After my visit to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, I didn’t spend much money or go anywhere on a strict timetable for the rest of my vacation. Most of my time was spent rehabilitating my body in various ways. For instance, I met with several people in person so that I could get more practice speaking. I also ratcheted up my physical fitness regimen.

I had really wanted to be farther along on the road to recovery. It wasn’t that I expected my body to be 100% healed, but I had hoped to have access to more of my muscle groups. These muscles would be extremely weakened, but all it would take was willpower and sustained drive to strengthen them again. One thing I knew I could do was to go to the gym again and again. I had often put in two-hour workouts before and after the stroke, and it wasn’t as though I had a work schedule to interfere with my recovery plan. The prospect of returning to Minnesota without better body control or a stable housing situation was cause for concern.

Throughout my vacation, I had been calling my Hennepin County housing representative. Although she had been tasked with finding me a place to live, the only thing that she could consistently report was that it would probably take up to six months. I ultimately told her that this was a crisis situation; I would be returning in two days without a place to stay. At this point, she said that she would call homeless shelters exclusively, if that was what I wanted. I told her that, although this wasn’t ideal, my other alternative was living beneath a bridge during the heart of a Minnesota winter.

It had been my intention to get a month ahead of schedule with my blog while I was in Mississippi so that if I needed to store my laptop for safekeeping, I would already have four weeks’ worth of posts ready to publish on my smartphone. As I got increasingly ahead of deadline, writing was becoming easy. Where I had struggled to think of what to write in September, now I could look at a series of photos and spin a narrative from memory. The anxiety I had known before had evaporated, because having visual cues effectively made writer’s block a thing of the past.

I decided that my last blog post for the month of January would be the story of how I had started collecting Lego sets the month after my mother died and how I had gone back to them in order to assist with occupational therapy. At that time my left hand was virtually useless; the muscles of my right hand had atrophied; I had double vision. Holding and assembling the toys helped me to focus the movements of my hands and eyes. Legos were a link to my mother. So was the ambition to be an author. I knew there was a way I could combine the two ideas into one narrative.

Since it was my last week in Mississippi, I asked Dad to let me see the family photo albums so I could copy some for the blog post. Mama died in 1983, so any photos of her would be from more than thirty years ago. The images were faded, but they were very inspiring. I could tell when I looked at them that they would not be difficult at all to write about. Making copies of copies of life took a very still hand, because the images would blur with the slightest movement. I had to photograph each photo several times, but after an hour, I had collected more than enough images for the blog post.

Thursday afternoon came, and I boarded the Greyhound bus for the evening trip to Dallas-Fort Worth airport, so I could fly back to Minneapolis. I was still trying to figure out where I would be able to live in Minneapolis. Realistically, I couldn’t afford to pay between $700 and $900 a month for rent, but it was the going rate for a low-cost studio apartment. I had stopped looking in the Star-Tribune and begun looking exclusively for short-term rentals on Craigslist. The ads I was looking at were for shared living spaces. This situation was far from ideal, but it gave me options for under $700. If I could afford to do this for three to six months, it would give me time to figure out a more permanent situation. This was not the most secure plan, but it was a plan.

I had tried contacting several ads, and a few had responded. I had tentative plans to meet two of the people, but I still needed an immediate place to stay. As I had just received my disability payment, I had enough cash to afford two weeks in a motel. That would get me halfway through January, and perhaps I could borrow money from Dad to get me through the month. I wasn’t ready to commit to two weeks at over $350/ week, but at least I would have a place to stay immediately after I got off the plane.

My real conundrum was that I wanted to live by myself, but I didn’t know how realistic that was. I could dress myself, but I couldn’t tie my own shoes or zip a winter coat. I couldn’t walk Mary with my left arm, and I still walked with a cane. Even if I could swing it financially, there was no guarantee that I was able enough to live without roommates. I wanted a scenario that would be best for Mary.

I checked my suitcase and climbed aboard the bus. I sat down and stared out the window. The bus started and wound its way through the city. Soon we were speeding up the on-ramp and onto the interstate. Full of uncertainty and resignation, I rested my head against the window and let out a sigh. My skull bounced in imperceptibly small vibrations against the air-conditioned glass. How was my life going to resolve itself?

By 10:00 am, we were pulling into Shreveport. This was a mandatory stop, so I had to get off. This presented me with my first dilemma: what to do with my backpack? I could move around the station much faster if I didn’t have to carry it. However, it had my laptop in it. Could I really just trust that nothing would happen to it? In the end, I realized that it was too great a risk to hope that the backpack would not be stolen. I took it with me.

I went in to get a couple of soft drinks, then I got right into a re-boarding line. There were only three other people in the line. Presumably, we all wanted to reclaim our seats. I had hoped that we would only be out on the bus platform for ten or fifteen minutes. However, we ended up waiting for about half an hour. My lower back and my thighs began getting stiff, so I placed my backpack on the ground and began stretching and shifting my feet a lot. When it seemed like I could stand no more, the driver finally appeared and began letting people back onto the bus.

For the next few hours, I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. The bus jarred to a halt constantly as we stopped at every small town in east Texas. Ultimately, it did not really matter. I would have several hours in the airport and on the plane to sleep, as my plane would not be taking off from Dallas until after 7:00 am. The bus came to a stop at the Dallas terminal around 1:00 am. I got off and claimed my suitcase. With no one there to help me, I found a way to drag it into the door. I was aghast that there was no one assigned to assist disabled customers. I couldn’t have been the first person there who needed assistance. After almost falling a couple of times, I was able to sit safely with my bags.

Once I was safely inside the station, I decided to call for a Lyft to the airport. My cellphone battery was getting low, so I decided to stay off the phone until I checked my bag. Transportation arrived, and I had the driver to stop at the McDonald’s across the street before taking me to my destination. I reasoned that after I arrived at the airport, I could check my luggage, charge the phone, and eat at my leisure.

When the driver dropped me off at the airport, it was largely abandoned. I was crestfallen. It was a good thing that I had only brought one large piece of luggage, because there was no one to help me with it. Instead, I had to push it and drag it over to a row of seats. When I sat down, I began searching for a plug so I could charge my phone. There was none anywhere around me, so I tried searching the entire section. When that was unsuccessful, I gave up looking altogether.

A few minutes later, I started having an urge to go to the restroom. It had taken so much effort to get the suitcase to my seat that I knew I couldn’t get it to the men’s room and back. Despite my serious security concerns, I asked a traveling student to watch my bag for me. I had no doubt that there were cameras everywhere, and that security was not far away, but it was still difficult to yield so much control. I slowly hobbled off to the restroom with visions of someone scurrying off with my bag.

I quickly used the urinal and washed my hands. When I came out of the men’s room, I looked over and saw the student and my bag still seated exactly where they had been. While this was the logical outcome of the situation, having a body that was still recovering from a stroke often made me feel weak and incompetent. It was perhaps eighty feet back to my seat. I walked those eighty feet as quickly as I could without tripping over.

Once I was seated again, I checked the battery life on my cellphone. It was at 20%. I knew that I had to get more of a charge. I frantically searched for an outlet again. Finally, I saw that there was one almost 100 feet away. As badly as I needed a charge, this was just too far away. Then I remembered that there was one near the restroom. I could charge my cellphone while simultaneously watching my bag. As a precaution, I asked the same student to watch my bag.

My phone finished charging about an hour before the terminal opened for business. Less than half an hour before the ticketing agents arrived, flyers started lining up. I wasn’t able to stand and pull a bag behind me, so another traveler told me that she would get a representative to help me with the bag. With his assistance, I was soon checked in and ready for early boarding.

My flight was set to take off before 8:00 am. I was wheeled down the jetway to the plane, after which I was able to walk to my seat. Once there, I strapped myself in and looked out the window. The sky outside was still pitch black. It had been a long night filled with countless uncertainties, but by the time we climbed into the heavens, the light would return.

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The fact that I was in Mississippi for the month of December meant that I would be in town for the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Although I had no plans to attend the grand opening, I definitely planned to see it before I left. Getting a ticket and fighting the crowd was too great a prospect to fathom. However, when Governor Phil Bryant invited Donald Trump to the ceremony, several of the luminaries backed out, expressing that it was an affront to the spirit of the museum to have such a person honored alongside civil rights heroes. So people like Congressman John L. Lewis would not be there anyway

Instead, there would be a protest luncheon held at a local restaurant on the same day. I decided that I would attend it. It would give me an opportunity to move around and talk. While my time in the gym and in rehab are very important, I try to take any opportunity I can to spend an afternoon out. Doing something that requires several hours of speech and ambulation is the type of real-world function to which one needs to subject one’s body.

On the day of the event, my friend Sue from the atheist group picked me up to take me to the restaurant. She had a truck that – although it would have presented a challenge before – presented no problem for me to climb aboard. Sue qualifies for some disability services too. On the way to lunch, I described how moving back to Minnesota had made my life easier. There were so many things in Minnesota that made it possible to be a healthy and engaged member of my community. From affordable health care to subsidized transportation and a complimentary gym membership, I was at work, physical therapy, the gym, or the coffee shop virtually every day of the week. The fact that I was always moving my body contributed greatly to my recovery.

Sue said that she had been watching videos of my workouts online, and that she was impressed. She is from Whitby Island, Washington, and she admitted that she had been considering moving back to the Evergreen State, because living there would offer her better benefits for her own physical ailments as well We got to the restaurant and the parking lot was full. She asked if I would like for her to drop me off at the front door. Feeling guilty, I told her that it wouldn’t be necessary; I wasn’t going to make her walk alone.

We had to park just beyond the edge of the pavement and walk up a tiny incline. From there, it was a trek across the parking lot, then I had to pull myself up the steps. Once we got inside, they told us that our group was upstairs. Rather than have us take the stairs, they showed us to an elevator. After we got to the dining room, we found a table by a window to the far side. When we finally got to our seats, my heart was racing, but I felt good about the amount of walking I had already done.

I really didn’t know what to expect inside. Was it going to be a formal program with a featured speaker? They asked us if we wanted to have the buffet or order off the menu. I felt it would be easiest to get situated and just have things brought to me. It turns out there was no program. Instead, it was just progressive Mississippians trying to figure out how to make our state a better, more loving place.

There were several people there who I had come to know since my stroke. One of them is my friend DeeDee. I had known her for years online, but hadn’t met her in person until two months before my stroke. We have since met several times in person. Recently, she became a professor at Mississippi State University. Watching people like DeeDee reminds me that I can always continue achieving my intellectual goals, even with everything I am dealing with. I spend a lot of time in physical rehab, but I have a great deal of time to dedicate to other pursuits, one I start matching my interests with my aptitudes.

As the crowd died down, the few of us remaining retired to a side room to talk. By now, my voice was thoroughly exhausted. Instead of talking, I mostly listened. There was a mixture of talk of local politics and gossip, peppered with many personal stories about how life and policy intersect in Jackson. DeeDee also told us about some of the museum exhibits. It really made me want to go. In addition to my desire to see an emotionally moving commemoration to the struggle for civil rights, I have always felt that being a Mississippian connects one intimately to figures and events one reads about in textbooks.

I finally got my chance to see the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum one Saturday in late December. The sky was overcast – a chalky mixture of greys and whites spilling out like paint smeared onto an inverted canvas. The high temperature was supposed to be in the mid fifties. However, when we got to the museum, it was only about 10:00, and the temperature was only in the high forties.

Dad parked in the underground garage. The walk from the car to the elevator and from the elevator to the front door presented no real complication. So I thought about walking through the museum on my own. I imagined being able to finally walk through a building that big without a wheelchair. I would be so proud of myself. But that fantasy only lasted a few seconds before I thought better of it and asked security for a wheelchair.

Jackson is much smaller than Memphis or Birmingham, and Mississippi has a poorer economy than Tennessee or Alabama. Ergo, I hadn’t gotten my hopes up too high for the museum. Sure I had heard good reviews of it, but I had been careful to temper my enthusiasm by reminding myself, “Yeah but she probably has that strong of an emotional response because she lives in Mississippi.” I was guarding against setting myself up for disappointment. Given my precarious economic situation, I needed every event during this visit to feel like something positive.

Starting with the museum entrance, everything blew me away. As you walk through the hall, the space feels very austere. If I remember correctly it’s monochromatic and filled with clean, block letters. As you advance toward the first gallery, your eyes are assailed by a mesmerizing dance of color and images. Your heart beats faster as you are drawn to what is inside and waiting to be discovered.

As soon as you are inside, you are confronted by a larger-than-life mural of the struggle for freedom in Mississippi. There are various quotes from different decades that help to give the viewer a unified picture of what a mosaic of voices declared that they were fighting for. You find yourself dwarfed by the wall but also empowered by the strength of the mission at hand. It is hard not to feel the weight of history.

To the right of this exhibit, you see the first of several timelines. This one charts black life in the 1800s – from slavery to the Civil War. This isn’t a line with dots representing various dates. It is another wall crowded with pictures. Next to each depiction is a year and a description. When I say that the space is crowded, I do not mean that anything in the museum is jumbled or disorganized. Every image is placed with purpose and care. The sheer volume is such that you would have to make multiple trips back in order to digest every single offering. In fact, I had to be selective with the number of photos I took, because I could only include so much.

One of my favorite features are the banners of lynchings. These are a chronology of all of the recorded extrajudicial executions of black people in the state. You have to see this year-by-year parade of inhumanity in person, because I could not back up far enough to get all the banners in one shot. Having to look at the dizzying lines of text transforms the abstract horror to flesh and bone. Like death camp ledgers, seeing these horrific events as lines of text is haunting.

There is also a central room dedicated to the martyrs of the movement. All of their portraits are overhead. They seem to drift still upward, through the roof of the building. It is as though no structure in Mississippi can contain their lofty ambitions for the state. This is another space whose impact is so overwhelming that it needs to be experienced.

There is also an exhibit on the murder of Emmett Till – the youth brutally tortured and lynched for whistling at a white woman. There is the preserved rifle that killed NAACP field representative Medgar Evers. Of course, there are the usual relics of white supremacy, like Citizens’ Council signs and Klan robes. Looking at all of these images, one can feel the inexhaustible effort that was put forth to maintain the color line in the state.

Another gallery that assails the senses is the one on the youth arm of the freedom movement. The focus is a mock-up of a cell where students were jailed after being arrested for marching in peaceful protests. On the adjoining wall are posters of mugshots , allowing you to put names and faces to the protesters. This lends the gallery a powerful immediacy. As you continue through the space, you see many, many more of these mugshots along the tops of the wall. Eventually they are so numerous, they look more like pieces of confetti. If you had not seen the first wall of mugshots, you might not have noticed what these pictures were.

The last gallery is Where Do We Go From Here? Along this wall are pictures and quotes from present-day Mississippi. These quotes describe how speaker fights for social justice in current times. It is inspiring, and it charges the viewer to take up the fight, as the struggle for civil rights is not just a chapter of history consigned to a museum. You can still see the need today. When children grow up in neglect; when American communities do not have safe drinking water; when we simply do not make provide electricity to American taxpayers; when certain communities are targeted by the justice system with impunity; the struggle for civil rights is not dead.

After two hours, Dad and I had made it through the museum. While I regretted that my compromised eyesight had not let me read as thoroughly as I wanted, I also realized that I had to be mindful of Dad’s time. Besides, this museum would be here for my enjoyment for decades. It wasn’t like I couldn’t come back and spend the entire day there the next time I was in town.

Dazzled by excitement, I had Dad drive me to Starbucks. Instead of working on my blog, I spent hours uploading albums and telling friends online about my experiences. As superficial as it felt, sharing images impressions was one way I could start doing something for others.

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Now that I had finished my travels, I was concentrating on blogging, working out, and saving money. I still was not sure what my living situation was going to be after I got back to Minneapolis. I couldn’t think of how I might pay the full rental amount at a typical apartment; I didn’t know anyone I could live with for cheaper. Instead, I decided to start looking at Craigslist for short-term rentals. These would be more affordable, and they would allow me to save up money for long-term solutions.

I also still had a housing representative who was helping me search. However, she seemed to be full of excuses. First, she mis-recorded our meeting appointment, the tried to blame it on me. She told me that it would be six months until she could find me an apartment. When I pointed out that I had been requesting a place five months prior to hearing from her, she didn’t offer a response. Once she wanted to give me a lengthy explanation about how she also had many other clients. I found this infuriating, because I felt it was condescending.

As the days wore on, I finally asked her if she could call around for weekly motels. She began expounding on how expensive this option would be. I became inpatient and cut her off. I told her that I wasn’t asking whether she thought it was affordable. The only things I needed were locations and prices. Speaking still took a great deal of effort, so I needed all of our time on the phone to be productive. She spent too much time trying to talk about food, family, and other pleasantries anyway. Telling me all of the excuses and other unsolicited information just prolonged the call.

It had started to sound increasingly as though I might end up going into a homeless shelter for a few months. With this realization came concerns about theft and assault. Concerns about assault made me look at getting into better shape as an imperative. As for theft, I was worried about my laptop. I could keep my wallet and cellphone, but the computer would need to stay with a friend. That was why I wanted to get my writing to a point where I was a month ahead of publication: if I was to be without my laptop for a month, I would still be able to publish my blog.

So, most days would start with me cooking a modest breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs. My dad would crack the eggshells, but I had could manage the cooking with one hand. Around 11:00, Dad would drive me to the gym or to Starbucks. I would work out or write for a for hours, before getting a ride home for a nap. If I woke up before 5:00, I would respond to a few housing ads before dinner. This schedule felt pretty overwhelming, but it was hard to fight off feelings of guilt because of how active and energetic I had been so recently.

In order to keep myself moving forward, when I wasn’t increasing the weight on old exercises, I began incorporating new ones. The first new muscle group I enlisted was abdominals. Planet Fitness had a crunch machine. It took me a while to set up this exercise, but after I was into place, I got a maximum benefit from it. The most difficult thing was getting my left arm into position. I would have to slide my elbow into place; pull the harness down, then hold it; guide my hand onto the handle; then it was a matter of squeezing my abs to rock forward.

The other thing I wanted to do was start actively using my shoulder. The exercises I had performed heretofore had mere passively stretched out my shoulder. While this had helped tremendously with the problems of pain and inflexibility, I wanted to be able to use my arm muscles to reach. If I could achieve just a modicum of shoulder movement, I would eventually be able to carry things, drive, and bench press. I had dreams of doing barbell or dumbbell press again one day, but presently, I could not lift my arms into position.

Luckily, the gym had a shoulder press machine. Using it was a matter of sitting down and getting my hand into place. I pushed my arm upward. The weight barely moved, but it did move. I could feel pressure in the top of my shoulder. I repeated the movement nine more times, until I had completed a set of ten reps. I hadn’t put any weights on the stack, but it was definitely better than doing nothing. I hammered out two more sets. Then I walked out of the gym, feeling accomplished.

I was doing the bare minimum when it came to using the new muscle groups. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect was a gain in overall speed and balance. I would practice getting down on the floor, so I could get myself back up on the couch or bed. Now, instead of writhing around and getting exhausted, I could get back up, and into a seated position in ten seconds. And instead of gasping and sweating, I would be relaxed and able to go right back to what I had been doing. That felt empowering, like I was in more control of my environment.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Dad and I went to have dinner with his family in Rosedale, Mississippi. Rosedale is a small, agricultural town in the Mississippi Delta. It is the kind of place one thinks of when one thinks of Mississippi. Dad grew up there, picking cotton, and living under harsh Jim Crow conditions. Every time we cross into Rosedale, it feels like the landscape color should fade to black-and-white. As we drive through town, Dad always points out things like the rice ditch where someone drowned, or the levee where Grandmother’s rowboat landed after she floated down the Mississippi River looking for dry land during the Flood of 1927.

Dad’s niece is the only family member who still lives in Rosedale. His older sister, Aunt Ruth likes to come down from Memphis for holidays with her adult children. Those adult children – my cousins – all grew up in Chicago, but have all since moved to Tennessee. From Grandmother moving to Mississippi in a rowboat, to them leaving the Midwest to resettle in the South, the Chicago cousins strike me as quintessential members of the Southern Black Diaspora.

I had not been to Rosedale or any town this small since my stroke. I had assumed that walking would be very challenging in the unpaved environment. What I found, to my surprise, was that footing was a lot easier. The uneven ground made it harder to trip, because my foot didn’t easily get caught the way it does on nonporous ground. The driveway was paved with rocks; the floor was made of wood; the house was raised three steps off of the ground. None of these factors presented any problem for me.

My family did their utmost to make me feel loved. I had not seen most of them since before my stroke. However, they had been following the stories of my progress. I told them about what I was doing in the gym and about my days since I had moved back to Minneapolis. They wanted to know more about my blog, so I gave them the link. Finally, we took a picture of all the generations gathered there. After eating, Dad drove me around town and showed me a few sites from his youth. I had always enjoyed hearing his stories. Their resonant magic is what led me to pursue a history degree. I wanted to spend a lifetime hearing the stories of bygone generations.

As November and December rolled by, many people came to Mississippi or came to see me while I was in town. Several of them had parties for various holidays. For the first time, I was invited to a Festivus party. I had heard of many people hosting parties for this holiday, and I knew that it had come from a Seinfeld episode. However, I had never seen the episode, so all I knew was that the revelers used a metal pole in lieu of a Christmas tree. I quickly RSVP’d my response, excited for the opportunity to see what all of the obsession was about.

On the day of the party, I still hadn’t watched the episode. So I found a clip on YouTube. The highlights were trimmed down to fewer than ten minutes. I learned the history of the holiday, and I got a breakdown of the various elements that make up a Festivus evening. My strength and speech were continuing to improve, but I still had questions about whether I would be able to participate though the party without collapsing from exhaustion.

The party was hosted by my friend, Eric. Eric is a soft spoken transplant from Upstate New York. He is an intellectual who makes very astute observations about local society. His most central characteristic is kindness. Whenever I am around him, I feel appreciated. As I would describe him as an introvert, I was eager to see what kind of host he would be.

When we pulled up to the curb, my friend, Dale and I climbed out of the car onto an curb. There was no fence on the side where we were, so Dale told me to wait, while he scouted around for the correct approach. Being left alone always made me nervous about falling. It was something I never told anyone about because I didn’t want to appear weak, but the idea of losing balance and no longer being in control of my body was greatly unnerving. This fear was only exacerbated by the darkness. Soon Dale yelled out that he had found the way to the porch. I waited in silence as he came back to get me.

The path to the porch was made of large stones set atop a bed of pebbles. I’m sure that it was designed to look rustic and charming, but for a person in my condition, it was perilous. The stones were set at distances from one another that even a small adult could cover easily in one stride. For a person with limited control of his legs, this was just one long chain of tripping hazards. At first, I tried stepping from stone to stone, the way I assumed the walkway was designed After I had covered about three strides, I decided that this was to unsafe. Instead, I started taking smaller steps. I wasn’t always standing on a large stone, but I was walking safely.

Once I was inside, I saw that there were around six other guests. I knew one of them, so I began telling her about how much blogging I had done that day. One of the other guests worked for a medical office, and Eric asked me if I would be willing to share the story of my blog. I obliged and gave them a brief history of my ordeal and told them how I decided to write about those experiences. After I finished telling the story, we all broke up into smaller conversations. Surprisingly, I wasn’t tired, so I kept socializing.

Eric had meticulously planned out the evening, even going so far as to type up an agenda from an official Festivus instruction site. The portion of the evening I was anticipating was The Airing of Grievances – the time allotted for each guest to tell all of the others how they had disappointed him over the last year. I wanted to launch into a lengthy rant without losing my voice failing me.

When my time came, I rallied about local politicians, expressed my outrage at the state of the state education system, complained about healthcare, and whined about potholes. Not only did I yell this all out, but I switched up my cadence, altered my pitch, paused dramatically, emphasized punchlines, and I held it all together by taking strategic breaths between phrases. In short, I employed every speaking tool I had learned over the last 2.5 years. When the production was over, I was sweaty and ecstatic. Nothing since the stroke had made me feel like such a part of a social evening.

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When I began writing this blog, it was with the intention of it being about my current life. However, there was so much backstory that I felt was vital to the reader’s knowledge and appreciation that I devoted the first seven months to merely talking about the journey to this point. Last October, I felt like the narrative was not immediate enough, so I decided to split the posts between past and more recent events. After six months of using this method, I’ve covered enough backstory to generally stick
to one narrative timeline per installment.

During my November in Mississippi, I wanted to write more, but I kept finding myself preoccupied with meeting people. My first Monday, I went to dinner in Biloxi with two former coworkers. Hope and Steve were both members of my first work team at AT&T. Each does a lot of writing. Steve writes poetry; Hope writes fiction. Although I have various things in common with each, I had never discussed my desire to be a writer with either.

I didn’t want to be one of those people who constantly talks about his plans but never puts any of them into action. To me, writers wrote. People who talked incessantly about what they planned to write but never produced anything were posers. They wanted the mystique of being known as writers without actually doing any of the years of solitary, fruitless toil. Those are the times that make one a writer.

It felt wonderful sitting there talking with Hope and Steve about my work. We discussed memories, politics, and how my therapy was going, but most of all, I was proud to be discussing the writing craft. I had felt like a Luddite around them at AT&T. The whole time I was working in call centers, I’d walked around with the vague felling that I was meant for something else. The majority of the people toiling in call centers probably feel this way, but I was doing less than most when I was away from the office. But this conversation felt natural. I spent the evening finally feeling like I was one of these people who carved out time to write – in anonymity and without reward – because they felt a calling.

Before my stroke, I had thought of myself as a good person and a decent friend. However, I really didn’t put much effort into making this manifest through my actions. I was a good person by definition, and whoever saw me as anything to the contrary? Well, that was their problem. After the stroke, how I behaved toward other people became much more important. In the past, I had simply tried not to be a bad person. Now, I went out of my way to be more thoughtful and kind. I wanted to show people that I valued them.

On my last night in town, I met several friends for dinner. One was Chris, a kind-hearted lady from Maryland. Since moving to Mississippi, she has remained very politically active. In fact, the main reason why I often miss her on my trips to the coast is that she often has a brunch or rally that conflicts with my visits. The other two – Sarah and Vicky – are practically inseparable. Sarah is a very loving and compassionate person. I can’t help but feel loved whenever she is in the room. Vicky got married and had children early. Now she is a non-traditional college student, and science is her life. Whenever we’re together, each one adds a unique flavor to the experience.

Chris told us about the new political projects she had going. Sarah raved about what new adventures her daughter was going through. Vicky regaled us with tales of what she was learning in class. I thought, If I can work this hard to make the lives of others better, love this unreservedly, pursue truth this earnestly, I will be doing something I can be happy with. It took a lot of dedication in the gym to achieve the kind of physique with which I had once impressed people. I wanted my character and my words to leave such an indelible mark on others.

On Sunday, I was back in Jackson. The Mississippi Humanist Association had a screening of the movie, A Better Life, a film that answers the question of what meaning people can find in life if they don’t believe in God. The filmmaker, Chris Johnson, interviews many self-described atheists and agnostics about what things bring them joy in life. The more I listened, the more it made me think about how much we have in common with religious people. Even for strict churchgoers, the majority of the moments of ecstasy for most people I know are when they’re doing things like holding their children, sucking on honeycombs, or taking in sunsets.

The thing I really appreciate about the humanists is that they have a mission. The members of my atheist group have fascinating discussions, but they’re primarily a social media network. MHA holds blood drives, volunteers, donates to food drives, has a monthly brunch, and sponsors events. They partner with religious groups and do things to make their presence known in the community. Being a member of MHA always reminds me to look for ways to make a difference.

The week after the movie screening, several of the MHA members met up for Sunday brunch at the Bulldog Restaurant and Pub. It was a beautifully clear day and the temperature must have been about 60°, so we sat outdoors. We had such a large group that we had to sit at one of the large picnic tables. A few months earlier, I would not have had the balance or muscle control to get my left foot in and out of the opening between the table and the bench. Now it was as easy as straddling the bench, with my right leg on the inside; sitting down; lifting my left leg up and over the bench; then swiveling in to position.

During the course of brunch, I was able to get up and go to the restroom twice. Unlike before, it wasn’t a big production to try to get my left leg from being trapped beneath the picnic table, followed by a mad dash to the latrine. It was a smooth transition from a seated position, leading to a casual stroll. No more chaos and wondering whether I could get to where I needed to go in time. I was reestablishing authority over my own body.

One of the reasons why I had decided to spend November in Mississippi was to save money. Although I had gone out several times, I had always kept a scrupulous eye on how much money I spent. On the one hand, I wanted to be able to appear as though I was at ease; on the other, I needed to save up enough to be able to afford my own apartment once I arrived back in Minnesota. It was bewildering how I would actually ever save up enough, but I was committed to the idea of saving money.

One way I was able to facilitate this was by going to the gym often. Planet Fitness was my least favorite gym out of all of the ones I used, because the machines didn’t correspond that well to my body. Given my limited range of motion, the equipment was not set up as well for me as the workout stations at L. A. Fitness or Anytime Fitness. However, I was able to design routines that made me interested enough to keep going in.

At first, I would just start with leg extensions and leg curls. Doing these exercises daily would strengthen my quads and hamstrings enough to aid in foot clearance. Most days, I would also perform lat rows to increase my ability to stretch my arm up and forward. These were three exercises I could do at any of the gyms I went to, so they formed the first 45 minutes of my routine.

After this, I would pick and choose from an assortment of other exercises. One day, it might be treadmill and pectoral flys. Another, it might be seated leg presses and shoulder shrugs. By altering the permutations of my workout combinations, I was able to work my responsive muscle groups all week without hitting a plateau. I didn’t know what my life would entail materially after I returned to Minneapolis, but I wanted to be as physically prepared as possible.

The other way I saved money while still going out was by going to a coffee shop. There was Wi-Fi at my dad’s house, but my laptop couldn’t connect to it with any regularity. So I would go to a local Starbucks for three hours and write the first 1,000 words of a 2,000 word blog post. Later that week, I would return to Starbucks and complete the second 1,000 words and then email the rough draft to my editors. Downloading the edited copy, revising it, and emailing the final draft became the third part of my weekly visits.

A cup of coffee only cost five bucks, but it allowed me to get vital work done. I was feeding a sense of purpose, and doing so in a very public environment. When I first began going to Starbucks, I had feared dropping my wallet, having my laptop stolen, falling, or publicly wetting my pants. Now I was becoming very comfortable with my surroundings and developing behaviors that allowed me to not have to concentrate or worry:

Your wallet goes in the top pocket of your bag.
Your meds go in the large pouch.
The charges and ear buds fit in one side pouch.
The mouse goes in the opposite side.
The laptop charger goes in the front pocket.

Managing brain injuries is largely about managing order and routine. Once you clear your physical and mental space, your mind doesn’t feel cluttered, and panic is less likely to ensue.

When I have inexplicably fallen or misplaced things, it’s because my mind is trying to do too much. I was quite athletic before my stroke; coordination came naturally. After the stroke, I had to plan many of my movements. For every motion I had to think about, there had to be other things that I didn’t need to mentally dissect. Knowing how to walk into a business, make a purchase, and unpack and pack everything was invaluable for someone who had almost died of a hypertensive stroke.

Toward the end of the month, I ran low on my prescriptions. I took the bottles to the drugstore for refills. They informed me that a couple of them were not marked for refill. Then I realized that I had added the last set of refills to the older set of pill bottles in October, and that the written prescriptions were at an independent pharmacy in Sleepy Eye, MN. Rather than waste time trying to get the prescriptions faxed, I told Dad to just take me to a walk-in clinic.

The people at the clinic told me that I owed a balance that had to be paid before they would see me. Paying non-network price to see a doctor just to write prescriptions for medications I had refilled one month earlier came to $180. Dad, realizing the bind this put me in, told me that I could just stay in Mississippi for another month. Now I could relax and concentrate on rehabilitation and blogging.

On the last day of November, I went to Starbucks to write. When I finished, I began putting my things away. Then I heard someone spelling his first name, “C-H-O-K-W-E.”

I realized it was the mayor. I called him over and introduced myself. He said he knew who I was.

I didn’t remember having met him before, but our fathers had close ties, so I could’ve met him when he was younger.

He asked what I was doing in town, and I told him about my stroke and how I came to Starbucks frequently to blog. Before he left, we took a selfie together. He told me that I should use it for my blog.

I packed up my laptop feeling like I was doing something that matters.

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My first year back in Minnesota had been a successful one. I had kept a job, gotten a lot of therapy, successfully used public transportation, and managed the housing situation for Mary and me. The biggest problem was that I never had enough money at the end of the month. While my rent had been low when I was living with friends and had a part-time job, I was now looking at the prospect of paying twice the amount for my own place. How on earth was I going to manage that?

I decided to spend November of 2017 at home in Mississippi. Since Dad wasn’t going to charge me rent, I could pay down debts, and at least be in the black by the end of the month. This would not by an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination, but it would allow me enough money to breath. It would also give me a chance to see what it would really be like to try to stretch out my insurance money on a monthly basis. It was still terrifying to think about, but at least I wouldn’t be coming into the month having to pay anyone for a small loan.

I left Mary with Karine in Sleepy Eye on November 5th. I would spend two nights at Dave’s in Saint Paul before flying out. During that time, he built the links to each post to make my blog site more user friendly. He also had to do some troubleshooting so that images could be loaded onto it. Then I could spend all of November uploading pictures and videos to a site that had been text only. I had only been writing the blog for two months, and it still felt like a chore to write it every week. I looked forward to having a lot of time to work on it.

I arrived in Jackson at 4:30 in the morning, after spending almost twenty hours between buses and planes. When I got to the house, I went straight to bed. At midday, I got up to eat, then lay back down to watch TV. On Thursday, my first full day back in Mississippi, I went to Planet Fitness. During my time in Sleepy Eye, I had begun using my left hand even more in the weight room. While I had started using the row machines purely as a means to stretch my shoulder, I was now gaining mobility in my hand and forearm. This would be an opportunity to use it on different machines.


Additionally, I had gained a lot of leg strength from six days a week of therapy and working out. I had also been using a foot orthotic since my hospital stay in September. Consequently, I noticed that I was clearing my left foot much easier in the gym. In August, when I had joined Planet Fitness – Jackson, I had worried about falling or having restroom emergencies. Now I was a lot more comfortable in the gym. I could simply focus on getting stronger.

I had started walking on a treadmill when I was in Sleepy Eye. Since I could not move my lower leg, I had developed the habit of kicking my leg out as I walked. As my leg strength increased, this habit became much less necessary. I had to retrain my body to walk correctly. I could still remember the days of having to be strapped in in order to use a treadmill, so using it without aid felt liberating.

Whenever I go home to Mississippi, I always visit the Gulf Coast early in the trip. It is usually the busiest and most expensive part of my vacation, since sustaining my social life there was more expansive than it was for all of the time I was in Jackson. I took the Greyhound bus down to Biloxi that Sunday afternoon, and I smiled as the lighthouse and the subtropical beaches came into view in the waning light of the sunset. All the stresses of my complicated life seemed to disappear. The next week would not be one of constantly running back-and-forth between appointments and the gym.

My friend Howard and his wife, Bridgett, picked me up from the bus station. The walk from the waiting area to his truck was no longer an exhausting one, because I wasn’t expending energy by dragging my left foot. Howard offered to get the door for me, and I told him to simply get in the driver’s seat. Not only did I not need help with the door, I was able to climb into his truck, maneuver my foot inside, and buckle the seatbelt without assistance. It had only been three months since my last trip to the coast, and this made me realize that what I thought was a fitness plateau was really just a byproduct of my having higher expectations.

Howard, Bridgett, and I went to a seafood restaurant. They asked if I wanted to be let out at the front door. I told them that walking across a parking lot was no longer prohibitively tiring for me. They remarked at how much better I was moving around. I recalled how they had visited me in the hospital, and how I couldn’t even walk at the time. I told Howard to tell his daddy that it wouldn’t be long before I would be coming back to the farm to help with the cattle. The fried seafood basket was too hot to eat when it arrived, but that gave me more time to talk. I loved talking, because it had been such a chore until very recently. With increased weightlifting, I was developing the sort of breath control that made breathing in time with speech an afterthought.

After we got back to Howard’s house, I sat down and worked on my blog for that week. It had really felt like a chore in August, when I had typed it out on my cellphone using Microsoft Word. Between eye strain and having difficulty organizing the text on the miniscule screen, it had taken five arduous days to produce my first post. Each time I had sat down to write, it was with a since of dread at how much effort was involved.

In the intervening months, I had started writing on a laptop. This had made reading, editing, and moving text so much simpler. Furthermore, just the momentum of having to write every week made producing 2,000 words no more challenging than any other project that had to be planned and undertaken over a day or two. It was a matter of creating an outline, then writing 500 words at a time. No matter how long each session was, the entire task no longer took more than two days. After I completed a rough draft, I would send it out to my editors. They would send back the corrections in a Word document. I would finalize it in about an hour. So the whole process would only take a maximum of four days. The only variable that affected whether it would take longer would be how much time I might take between initial brainstorming and when I start writing.

For years, I had wanted to do more writing, but I had always had other priorities. Whether I was in school or working, sports and socializing had always come before writing . Now I was receiving money without having to go to work. So in addition to rehabilitation, I started to treat writing like my job. Every week, I would try to get exercise or go to physical therapy at least four days, and I would try to write at least three days. I found my stride in October, and I spent all of November just maintaining that commitment and pushing myself harder each session.

Community activism is always part of my trips back to Mississippi. Mississippi is a place where change and volunteerism are always needed. While I’m not able to do a lot physically, I can participate in meetings and rallies. One person who made sure that I was able to attend as many gatherings as I wanted was TNathan, a person I had met only three months before. He was very active on the coast, and he had told me to text him when I was coming down.

On Monday, there was a strategy meeting in Ocean Springs for citizens who want to change the controversial state flag. Mississippi is the last state in America flying any vestige of the Confederate battle flag. For moral and economic reasons, many people I know are part of this movement, and there were several of them in attendance that night. Most of them spoke eloquently and passionately, giving great suggestions on how to make their voices felt. I was proud to be a friend and ally. Afterward, we all met at a pizzeria I had driven past every day I worked on the coast.

On Thursday, TNathan also took me to the University of Southern Mississippi for a dialogue on race. Because parking on campus is difficult to find, he dropped me off at the front door of the hall and went to park. I immediately began feeling the need to use the restroom. I asked the first student where the restrooms were. He indicated that I would have to pass through two hallways. This wouldn’t have been an issue before the stroke. Now I wasn’t sure if I could make it.

With every step, I felt myself needing to go more and more. I quickened my pace to the point where my cane was barely hitting the floor. If I could have run, I would’ve, but I was afraid that I would trip and fall. Then I would certainly lose control of my bladder. It would be the height of humiliation to have to sit through a workshop and ride back to Gulfport covered in piss. Moving more quickly than I imagined I could, I made it into the restroom, threw open the door, dropped my cane, and flew over to the urinal.

After I left the restroom, I had to find the second floor conference room where the discussion was being held. A student pointed up a long flight of stairs. I thought there had to be an elevator nearby, but I didn’t want to waste the time trying to find it. So, I resigned myself and started climbing. In order to not fall backwards, I leaned forward, putting my weight on the rail. I stepped up with my left leg, then pulled my left leg up. I repeated this method time and again, until I reached the landing halfway to the top.

When I reached the landing, I stopped to rest. I could not believe how tired I was. My heart was in my throat. I could feel sweat pouring down my face. I wanted to stop at this spot, but I had only made it halfway up to the second floor. Visions of me falling over the railing or tumbling backwards down the stairs ran through my head. Before I could think of too many negative thoughts, I started upward again.

When I got about three steps from the top, a couple of students appeared and asked if I needed help.

I joked that I could have used help about ten minutes earlier.

Then one of them exclaimed, “There’s an elevator right here.

I looked to my right, and sure enough, there was an elevator door right there. Had I bothered to ask around, I would have been informed that there was an easier way to get where I was going. I turned to look back at the stairs behind me. They made such a formidable obstacle. I was proud to have had the courage and the strength to drag myself up the hard way – without hesitation.

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Amid all of the major steps forward in getting my life back together, there were several things – like moving, finding housing, securing social support, and gaining employment – that were vital to my survival. However, life is about the little slices of happiness that give us meaning beyond just stretching out the years of our existence.

My fist post-stroke job ended in June of 2017. I knew that I would be leaving town for the month of August, so while the weather was nice, and since I couldn’t start a new job immediately, I resolved to socialize Mary as much as possible. I asked my friends for an exhaustive list of restaurants that allowed dogs. This would be a great way to take Mary out to more stimulating environments, and I would be able to train her to sit still beneath tables.

My friend Willa was a schoolteacher. Since school was out for summer break, she had a lot of free time available, so she would take Mary and me out once a week. Once we got to the restaurant, Willa would let me out at the front door to get seated, while she walked Mary to the patio where I was.

Minneapolis is a wonderful city for dogs. Most of the waitstaff were kind to Mary. They would bring her water and treats to snack on. The first few times we took her out, she would try to chase dogs and small animals. When this happened, we would make sure that she couldn’t run off. After a while, she seemed to realize that this was not time to play, because increasingly, she would arrive at a restaurant and just settle down beneath the table. People would often stop by and pet her. I’m sure that she loved going out and getting the attention.

After leaving the restaurant, we would go out to the Stone Arch Bridge for a walk. I would walk a mile or two each time. This was better exercise than most of my physical therapy. It was exhausting, and I would need to stop several times to rest. Meanwhile, Mary would get all the exercise I felt like she had been missing as Willa walked her alongside me. My roommates never walked their dogs nor took them many places. I had been worried that Mary would miss out on stimulation and activity. Her formative years needed to be filled with play and new experiences. I always felt satisfied when we both returned home thoroughly exhausted. I was giving her the full life I had promised her.

Another person who helped me by going out with me every month was my friend Sandra. Sandra and I had been coworkers at the Star-Tribune. She could remember a time when I was active and constantly going out. She did not want me to start giving in to my feelings of often being tired. The need to rest could easily transform into general oversleeping and depression. Before long, I could find myself in an inescapable rut. To prevent that, she would regularly find interesting things to suggest. One day it might be a new movie; another day, it might be dinner or coffee. We never did the same thing on consecutive times out, but she always saw to it that there was a good mix of walking and sitting.
After the weather changed, we began including Mary on our outings. Sandra also has a dog, Rocket, so naturally I wanted to see if he and Mary would be good playmates. One Sunday afternoon, we brought Mary to Sandra’s house. She was excited to see another dog. Sandra started throwing a Frisbee all over the yard for Rocket. He would chase the Frisbee, and Mary would chase him. Rocket completely ignored Mary, but she got enough exercise just chasing him. As Sandra drove us home, Mary panted contentedly in the back of the car.

Sandra was another one of those loving Minneapolis dog owners who made the city a great place for Mary. She would regularly offer me pet supplies or suggest places where we could take Mary. If I have been a good owner to Mary, it is largely thanks to other people helping out, because there are far too many things I cannot do for her on my own.

Another of my friends, Dave, was someone I had known through soccer. We had never been that close my first decade in Minnesota, but we had become closer via Facebook while I was living in Mississippi. After I moved back to Minnesota, we met for lunch a few times each month. When I put a status on Facebook that my part-time job was ending in June of 2017, he responded by saying that he could hire me. Dave had recently started his own software business and wanted me to act as a project manager.

In addition to helping me with employment, Dave also agreed to help me with my blog, In August, he sold me a MacBook and helped me set up my site. For three months, I focused on writing a 2,000 word article each week. My eyesight had been failing me, plus I had always been a procrastinator, so I developed a lot of anxiety about writing. I would want to write, but I would wait until the weekend to start an article for publication the following Wednesday.

In early November, I would fly home to Mississippi. I stayed with Dave for two nights. During this time, he started building article links to the blog site. Where it had previously all been on one continuous page, it was now organized and easy to navigate. He also helped me start loading image files into the blog posts. I would spend the next few weeks in Mississippi uploading around ten pictures and videos to each post. I was also becoming more prolific with my output. My goal was to get to a point where I was writing four weeks ahead of publication. That way, if got back to Minneapolis and found myself overwhelmed with other things, I could copy and paste articles to my blog for a month before I had to write anything new. When I stepped off the plane in Minneapolis, all of the pressure to write had been lifted.

When I stop and think about it, a typical outing used to involve getting help out the door, down the walk, and into the car. After we got where we were going, I would need help getting into the restaurant and to a table near the restroom. Exhaustion and incontinence were always my chief concerns. And although I would typically enjoy myself, I couldn’t help but be preoccupied with the idea that I might not make it to the restroom in time or my legs might give out on the way back to the car. After I got home, I would always collapse.

Even after I started lifting weights, I had trouble gathering enough energy to go to the gym each morning. Metro Mobility was the service that gave me rides to work and to the gym. The have a policy of not allowing a passenger more than three no-shows in a month. A no-show is an occasion when the driver knocks on the door for five minutes, and the rider does not come out. The rider can avoid being charged a no-show by calling to cancel a ride at least one hour before it is scheduled. If the rider amasses three no-shows in a month, she cannot ride Metro Mobility for 90 days. Armed with this knowledge, I would set my alarm for two hours before my ride. Half the time, I would call and cancel my ride. The other half, I would put on my clothes and listen for the bus. Once I got on the bus, I would try to wake up, hoping that I wouldn’t be too tired to work out.

It was not until I spent October at my friend Karine’s that I really started to feel like working out more days than not. I had spent two weeks at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in south Minneapolis. At my time of discharge, they referred me to Sleepy Eye Medical Center for outpatient therapy. Knowing that I couldn’t walk or drive there, I had my friend Karine just drop me off before work. I assumed that I would have to spend all day there and be picked up after work. As far as moving around the community, I would probably just be limited in where I could go.

On the first day of therapy, I got there so early that they offered me an earlier appointment. I told the office manager that I didn’t mind waiting because I had to be at the medical center all day. She agreed, but she told me that I might want that option in the future. She called Heartland Express, the transit service for disabled Brown County residents. They explained that I could pay $1.50 per ride and that there were discounted tokens available at the drugstore. This would give me independent access to transportation, and at half the rate of a ride in Minneapolis.


Now that I had therapy and transportation lined up, I had to find somewhere I could work out twice a week in order to supplement the therapy. Since I had been discharged from therapy for lack of progress that spring, I wanted my therapists to keep reporting progress to the insurance company. I called the local 24 Hour Fitness and made sure that membership was free through the Silver Sneakers program. On the day I went there, I scheduled Heartland Express to drop me off and pick me up ninety minutes later.

The women working there were very nice. They immediately issued me a key fob that opened the door. Then they gave me a brief tour of the gym and let me work out. The gym was very small and didn’t have a large variety of equipment. Had I never suffered the stroke, this gym would have been perfect for my needs. However, I had only been back in the gym for less than half a year. I still needed to heavily modify my work out in order to see any significant gains. After I tried different exercises for an hour, I realized that this just wasn’t the gym for me.

Since Heartland Express could take me anywhere in the county, I decided to try finding a gym in the largest city. I found Anytime Fitness – New Ulm online. Whitney, the fitness club manager answered my call and told me that she would be waiting when I arrived. The gym in New Ulm was a lot more spacious with much more equipment. I was comfortably able to do four exercises on the first day. There were also even more workout stations I couldn’t wait to try.

The staff at Anytime Fitness were usually there when I was. They helped me with the machines and even shot videos so I could document my progress. After a couple of weeks, I progressed from two workouts per week to four. Sunday was the only day I didn’t have two hours of physical rehabilitation. By the time I left Sleepy Eye, I had regained much of my get-up-and-go. In addition to the gains I had made in strength and mobility, I had become capable of getting out of bed and dressing an hour before I had anywhere to go. It felt unimaginably good to be a morning person again.

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Perhaps the thing I was most thrilled about when it came to moving back to Minnesota was the chance to ratchet up my physical therapy. While I had been going to therapy several days per week during my last few months in Mississippi, it had gotten to a point where I felt as if my progress had stagnated. I was slowly gaining more leg strength, and my shoulder was becoming more flexible, but it didn’t seem to be happening fast enough.

There is only so much medical knowledge out there (at least so much that medical insurance will pay for as conventional), so most of what I encountered was just more of the exercises I had been doing in Mississippi. I was somewhat disheartened that there would not be any magical apparatus to stimulate my muscles. However, one hope that was realized in physical therapy was that my therapist decided to actively transition me from a quad cane to a single-point cane.

This did not happen due to any prompting of mine. One day she just announced that we were going try a different cane. Then she walked over to where they kept the practice canes, selected one, and adjusted it to my height. When I started walking with it, I was nervous about balancing, but I quickly noticed that my posture was better. I was now using the cane as a guide rather than as a support. This allowed me to shift my weight under me instead of distributing it outward. It felt wonderful to be taller and faster again. The therapist had me to walk in a wide figure 8 pattern around two of the mats so I could become accustomed to turning in either direction.

By the time I had walked with the normal cane for two sessions, my expectations were very optimistic. I could tell that this method of walking was going to do wonders for my gait and balance. However, I still had considerable foot drag and muscle weakness on my left side. I felt great while walking was going smoothly, but I constantly feared what might happen once I would lose my balance. I began to focus on building strength in my left leg, powering through each exercise and always requesting to do extra sets of seated leg press. If I could build enough power to lift my foot high enough with thinking, it would eliminate the majority of my balance concerns.

Occupational therapy had become frustrating. I was getting far less response from my arm than I was getting from my leg. I could open and close my hand a little, but with the thumb and forefinger acting at a pincer rather than grasping with all five fingers. Making a fist was easy, but I would often have to pry my hand back open after it was closed. My therapists in Mississippi had suggested that I start using the hand more functionally in order to “wake it up,” but I lacked the ability to hold anything in it, so the advice was not of any use.

Early in occupational therapy, we tried using a TENS unit. This was done by placing two electrodes on the surface of the skin. Like a battery, you place a positively and a negatively charged connection on either side of the muscle group. When current is run through the muscle group, it fires. When placed on my forearm, it easy would open my hand. However, it had no effect when placed on my triceps. This was disheartening, because I would need to enlist my triceps in order to straighten my arm. I wouldn’t mind never having the fine motor skills to type with my left hand or tie my shoes again, but I wanted to be able to carry things and drive a car.

Since my unit was not having much effect, the therapist told me that we could try a larger unit that could penetrate my arm more deeply. He placed the heavy duty unit on my arm and turned it up gradually. When my left arm responded ever so slightly, I became elated. If there was any response in my arm, it probably meant that I would eventually be able to use it on my own.

After that session, I had another round of Botox injections to relax the muscles that are permanently contracted. This allows stroke victims to use the complementary muscles to the group that is being relaxed. My occupational therapist told me that using electric current would interfere with the dispersal of the Botox, so we could not use a TENS for two weeks. Instead, we focused on other tasks and exercises. During this period, he showed me how to put on my left shoe with one hand:

Create a larger opening by loosening the laces.
Sit on a couch or bed, resting your affected leg atop it in a right angle.
Grasp the shoe by the middle of sole.
Pull the shoe over your toe.
Once the shoe is covering most of the foot, pull the collar over you heel.

The therapist had me do this twice. Since that session, putting on my left shoe has never taken five minutes. Now, I could finally dress myself on days when I only had to wear sweatpants. On days when I had to wear jeans or khakis, I still needed someone with two hands to button them.

One day, while I was getting ready to go to physical therapy, I received an automated phone call notifying me that my ride was on the way. I was the only one awake in the house. My sweats were still in the wash, so the only pants available were my jeans. I couldn’t hold them up and attempt to button them at the same time, but there was no one to help me with them.

Rather than panic, I pulled my pants all the way up, then I fastened my belt tightly. Now that the pants were being held in place, I was able to find the button with one hand and work it through the buttonhole. This was surprisingly easy, and I ended up with a few minutes to spare. That evening, I tried this same method with my khakis. It worked! So it became my method for putting on pants that needed to be fastened. I no longer needed help with basic dressing.

Most of the gains in therapy took place from November of 2016 to January of 2018. After that, it really just became a matter of practice. Part of the deal with therapy was that I was supposed to be continuing to do some of the exercises at home. But I was unable to perform them in my living situation. Most of the exercises had to be executed while lying or sitting on a bed or a mat. I was using an air mattress, so I wasn’t even sleeping that well.

Most mornings, I woke up drowsy, and I often had backaches. When I arrived at the hospital for therapy, I’d still be stiff and groggy. I could plod mindlessly through the session of occupational therapy because I could do it from a seated position. Sure, I might yawn half the time, but there was no risk of falling. Physical therapy was different. I had to maintain balance while using major muscle groups. I was frequently unstable or out of breath. It constantly felt as though I was disappointing the person working with me.

I had very little energy those days. In the morning, I seldom wanted to climb out of bed. After one or two hours at work or rehabilitation, all I would want to do was go home. Once home, I would eat, watch a few hours of TV, and climb back into bed. On days when I didn’t have to work, the only reason I would get up before 11:00 was to let Mary out. As someone who had always been active and a morning person, this was disorienting and depressing. I could not tell whether I genuinely needed sleep or if my mood was suffering. Of the two people I was living with, one was jobless, the other worked nights, and neither was a morning person nor lived on the same level as me. As I could not safely use the stairs yet, I was left to my own devices until noon most days.

By April, my therapy progress notes stopped indicating that therapy was helping. Quite naturally, the insurance company stopped authorizing more visits. I was discharged from physical and occupational therapy at the beginning of May. Since the stroke, I had never gotten to a point where the health care providers had effectively declared that I was on my own. Now they were sending the message that there was nothing more they could do for me. I was horrified.

Was this how recovery would end? I had often thought of myself as more physically resilient than the average person. I was the one who had defied the odds when I wasn’t supposed to make it, when I was supposed to have been a vegetable. People who worked with me had often expressed amazement at my willpower and endurance. I had displayed none of this in 2016. I felt like a fraud. Maybe I deserved to be let go.

I realized that I was approaching the second anniversary of May 18, 2015 in two weeks. Through all of that time – from the days I couldn’t walk, to leaving the hospital, to moving back to Minnesota, to physical therapy – my one sustaining wish had been to lift weights again. I knew that my body would never be the same, and there would be a plethora of things that I could no longer do. But lifting weights would go a long way in restoring my quality of life. In fact, when I had been given the option of insurance plans, I had selected the Silver Sneakers plan expressly because it came with a free gym membership.

I wanted to be back in a fitness club environment. If I could expect newer equipment and fewer kids, I would probably get a safer and more effective workout. Since I lived ten blocks from the southern border of Minneapolis, L. A. Fitness in Richfield seemed like the closest club. I called them and they averred that they participated in the Silver Sneakers program. I called Metro Mobility to set up a ride for that Saturday.

Imagine a severely disabled person getting on a bus for people with special needs, his left fist involuntarily clenched so tightly that he must hand his cane to the driver. It was 9:51 in the morning, and I rode down to Richfield unsure of what I would be able to do. Once I got on the floor of the weight room, I found that my body was very tight. I had someone to help me pry my hand open and get it around the handle on the row machine. I had very little range of motion, and even then, my shoulder hurt every time I extended it. Because my grip was so weak, I could only work out with 25-pound weights.

Next, I decided to try strengthening my shoulder. I hobbled over to the weight rack and selected a 10-pound weight, then I sat down on a bench so I could have more stability. It was all I could do to hang onto it and raise my shoulder a bit. I so missed the days when I could shoulder press 80-pound dumbbells. After I did a couple of sets, I asked someone to hand me a 15-pound dumbbell, because I dared not try to stand or walk too much.

I was so self-conscious of everything in those early days back in the gym. How weak and infirm did I look? Was I in people’s way? Was I just wasting my time? How much muscle function could I possibly hope to gain back? There were so many questions, and this was a long, long process. But it was May 13, 2017 – less than two years since I had slipped into a near-fatal coma – and I was lifting weights again.

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After I had been back in Minnesota for six months, life was finally settling into a predictable pattern. When I had started my job, I had worried about things like double vision and not being able to use my left hand. I had dropped files, made some filing errors, and failed to meet goals. It had caused me to wonder if I was cut out for the job. It would have been a crushing blow to grow from having always worked overtime to not being fit for part-time work.

One day, Sarah moved my desk to a back office. This had the unintended benefit of cutting down on distractions. I was also out of the public eye, meaning that I was able to spread my work out over a larger amount of space. Now I could organize things much better. I could also use headphones to help drown out the conversations taking place around me. Also, because Metro Mobility seldom arrived when they said they would, I could do things like work through my allotted breaks and still sit in the break room for a half hour after I was off the clock. By January, I was easily reaching my goals each day.

Physical therapy was going well, but the pace was extremely slow. I was going two days a week, during which I worked on my gait a lot. We would start with exercises on a mat. Then we would do a few standing activities between the parallel bars. After that, we would walk around the room a few times, before finishing up with some light weighted exercises. While it was too languid for what I wanted, I was not ready to go to a normal gym yet, and it was more exercise than a lot of people my age got, even if they hadn’t suffered a stroke.

Now that it no longer felt like I was tackling one urgent issue after another, I started thinking about visiting home. It would be a good way to take stock of how well I was progressing. Plus, even though the house was normally kept below 68 degrees, we had been having furnace problems. This meant that I often slept in sweatshirts and seldom took showers. The idea of being comfortable for a couple of weeks was too enticing. I booked a $130 flight to visit Jonathan and Candice in the Dallas metroplex from February 24th through March 10th.

Dallas was so warm that I was finally able to relax and wear shorts and a t-shirt. This lowered my level of stress, so my blood pressure fell and I was able to walk more easily. Candice, Jonathan, Dad, and I spent the next day together. I was able to show them all of the gains I had made. The large step to get into the back door had been an obstacle I would not attempt on my own the previous year. Now I did it without consideration.

Dad and I left for Mississippi after one full day in Dallas. Returning home again gave me another opportunity to see how much better I was able to move in a familiar space. Things didn’t seem as far out of reach as they had previously. I was still dragging my left foot when I walked, which led to issues of exhaustion and imbalance, but constant physical therapy was going a long way to address this. During my two-week vacation, I would begin walking one to three miles around the house.

Whenever I visit Mississippi, I go several places around the region. I decided to visit Birmingham, Alabama on the 28th. I had reconnected with a classmate I had not seen since elementary school. We had only known each other in passing, but I noticed his name on a mutual friend’s Facebook thread. It turned out that he had a restaurant in Birmingham called Delta Blues & Hot Tamales. I had promised to eat there the next time I was in Alabama. The other reason why I wanted to go to Birmingham was to visit the Civil Rights Institute. I’d been there when I was a teenager, and I had been impressed, but I did not have any concrete memories of the place.

We arrived at the Civil Rights Institute a little before noon. Because the front door was so far away, Dad had to go get a wheelchair for me. Once we got inside, I kept the chair. I would use it to move through the museum, standing and walking on occasion, but always keeping the wheelchair in case I needed to sit down and rest.

The museum started with the history of Birmingham. It was a newer city, founded in the postbellum South around the minerals industry. I had grown up hearing the city referred to as the “Pittsburgh of the South,” but that’s really all I knew about it. I did not know that the metropolitan area contained over a million residents. Its labor force arrived after the end of slavery, so there wasn’t the same shifting of slaves moving from unpaid to paid status. The exhibits also included scenes like recreated classrooms that showed the disparity between the black and white communities.

From the history, the museum moved on to Birmingham’s notorious role in the struggle for civil rights. There were things like a KKK robe and the map of the route taken by the Freedom Rides– the types of things you find at most civil rights museum. One thing it had that was unique was the infamous white tank that was used by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, to break up civil rights protests.

The majority of the compelling things to see in the Birmingham Civil Rights District are across the street from the institute’s building. Directly facing it is Kelly Ingram Park, which was used as a rallying area for protesters during the Sixties. Now it has paths that wind through sculpted images of civil rights scenes. There are images of jail cells, police dogs attacking protesters, and schoolchildren looking toward the future.

On a different block sits 16th Street Baptist Church. Its domes are an icon of the civil rights struggle. Although it was the central meeting place of the local black community, it will always be known for a few moments on Sunday, September 15, 1963 – the day four girls were killed in a bombing by a white supremacist. One could simply visit the free parts of the Civil Rights District and have a breathtaking experience, but to truly have the most inspiring day, the various parts should be taken in totality.

One fact I was not aware of was that Birmingham is known for its emerging restaurant scene, where my friend Adam’s restaurant, Delta Blues & Hot Tamales, fits right in. It is a counterintuitive idea for most outsiders, but Mississippi does have a tradition of tamales prepared in distinct ways that just have to be experienced. Adam and his wife, Fawn are progressive Tiger fans and tireless workers who have brought that culinary anomaly to Alabama. Adam and I caught up on old times in a dining space that was festooned with music memorabilia.

I could have stayed there all night swapping childhood stories with Adam. Even the ceiling of the room we were in reminded me of Ms. Keller’s music room. It made me want to join Adam in singing a round of the school song, “Working hard, doing fine …” Ultimately, Dad and I had to get on the road before nightfall. Fawn, who had never stopped moving since we got there, came in to say farewell. I promised Adam that I would be back.

The next Saturday, I attended a rally to unionize the Nissan manufacturing plant in Canton. Mississippi has lax labor laws, and without a union contract, I might not have had the access to health care that made it possible to mitigate my dire situation. I am deeply thankful to all of the medical professionals who worked so diligently to bring me back from the brink of death and to rehabilitate my body. However, I cannot imagine how I would have been under their care if my own union had not negotiated such excellent medical benefits. For the contract they negotiated and for their fundraising efforts after my accident, I feel that so much of my quality of life is attributable to Communication Workers of America. I cannot thank the organization enough.

My former roommate, Howard, had come up from the coast for the rally. On the next day, he drove me back down to Gulfport. On Monday evening, I met with friends I knew from outside of work. Secretly, I still worried about incontinence, so I made sure to go to the restroom several times. Our friend Meagan was in town from Arizona State’s graduate school program. So what would have normally just been a wonderful night out seemed like an amazing alignment of the planets.

The next night, Howard, Val and I got together for dinner. Val was the coworker who had visited me in Jackson, and bought me Lego sets. She had since moved back to the coast. We went to a new oyster bar, where we sat on a deck and reminisced. Right across the street, the sun was setting over the Gulf of Mexico. I enjoyed being able to wear short sleeves in early March. But more than that, I loved the intoxicating feeling of being alive.

* * *

Help often comes in forms we don’t anticipate. One such person was a new friend I made named Willa. Willa was a schoolteacher I met via the internet. When I moved back to Minnesota in early August of 2016, many of the people I had known for years were at work or away on vacation. Willa had a couple of weeks until school started for the year, so although I was too broke to go many places, we could always go for a walk along the Stone Arch Bridge. The Stone Arch Bridge was once a trestle that spanned the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. It was converted into a pedestrian bridge and is now a popular park property.

Years ago, I would often leave my office at the Star-Tribune and walk down Portland Avenue to the bridge. I would stroll casually across the bridge, take photographs, or wander the paths and smaller bridges on the opposite bank. After a couple of hours gazing at the river and the wildlife, all of the stress that had built up over the work week would dissipate.

After I met Willa, she would drive me to the Stone Arch Bridge. There, I could practice walking. Not only was it a marvelous form of physical therapy, but the faint spray coming off the falls beneath, and the rejuvenating rays from the sun above made all of the months of painful struggle worth the effort. Willa would walk with me as long as I wanted to. Each pass of the bridge was just under a half-mile. I would hold onto the handrail and walk until I was panting and beads of sweat were running down my head and torso.

One day, I confided that I was considering living part of each year in Mississippi because it seemed like it might be too expensive to live in Minneapolis. She told me that she wanted to help me find a way to stay in Minneapolis, if that was what I wanted. I stayed through the winter, and when school let out for the summer, Willa began helping to socialize Mary at restaurants and taking her for walks along the Stone Arch Bridge. Mary absolutely grew to adore Willa, and she was natural choice when I needed to temporarily give Mary to someone while I was living in medical facilities. Willa helped to keep the dream of Minneapolis alive for Mary and me.

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Now that I was going to work two days a week, I was ready to start therapy. The closest hospital to me was Park Nicollet in Saint Louis Park. I went there in November. When the physical therapist asked me what my goals were, I thought of all my dreams about driving, playing sports, and lifting weights again. I knew these would sound like I had unrealistic fantasies, so I told her that while I would love to say that I wanted a full recovery, I would settle for being able to walk without a cane and to be able to walk my dog again.

The physical therapist said that she could definitely help me with the walking without a cane. My doctor when I was inpatient had told me that he could not guarantee that I would ever walk again – and I believe that was due solely to medical ethics. This therapist seemed more confident about what she could do for me. After she gave me my evaluation, I went to occupational therapy. When the occupation therapist asked me about my goals, I admitted that I knew my left hand would probably never regain complete dexterity. But I was really at peace with the idea that I would never be able to keyboard with my left hand. I would be content with having the ability to fully extend my left hand so I could do things such as lift weights and carry boxes.

After I finished my evaluations, I went down to the coffee shop. There I ordered a hot chai tea and a burrito, and I sat down a window. The world outside was unseasonably warm. I had moved back to Minnesota with the blind hope that my body could be restored to some sense of normality. I had only a vague sense of what muscle functions could be restored, but I was feeling optimistic again.

At home, Mary was having the time her life. For my morning routine, I would let her out to use the restroom. After Mary came back in, Liz would yell down that I could let her go upstairs to play with Charlie. Mary would scramble upstairs, and the sounds of the two dogs wrestling would last most of the day. Every so often their play would be broken up by Mary coming downstairs for a few minutes to eat, drink, or just to spend time with me. I felt a little lonely with her spending most of her days upstairs, because I couldn’t go up and down safely. But I was so happy to see her get tons of exercise because it was something I could not give her.

Liz was immeasurably helpful with Mary. When I got Mary spayed, Liz was the one who drove me to the vet. After they gave me pills for Mary, Liz would help me to administer them. Most of all, she would take the dogs to the dog park a couple of days a week. Thanks to Liz, Mary was even healthier and happier than I had imagined she would be in Minnesota.

Towards the end of November, a Hennepin County worker came by to perform my needs assessment. When it was finished, she informed me that I would be receiving food support through Meals on Wheels. I would also be receiving PCA services – someone to come into the home to assist with meal preparation, housekeeping, and bathing. By the end of November, I would have the tools I would need to start living an independent life.

The most daunting concern I had now was finding housing. Although Alan and Liz had been wonderful about giving me somewhere affordable to live, my disability check still severely limited my options. Our deal had been for me to move in in September and live there for six months. I would need to find a new place for Mary and me to live before December. Trying to live alone would mean paying twice as much in rent as I was currently managing to eke out.

I was always broke with about ten days left before I received my check at the end of the month, so I developed a significant amount of anxiety about the upcoming housing deadline. Going to work, therapy, or to socialize were the easy parts of my life. I would spend as much time out of the house and interacting with people as my body could stand. My life at home was starting to feel hopeless. I felt isolated much of the time, and I started drinking more and becoming withdrawn.

As Thanksgiving approached, I knew I was running out of time. I also knew my friend Allene and her housemate Frank had been having financial concerns. One evening, I took Metro Mobility over to south Minneapolis to talk to Frank. We had a long talk about economic concerns and social dynamics. We decided that it would make things easier on everyone if I moved in. Frank had a bedroom where he kept nothing but clothes. He said that he could clean that out for me by December. By the time the Metro Mobility bus arrived to pick me up, we had agreed on a rent amount that was the same as I had been paying Alan.

My one big dilemma was what to do with Mary. She was still less than a year old. The only other dog she had ever lived with was Charlie, who was the same age as her. Both Frank and Allene had dogs who were older and used to the dynamics of living together. I didn’t know how introducing a puppy into the pack would disrupt things. I had nightmares about one of the dogs attacking Mary and my not being able to break them up. Ultimately, I decided to leave her with Liz for the month of December. It would be the longest we had ever been separated, but I wanted her to be somewhere where she could be safe and happy while I dealt with the chaos of moving.

After I had been living in south Minneapolis for a month, I made arrangements for Liz to bring Mary over. Liz pulled up in her jeep on the last Saturday of the year. Frank took all of the other dogs out to the backyard. Then he let them in one-by-one so each one could have a few minutes to meet Mary individually. I held my breath, but made sure not to act alarmed. Despite my fears, there was no incident. I would still be vigilant for the next few days, but Mary was effectively becoming a member of her first pack.

I was still going to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays and going to therapy two days a week. Each morning, I would wake up and let Mary out. After she came back in, I would feed her. If I wasn’t going anywhere that day, I would let her play in the front room all day. If I were going out, I would send her to her kennel until I was home. After a few weeks, I began letting her stay out as long as someone else was there to watch her. Frank tried to assure me that nothing bad would happen to her, but I had never left her unsupervised, and I wasn’t about to start.

I often felt guilty about how much time Mary spent confined to her kennel, but I reminded myself that this was no different from the times when Alan, Liz, and I were all away. Furthermore, the majority of the people I know place theirs dogs in kennels while they are away at work. Most of those dogs are kenneled for nine or ten hours, five days a week. So Mary was barely getting any kennel time, by way of comparison. On top of that, we had a fenced backyard where she could run and play with several other dogs. One day, I would be able to walk her and drive her to the dog park.

Mary has never had a problem getting along with humans, and she took to Frank and Allene immediately. She would offer affection whenever either of them entered the room. She also quickly took to her new playmates – Wally the Labradoodle and Izzy the Pitbull. Wally was a large, older dog, who wasn’t rough or energetic. He played with her in a way that reminded me of an affectionate grandfather who lets children win at games of strength. Izzy was the smallest and youngest of the other dogs. She was better able to keep up with Mary. She and Mary would often spontaneously go from lying around bored to playing sudden, intense games of Tag. I would continue to search for more ways to keep Mary learning and active, but I could live with her receiving this level of stimulation for the next half year.

One of the biggest pitfalls during stroke recovery is spending too much time at home between therapy sessions. It is easy to lose motivation because one doesn’t have the same amount of energy as before. To keep my momentum going, I would try to find places to go on days when I didn’t have to go to work or therapy. Some weeks, a friend might invite me to dinner or a show. I also spent a great deal of time at the Caribou Coffee on Cedar & Minnehaha. None of this would have seemed like real exercise to me before, but I had lost the habit of constant activity.

My therapy was still taking place at the hospital in Saint Louis Park. Since the cab rides there and back were free, I would make a day out of each trip there. I would arrive an hour before my first session and pick a wheelchair at the front door. Then I would wheel myself around the first floor. My therapy sessions usually ran consecutively. After therapy, I would go to the coffee shop and have a late lunch. I would stare out the window, drinking a warm chai, eating a burrito, and chatting with all the people who had followed my ordeal via social media.

This was life for Mary and me our first nine months in Minneapolis.

* * *

A friend of mine had attempted moving to Minneapolis about a decade ago but had moved back to his home state, largely because he had never really developed a social life. When we talked about his decision to leave Minnesota, I wondered aloud why things had been so different for us. He retorted, “You always nurtured relationships.” This had never occurred to me. All of my adult life, I had been organizing teams, pickup games, and social events. But the point of this was basically so I wouldn’t be bored. Any social aptitude I’d managed to gain from these interactions was purely coincidental to my trying not to be lonely.

One person I met through soccer was my friend Dave. We had never been on the same team, nor had we been close, but after I moved back to Minnesota, he became one of the brightest stars in my galaxy of friends. We started hanging out more after I settled back in Minneapolis. He even took me ice skating once! I had never tried it before, but when he made the offer I jumped at the chance, thinking that it would be a unique challenge for my body and brain.

We went to the oval track in Roseville; I was nervous from the time we parked. Once downstairs, Dave helped me get the skates on. I felt somewhat unwieldy standing up on skating blades, but much more stable than I thought I would. Using my cane, I was able to get to the bathroom, out the door, and down the steps to the ice oval.

The ice, of course, offered no friction. Because I couldn’t move my left leg much, I couldn’t generate enough thrust to actually skate. Instead, I pulled myself a few feet along the wall before stopping to rest. Dave went and grabbed a sled so he could push me around. Once he got me moving on the sled, I couldn’t stop laughing. I held on as tightly as I could to keep from falling as the icy air smacked me in the face and invaded my lungs. I could not believe how exhilarating life was again.

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The list of people who have helped me along the way is so long that I could fill a separate blog with personal anecdotes about them. However, I do want to keep myself on track, so I will purposefully keep the people I talk about a great deal to a small number. I sincerely hope that no one feels slighted as a result. My life would not be livable without the influence of everyone who has helped to make it more normal. I have nothing but immense gratitude for each person who has made even the smallest contribution.

Karine and I first met during the weekend of Thanksgiving 2013 – a year and a half before my stroke. That was the only time we had gotten an opportunity to spend any time together, because she lived in Georgia while I lived in Mississippi. We maintained a Facebook friendship for a year after that, but I moved to the Gulf Coast and she moved to Virginia. Then she began contemplating a move to Oregon, while I was longing to return to Minneapolis. Somewhere between all of the moving, planning, packing, and unpacking, we lost touch.

One day, my father was driving me back from a rehab appointment in Jackson, when it occurred to me that Karine didn’t have a clue what had happened to me. I had not talked to her in well over a year, so I checked my phone to see if her contact info had transferred from my old phone. It had. I called her immediately.

Karine was aghast. She apologized profusely for having been such a bad friend. I assured her that it was not as though she was at fault. Life is complicated and things happen. She was not responsible for a lack of reaction to my stroke because there was no way she could’ve known about it. She promised that she would come and see me before long. I told her that it would give me something I could look forward to.

Karine came to see me one Saturday in November of 2015. My dad was away in the Mississippi Delta for a funeral. It had only been about three months since my discharge from the hospital, so I was still taking almost twenty minutes to dress myself. When Karine arrived, she had to help me to put on my left shoe. Then we went for Japanese. I had just begun using chopsticks a few weeks before. I was proud of myself because, even though I was using my unaffected side, I was still battling minor complications of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

After dinner, Karine drove me back to the hotel so I could meet her friend, Miranda. I was still dragging my left foot, so the walk through parking lot and down the hall really tired me out. Once we were in the room, Karine presented me with a Zinadine Zidane French National Squad jersey (Karine is from France, and I love soccer). Miranda had been sleeping most of the day since she had done the bulk of the driving; now that she was awake, we all went for a drink..

The only immediate seating available was in the bar area. Despite the fact that sitting on a stool could be very uncomfortable for my bad leg, I couldn’t bear the thought of standing in line. Speaking also still took a great deal of travail. Nonetheless, I wanted to make a good impression on Miranda, so I did my best. In those days, speaking well meant speaking as loudly as possible, because I needed to make each syllable as audible as possible. I gave a minimal amount of attention to enunciation, pacing, or pitch. It was not an easy time, but by the time we had finished our drinks and h’ors d’oeuvres, I was content with my efforts.

Next, Karine and I went for a drive. We ended up at the state Capitol. The night was black under a cloudless sky. The building was illuminated by floodlights, so bright that I found it completely enticing. I turned to Karine and asked, “Will you help me climb up?”

“You mean up there?”


“How high do you want to go?”

“All the way to the top.”

“Well, sure. As long as you think you can make it.”

I got out of the car and walked the long straightaway up to the steps. Once I got there, I stopped to rest. After I had caught my breath, I asked Karine to hold my left arm to prevent me from falling. I tried the first three steps, and Karine held me firmly. Now I felt completely safe. She was clearly strong enough to keep me from slipping. She would step up each time I stepped up with my right foot, then brace me as I dragged my left foot up to join it. We arrived at the top of the first set of steps much more quickly than I’d anticipated.

Despite that I was making very good progress, this was more walking and climbing exercise than I had ever attempted. And there were still two more flights of steps to go! I told Karine that this was enough work for one night. I gave her my phone to take a picture because I knew that my therapists were never going to believe this. I found a bench where I was able to rest as Karine went to get the car. I caught my breath in the faint shadows between the blaring rays of light. I had accomplished so much, but half the task still lay ahead of me.

* * *

The South was never really what Karine was looking for. She wanted to settle down somewhere with a climate that was similar to that of Germany. I would frequently hint that she should try Minnesota, since it was cooler and more progressive. This was mostly idle talk, though. She had two young children whose father lived in the South. It wasn’t like I was actually expecting her to move to Minnesota.

Then one day in early 2017, she asked me about good Minnesota communities to move to. I was sitting at Park Nicollet Clinic at the time. I had just finished another round of outpatient therapy, so I was about to call my taxi when her call came through. From what I knew of her situation (having children to consider), I figured that some of the suburbs in Hennepin and Dakota counties would be relatively free of crime and have good schools. Minneapolis would have been my preferred location, but the cost of living was probably too high, given that she had two dependents.

I told Karine that it would be quite fun to be living in the same state. Although we’d had so much fun when we’d spent time together over the years, we had only actually seen one another two times before, because we lived several states apart. I named a few suburbs she might want to look into. She had concerns about being able to secure a job because she is an immigrant. I advised her that she could move into one of these towns for the first year, just to get herself and her family into the metro area. After that, it would be easier to find a different job and a more permanent housing situation.

A few days later, Karine called me back. She had looked into the communities I’d suggested, and they were too expensive. She wanted to purchase a house right away. Rather than try to afford living in the metro area, she had begun pricing home prices outstate. As a minority, this was something I would reflexively warn a minority or foreigner against, but this seemed to be what she really wanted to do. This was a woman who spoke three languages, had lived in three different countries, and had been raising children in America for over a decade. She knew what she wanted, and I had no doubt about her ability to find it.

I didn’t hear from Karine for a few months, except on Facebook. Then in June, she texted to let me know that she had settled on the town of Sleepy Eye. The purchase price of the home had been just right. She would move there, then turn to the issue of finding work. I was genuinely concerned that she might not be able to find anything, but she was confident that it would all work out. I wished her the best and asked her to visit once she was in Minnesota.

A week later, we were talking on the phone. Karine had just moved her household belongings to Sleepy Eye. She raved about how the peal of the Catholic church bells reminded her of her childhood in a small town in France. With a sense of nostalgia, she listened to the church bells mark the hours. This was just one more thing that would never had occurred to me. I reminded myself that “small-town” and “diversity” are not necessarily antonyms.

Karine’s children were away for the summer, so she visited me in Minneapolis the following weekend. She has a lot of experience as a pet owner and from working for a veterinarian. She knows just how to interact with dogs. Mary fell in love with her at their first meeting. They played together for half an hour before Karine and I went out for Asian fusion.

The restaurant was in a busy area, so Karine couldn’t pull up to the corner and let me out. Instead, we found a parking garage and walked from there. As usual, I was worried about having to walk a block. However, I knew that if anyone could help me to walk there, Karine could.

In September, I had hit another plateau in recovery. I ended up going to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, which I had heard was the best place for stroke rehab in the entire state. Because my stay would last for two weeks, Karine volunteered to keep Mary for me. Karine owned a dog who was Mary’s age and knew dogs very well, so I felt quite comfortable letting Mary live with her.

I spent the next two weeks throwing myself into the rehab program at Courage Kenny. The specialists issued me an orthotic that would fit inside my left shoe to keep my foot from dragging and my knee from buckling. Most of my inpatient stay was spent learning how to walk with the orthotic. When I put it on, I could instantly tell how it would help, but I had to get accustomed to the feel of it. While I was in rehab, Mary was in Sleepy Eye with her new best friend, living with a family who knew how to keep a dog healthy and happy.

Because my job had recently ended, and because my new landlord had died during the month, when my two weeks at Courage Kenny were drawing to an end, I had to decide where I would be spending the next phase of my rehab. They wanted to send me to a skilled nursing facility. Unfortunately, this option seemed too expensive for me. Then Karine offered to let me stay with her. I liked the idea of staying in a place where my dog had settled in well, and it would be fun to hang out regularly with Karine. However, it seemed so far from the metro area. What would I do for transportation? The last thing I wanted to do was be a burden.

There were so many uncertainties, so many things to worry about. I could have spent weeks vacillating about each variable of the decision. But in the end, I thought about how Karine would have made the decision. She would have simply said, “Here is where I need to be. I will find a place to sleep safely. Then I can start to organize the details of life.”

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