first, Monica drove me out to a place where she likes to go walking called Shelby Farms. Shelby Farms is a large park that is acres of trees, hills, creeks, lakes, and trails. We decided to take one of the paved walking trails and go for an hour walk.

After I got out of the car, I noticed that the air was more chilly and windy than it had been the previous day. I worried a little about losing my balance and falling over. I was also concerned that there was nowhere to sit. If I grew tired, I had no place to stop and rest. Nonetheless, I decided to try.

I was very slow, and I knew that I couldn’t cover much ground. So I told Monica to go on ahead of me and I would do my best. As soon as she disappeared around the first bend, I started to feel very vulnerable. I was out in an open area without police traffic or witnesses. What if I managed to fall off the path into a ditch? How would I get back on my feet and up the incline? Rather than work myself into a panic, I just concentrated on carefully placing each foot slightly forward in front of the other.

Monica soon returned, and I had her snap a few photos, because I had never walked anywhere that wasn’t in an urban environment. It didn’t feel like I was doing that much, but less than half a year before, I had been fearful of never walking again. This was slow and arduous, but it was also triumphant. I couldn’t wait to upload them the photos and show people my progress.

Before long, Monica came back and told me that it was time to turn around and head back to the car. I was secretly relieved. I didn’t want to admit it, but it had been an exhausting week. Although I had thoroughly enjoyed myself, I was tired of walking.

We arrived at the National Civil Rights Museum just after noon. Because my legs were exhausted, I decided to go through in a wheelchair. The museum is in the Lorraine Motel – the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It simply must be experienced to be fully appreciated. It has many rooms of exhibits that are lovingly detailed, mockups of building structures, and full-sized vehicles. The entire museum does what any good museum does – removes one from the realm of everyday life. Rather than attempt to do it justice in writing, I’ll leave you with these images:

After you walk through the hallowed space for a few hours, the main museum tour ends in the room where King was living when he was shot. A replica of his final meal is preserved along with a copy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal that will forever read April, 4th, 1968. On the balcony outside, there hangs a wreath to mark the path of the bullet that felled King.

A trip to the National Civil Rights museum, for me, is always a somber event. I find it stunning, melancholic, yet a place filled with hope. This was a perfect way to end my weekend in Memphis. I was tired from all of the effort, but I had more than enough determination for the road ahead.

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One of the hardest challenges one faces when recovering from a massive stroke is the conundrum of inactivity. On the one hand, you know that not exercising on the days when you don’t have physical therapy works against the speed of recovery. On the other, you constantly feel tired all the time anyway. So while you don’t want to slow the rehabilitation process by not using your muscles enough, it can be difficult to discern how much you need to rest because your body feels legitimately worn out.

I was all too fearful of falling into that category of people who never quite pushed themselves hard enough and ended up severely disabled for life. So after the trip to Baton Rouge, I decided that the best thing to keep my body actively recovering was to go on a road trip every other weekend. This would be a way to get a moderate amount of exercise during long breaks between sessions, but I could always take time to recuperate if I really needed rest.

The first thing I wanted to do was return to the coast. There were many people whose last image of me was seeing my unresponsive body lying in a hospital bed. I wanted to show as many people as possible that I was alive and fighting for a normal life. So I told friends and coworkers that I would be coming down to Gulfport.

At the end of the month, I climbed in my car and went down to the coast. First I was going to stop by the barbershop to get a haircut. Then we started the drive down Highway 49. I still was building up control of my urinary system, so I had to stop to urinate twice on a trip that was just under three hours. When we finally arrived at Applebee’s in Gulfport, it almost felt magical. I had so lost control of independent travel that I had been constantly worried that something would cause a problem on the way down: I would miss my hair appointment, I would wet my pants, or we would experience car trouble. With the loss of bodily autonomy, I had developed an external locus of control. This would cause mild anxiety each time I traveled.

When I was wheeled into the restaurant, most of my friends were already there. We exchanged hugs and many kind words, then got a table. I still had very diminished lung capacity, so speaking was a challenge. My voice was monotone, because I was still forcing out my words. I would also lose my breath after a few words, so I kept having to pause during phrases. This created an extreme choppiness in my speech, and I was very self-conscious about it. Nonetheless, I laughed and joked, and a wonderful time. This was my first normal social experience in months.

When we were nearing the end of dinner, I divided everyone into two groups. First, I took a picture of myself standing with my coworkers. Next, I took one with my friends from Facebook. After the past several months, it felt a bit surreal to be sitting there. But it made all of the painful rehabilitation work seem worth it, and it strengthened my resolve to keep battling. When we paid the bill and left, I was exhausted but beaming with joy.

My next road trip was to New Orleans. I wanted to go to the zoo and to see my cousin, Rosalind. To lessen the stress of trying to adhere to a schedule, I go my haircut on Friday. It also would not matter much when we left, since there was no set time when we had to be there. Still, because of the external locus of control, the journey felt just as otherworldly as the one before it. I wanted to take pictures of everything that day, because I wanted to convey the feeling of enchantment: the trees stretching out over the bayous, the isolation of the houses on stilts, the miles and miles of the causeway above the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. These things had all made my head swoon when I was a child, and the desire to write about them always rose anew whenever I returned to New Orleans.

I could only remember visiting Audubon Zoo one time, so I wondered how much of my memories of the place were real. It obviously dwarfed the Jackson Zoo. There were palm trees and live oaks everywhere, giving it a steamy, exotic feel, like mixing a Tennessee Williams play or a novel about the tropics. The habitats didn’t seem cramped, like the ones in Jackson. The animals genuinely seemed healthier. After we had ventured through all of the other continental zones, we entered the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. This has my favorite part of the entire zoo, because pedestrians had to walk on a wooden walkway above the green waters of the manmade swamp. I snapped several pictures, but the best was a log sticking out of the water. It was speckled with turtles that were sunning themselves beneath branches that were heavy with perched aquatic birds.

I didn’t do any walking, but the miles I logged tired me out all the same. I stopped by the gift shop and made a few purchases, then we piled back into the car to meet cousin Rosalind for dinner.

The place where we had dinner was one of those quintessential New Orleans eateries. The sidewalk was cracked and warped from large oak roots that had pushed their way to the surface. The restaurant felt like it had been a massive, wooden house that had been converted to a restaurant. Rosalind and her husband arrived shortly after we did. I ordered the most creole dish I could find on the menu, then we caught up on the twenty years it had been since we had seen each other.

Rosalind, always a voracious reader, told me that she belonged to a writing circle. I volunteered that I had always wanted to be a writer, but that I was exceedingly lazy when it came to the actual work of writing. Writing is a job. Most of it is lonesome and thankless. You have to want to do it, and travail for years. I told her that the stroke had finally given me time, income, and something to write about. I wasn’t ready to start setting my story down yet, but I knew that she would be a good sounding board. We said our goodbyes, and we drove back to Jackson. I spent half the trip uploading pictures to Facebook and adding narration.

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