This stroke has undoubtedly changed my life. It affects every aspect of the way I live daily. I resent that many people I encounter automatically treat me as though my diagnosis defines me. Still others hear me talk about my goals and think I’m flatly delusional. It is truly difficult trying to navigate this world. I can only do what my body will allow me on any given day, but I am constantly pushing myself to do more. At the end of the day, it almost never feels like I am doing enough, but I can only continue my recovery by commanding my body to keep moving forward.

Every morning, life is more of a struggle than it should be. Most people only have to worry about putting their pants on one leg at a time; I have to manage this feat with one arm. I am limited as to which shoes I can put on to take Mary outside because I lack the dexterity in my left hand to tie a bow. Walking has become much easier, but it’s no simple task. Even talking can be frustrating because while my voice is much clearer than it used to be, it requires so much work.

It seems like a cruel joke for me to have to put forth so much effort with everything I do and still have it come out less than normal. If I could move and speak in ways that felt marginally normal, I wouldn’t care if the task drained all of my energy. It would be worth it to me. And while I know there are countless people who will protest that I am doing so well, their kind words are irrelevant. We’re talking about how I feel.

People often marvel at how motivated I am. They couldn’t fathom having the drive I have if they had suffered such a debilitating physical setback. While I can appreciate how they feel, it’s a rather simple equation for me: either stay active constantly or get stuck sitting around realizing how truly bleak things are. Working out is a refuge for me. Every second spent lifting weights or chatting with people in public is time that I’m not at home feeling depressed. Getting to the gym is the easy part. The hard times are when I’m alone at home.

The task with the lowest threshold that is physically challenging for me is probably speaking. It doesn’t require a great deal of energy, but it is arduous nonetheless. The first great hurdle to dating, for instance, is always talking on the phone. I never cared much for my phone voice before the stroke. It sounded dorky too me. Then the first woman I talked to after the stroke said that I sounded like I was developmentally disabled. I really appreciate her honesty, but the feeling upon hearing that is why I am so afraid of women or audiences hearing my voice.

To keep myself going, I try to constantly remind myself that there was a time when I couldn’t speak at all. I would know exactly what I wanted to say. I would even carefully form each syllable with my mouth. But when I attempted to produce sound, nothing would come out. Assuming that it was a matter of effort, I would push harder with my lungs. But try as I might, I couldn’t produce a sound. I cannot begin to express how frustrating this was. I would literally stay up most nights just trying with all of my might to speak. It was so lonely that it was terrifying.

I was overjoyed when they finally gave me an operation to help me speak again. I annoyed the speech therapist because I wouldn’t stop speaking. I was just so excited to have a voice again that it didn’t matter whether I was saying anything productive. I settled down enough to get through a brief speech therapy session, but if I wasn’t in a structured environment, I just talked and talked until my throat got tired.

The novelty of being able to speak faded as I started doing regular speech therapy. I went from a regular hospital to a rehabilitation hospital and finally to outpatient therapy. Speech therapy became more like work. I had to do tongue exercises, breathing exercises and more. I practiced reading aloud and repeating words. This is what really helped me to become critical of the quality of my speech. I began noticing that I had to take multiple breaths before I completed a sentence.

It was during this period that I began using my online dating profiles again. I was really only looking to have conversations, because I knew it would be a long time before I could go on dates again. Eventually I met someone who found out about my stroke, but who still wanted to talk. It was during our first conversation that I asked what she made of my voice. So when she admitted that she could tell something was wrong with me, she wasn’t speaking unsolicited.

Today when I get ready to speak to someone for the first time, it’s always a nerve wracking experience. In anticipation, I’ll place more phone calls than normal. I repeat a lot of my old speech therapy exercises. I even take minute video clips of me talking. I wish I had taken videos of myself speaking before the stroke. It would interesting to compare things like eye movement and mouth shape in addition to the sound. I’m never satisfied with the sound of my speech. But today it sounds a lot less labored, and I’m confident that someday people will just remark that I sound like a comic book geek again.

If people can get past the sound of my voice, I have cleared an important hurdle. Meeting me in person is extremely jarring. When I walk into a room, the first thing people notice is that I walk with a cane. The person has no idea which parts of my leg do or don’t work, nor if there is any plan to start walking without the cane at all. So I often feel like all someone sees is the cane. I remember when my leg didn’t work at all.

When I woke up in a hospital bed, my leg wouldn’t move. I had sensation in it, but all I could do was look at it. During the early days, all I could do was roll over to the side of the bed and place my feet on the floor. This was exhausting in and of itself. After a while, the therapists helped me to stand and to transfer to a wheelchair. My left leg was so weak that I was in constant fear of falling. If there hadn’t been two or three people holding me up at all times, I would have collapsed under my own body weight. When my sessions of sitting and standing were finally over, I would climb back beneath the covers and fall into a deep sleep.

On the day I was driven from the hospital to the rehabilitation hospital, the toes of my left foot were stuck pointing straight out. My dad had to force my shoe onto my foot. After he wheeled me to the car, I couldn’t even transfer safely. I more or less fell sideways into the passenger seat. When we arrived at the rehabilitation hospital, I almost fell while trying to transfer from the car to the wheelchair. After they got me upstairs, people had to wheel me to the bathroom and to the bed. Once everyone else had gone home for the night, I sat alone in the room and cried from fear. I felt so tiny, and everything in the room seemed so far away.

I had Saturday morning to do intake; I spent the afternoon worrying about whether I would ever be able to walk again. Sunday was a day off, so I had that day to ponder being in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Monday was my first day of physical therapy. I woke u[ thinking about whether I could ever walk again, but soon staff had come in to help me dress and go to breakfast. After that, I was wheeled to one therapy after another. Over the next few weeks, I spent so much time going from therapy to therapy that I didn’t have time to dwell on my condition.

Now when people see me walking with a cane, I can show them pictures of when I was still in a wheelchair. I can tell them about the process of learning to walk again. I have video documentation of me taking my first steps and the year of practice before I moved back to Minnesota. After I moved back to Minnesota, I had to find a part time job and begin walking to different bus stops. I just didn’t have time to be burdened down with thoughts about my leg not fully functioning.

The one body part that never seems to get enough work is my left arm. Unlike my voice or my leg, I don’t get that much exercise in my arm from the business of going about my day. I have to actively do things such as stretching out my arm and hands. I do e-stim on my hand and walk Mary three times a day using my left arm. I have even begun holding onto the safety bar while riding the bus in an effort to keep my arm straight, because simply working my arm during two hours in the gym is nowhere near enough.

So if it seems like I have an amazing amount of drive and willpower, it is only because I need something to do to fill the hours. What appears to be a daily act of courage is actually a coping mechanism. I would be paralyzed with fear if I had to stop and take account of it all. I am lucky that I have the drive to keep powering through, though. It’s really just a matter of focusing on the increments of progress and not being obsessed with how the story will end.

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After the World Cup final, I took some time off from the gym. It is important to do this periodically to keep from overtraining one’s body and risking muscle fatigue or injury. I had only planned to be out of the gym for one week. But I ended up having to scramble and complete multiple documents for various government entities, so one week off became two weeks. I did finally manage to send off everything to its proper place, ensuring that all of my services remained intact. By late July, I was eager to get back into the gym.

In the stationary bike I had finally found a cardiovascular exercise I could enjoy. It wasn’t hard on my joints and it didn’t require me to advance my foot quickly, as with the treadmill. It seemed like something I could do indefinitely. I decided to try a longer warmup than my standard five to ten minutes. It was hard to get to ten minutes, but I wasn’t breathing too heavily or in too much pain, so I resolved to keep going to twenty.

I have always found cardio workouts to be extremely boring, so I get through then by playing videos on my phone. With the upright bike, my left hand could engage the heart monitor. Remembering how my physical therapists had told me to keep my heart rate above 100 on other equipment, I applied the same concept to my stationary bike workout. My heart rate would creep down into the 90s if I pedaled too slowly, but I wanted to set the resistance high enough to really make my calf and ankle work. Trying to keep these separate variables in balance was enough of a challenge that. I stopped obsessing over the clock, and before I knew it, I was at twenty minutes.

Ordinarily I do just enough of a warmup on the bike so that my body is ready to begin physical activity. After twenty minutes I felt truly alive. I was sweating profusely, my heart was pumping. I could feel effort in my left calf. Even my foot was stepping higher. Recovering leg function was going to be so much easier if I began with this amount of physical activity before I even started weightlifting. Over the next couple of days, I would push my body to 20 minutes, then 30 minutes on the bike. I did less than that some days, but my minimum was now 20 minutes.

I wanted to do more upper body movements, so I claimed a rowing machine. This one started with the handles turned up and away. As I pulled them towards me, I could feel my scapulae. The exercise felt wonderful. I could almost feel my left side expand back to normal. This movement was perfect for ending the constriction in my latissimus dorsi. I did four sets, imagining my back getting wider with each one.

On the first of August, I had my annual checkup. My blood pressure had been pretty good over the last few months, but I really wanted to get my weight. I had lost very little weight in the four years since my stroke. I had begun at 258 pounds, and nothing had changed in over three years. After a month of doing lunges this year, I was down twelve pounds. I managed to put five of it back on to end up at 251. But after a couple of weeks committing to a lot more cardio, I was ready for another weigh in.

My exam was early afternoon on a cool day. I was able to take Mary out for an extended period of time, shower, and eat breakfast. By the time my ride dropped me off at the clinic, I was relaxed and expecting good numbers. The nurse weighed me and told me that I was 242, down 16 pounds. I wanted to get down to 230 by the end of the year, so my goal for the next year was to lose another ten pounds. If I could get back to my playing weight of 215, it would be a bonus. I have never been one to obsess over weight, but it gave me something else to focus on while waiting for my muscles to rehabilitate.

Next the nurse took my blood pressure. It was 126/78. My oxygen level was 98%. The doctor came in and listened to my lungs; they were fine as well. She talked with me about my life and blog. I left the exam feeling wonderful. For the first time since my stroke, I had no additional health concerns to discuss. I was now taking personal control of my own health.

Mary was running low on dog food, so my next stop was the pet shop. I got off of the bus, grabbed a shopping cart and looked for the dog food aisle. Then it occurred to me that my eyesight was functioning so much better that I was just reading the signs. Ordinarily I would have had to close one eye, but my double vision wasn’t bothering me. I went right to the aisle and had no difficulty pulling Mary’s food from the shelf. I paid for the food and left it with the clerk while I went get something to eat.

I had lived in this area during my first year back in Minneapolis, so I would often come to this pet shop or to this sandwich shop. During those days, my left leg was so weak that I had to be driven from one location to the other, even though they were in the same strip mall. It would even frighten me to step up onto or down from the curb. Once I started feeling strong enough to walk from one shop to the other, I was still nervous about falling down and being vulnerable.

But it had been two months since the last time I was here and over a month since I had begun doing lunges. My leg strength had improved noticeably, and my confidence was off the charts. I was able to step up onto the curb easily with my left leg. My walking speed had increased dramatically as well. I no longer had to worry about my foot dragging, so I was much less of a fall risk. I strode out of the pet shop and walked down the sidewalk to go enjoy a sandwich. I was lighter, stronger, and ready to take on life.

My day had been very productive between the numbers at my checkup, picking up food for Mary, and walking with much better form. I looked forward to taking Mary outdoors for half an hour, then taking a well-deserved nap. But when I got back to my apartment, I saw that Mary had puked on my bed. I was disgusted and upset with her, but I knew I didn’t have time to spare.

I stripped the sheet from the bed and threw it into my laundry bag. Next, I sprayed bleach cleanser directly onto the soiled area of the mattress. Then I wet a towel with hot water dabbed the area. I sprayed more cleanser on the area to pre-treat it, then I leashed Mary and took her outside. I let her use the bathroom and kept her out for a long time, just in case.

I hadn’t had to do my own laundry since the stroke. I knew where the laundry facilities were and how much it would cost to do a load. So I gathered all of the white towels and threw them in with the sheet, and headed for the elevator.

In the laundry room, I found the first open machine. I loaded my things inside and carefully read the instructions before I added quarters. I felt a bit silly, but I didn’t want to assume anything and screw up. Following the directions, I poured in detergent and added the quarters. The machine whirred to life. I waited for the wash cycle to complete, then I moved my sheet and towels to the dryer. After I started the dryer, I returned upstairs.

I put hot water on the towel again and scrubbed more vigorously. I scrubbed and scrubbed until I was sure that I could only smell bleach. Then I aimed the fan directly over the spot, knowing it wouldn’t be dry until the next day.

Once my laundry was dry, I brought upstairs and took Mary out one last time. The sky was black, but I had done so much additional work that I was no longer even tired. It had been a long day. I had mapped out a schedule to do things at several locations and returned home to find additional unplanned tasks. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I had figured out what steps I needed to take and had set about accomplishing them.

It was 11:00 before I stopped Mary from running around in the warm breeze. Since my mattress wasn’t dry, I placed a small blanket on the side of the mattress that was dry. I lay down knowing that it was going to be a very uncomfortable night’s sleep. But this seemed insignificant with how much comfort I had regained in moving about the world.

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July was the first anniversary of me moving into my building on 3rd Avenue. Moving into my own apartment was a huge step on my road to recovery. I was in the hospital from May until August 2015. Once discharged, I lived with my father and rehabbed three times a week. After a lonesome year of hard work, I moved back to Minnesota, to a much better support network, as many of my friends were in the medical professions. I lived with friends for over a year, and I ended up going to a transitional care facility in January 2018.

Being in transitional care gave me a lot of time to focus on acquiring the tools that would be required for me to live on my own. For the first two months, I had physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day. In February, I began going to the gym about three days a week to supplement what I was doing in therapy. Eventually the therapies ended. Legally, transitional care could not discharge me to the streets. So in March, I began the long process of waiting until they could help me find housing.

For the next few months, I was basically just a resident. The facility served three meals a day, but I had to find a way to fill the hours. To do so, I started going to the barbershop, the coffee shop, Target, happy hour. My goal was to get comfortable with scheduling, handling money, and moving around the community. I would often take my laptop along and just sit down and write. It was by repeating these movements countless times in public that I got used to knowing my surroundings and my rituals.

These little victories felt inspiring, but I was still going home to transitional care. I was living in a room that didn’t lock. I lived with a roommate. He was very nice, but he played his television constantly and seldom left the room because he was there for long-term care. I did have my own closet that I could lock when I came and went, so I could secure my things. This place was better than being on the street, but it wasn’t home.

Eventually, Hennepin County assigned a housing worker named Katie to me. She took me over to a high-rise one street over and four blocks up. It was still in the same neighborhood, but right across the interstate from downtown. I loved the location. Plus it had a large backyard where I could walk Mary. I immediately knew that this was where I wanted to live. This would be the next stepping stone back to full independence.

I filled out the lease on the last Friday in June, but it took over a month before I was medically cleared to move in. The first night I slept in my apartment was July 26, 2019. There was no one in the building who knew me. I didn’t have cable or internet. I had a phone, but it was having charging problems, so I couldn’t play videos on it. Mary was still staying with friends. So I had a long, lonely night. I had long wanted to be on my own again. But now that there was no one who could come to my rescue, I lay awake worrying.

My bed had not been moved in yet, so I slept on a mattress on the floor. It was hard to get down and even harder getting back up. When the blue light of dawn would come through the window, I would awaken. Since my left leg couldn’t bend, I would roll off the mattress, drag myself across the floor, and pull myself up onto the couch. All the while I had to pee, so I always worried that I wouldn’t make it, so I began sleeping with a latrine at bedside. If I wanted to shower, I would have to come in the front room so I could dry off and dress. Looking back on it now, it was miserable. But I had to reacquire the life skills to be independent. So having to do things the hard way kept my mind and body recovering at an accelerated rate.

Eventually friends brought over my bed and my dog. So I began sleeping comfortably and walking her outside. I began outpatient physical therapy and a gym schedule. My energy was low most mornings, but I knew I had to dress and get Mary outside. By the time I was back indoors, I was awake enough to shower, dress, and eat breakfast. I would still be a little sleepy as I went downstairs for my ride to the bus or the gym, But I would gradually come alive on the bus or in the cab. By the time I arrived, I was ready to give it my all.

These mornings were exhausting. I would fight through a workout, then come home, have lunch, and sleep until 5:00. Then I would get up, take my meds, and take Mary out again. I would do this one more time before bedtime. Over the next year, my energy, strength, and balance all I proved. Much it was from working out, but a great deal came from having to get up and get moving no matter how I was feeling.

Today I’m wide awake most mornings before 6:00. Mary and I go outside for about half an hour. I have time for meds, a shower, and breakfast with another hour to spare before my ride arrives. I have been released from physical therapy, so my ride usually takes me to the gym. I stationary bike for several minutes, then I lift weights for another hour. The exercises I do have gotten much more strenuous. So I seldom require naps and I now walk around indoors without a cane.

My goal for my second year living alone is to strengthen my left leg enough to stop requiring a cane for outdoor use. In addition to power, this will require dexterity. I wtasn’t be able to access muscles in my toes, ankle, and calf. This takes constant stimulation. Now when I go to the gym, I do so exclusively without my foot brace. Although this makes walking a little more challenging, it strengthens my ankle, makes me activate my toes during exercise, and forces me use my foot’s muscles to clear itself every time I take a step.

I have targeted the end of 2019 as the time when I want to stop needing the cane because I want my primary focus in 2020 to be gaining more use of my left arm. It has regained a lot of strength and mobility, but it requires far more neurons than the leg to work properly. I want to be able to give it as much attention as possible. Not requiring a cane will allow my right hand to work in tandem with it as well, so this would open up new avenues for employment and in daily life.

It was with this new sense of optimism that I welcomed my friend Allene as she visited from Wisconsin. It was Allene who found out about my stroke and put everything on Facebook while I was in a coma. She kept everyone updated as I opened my eyes, struggled to talk, and couldn’t hold a Smartphone. I even moved in with Allene and her roommate during my first year back in Minneapolis. Now that I was no longer in need of physical care, we were just meeting at a restaurant, telling each other about our future plans.

Of course Allene had to come by the apartment so she could see Mary. Mary loves every visitor she receives, but she gets doubly excited when she sees people she knew as a puppy. I watched her jump around and roll her little body all over Allene. It is so much fun watching Mary celebrate.

After a few minutes, we went outside. I looked at the steps leading to the upper patio and became ambitious. I wanted to walk all the way to the top using my left leg to step up to each step. Allene took Mary, and I began to climb.

Every time I stepped up, I could feel my quadriceps tindghten. My progress was slow a hard,. After I got to the landing halfway up, I started to feel it, but I kept going. As I neared the top of the steps, it took great effort every time I lifted my left leg. I even felt a twinge in my hamstring. Nonetheless, I was almost to the top.

As I stepped up to the last step, I felt my left leg start to give way. I quickly brought my right leg up. With both legs planted firmly beneath me, I was stable again. I admired the view as I stood confidently atop the hill.

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The World Cup Semifinal match had been exhilarating. The team had fought hard and executed well. Maintaining my balance while negotiating a crowded pub had become surprisingly. They key was just to concentrate on what I was doing with every step. Lift with your thigh; point your toes upward; strike with your heel. And though this had felt like it was overloading my brain before, the constant work on the stationary bike was helping me turn this into a rhythmic pattern. Every time I took a step, the motion was more fluid.

After a while, walking correctly didn’t have to monopolize my attention. Where before I had kept my head down so my eyes could scan the floor in front of me, I could now hold my head up and scan the room as I walked. I could also carry on conversations because my breath control was constantly improving. I hadn’t realized how closed off from the world I’d become until I felt how much more engaged I was in social situations. Being lively and talkative had always been my demeanor as an adult, so behaving like an extrovert was like becoming myself again.

So it was that I wanted the World Cup Final to be an even more special event. Although I wasn’t completely recovered, I had the mobility to interact and celebrate safely. I put a request on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to meet up. Someone suggested watching the match at the new Minnesota United stadium in Saint Paul. I was excited because I passed it about once a week on my way to the gym but I had never been inside. I was desperate to see it from the inside.

It’s always tricky to arrive when a place opens if your journey depends on scheduling a ride with Metro Mobility. They try to get you there before your scheduled time. But if you arrive before the business is open, the driver isn’t allowed to leave you there. But it was for a World Cup final, so I was afraid to arrive too late. I told them to drop me off half an hour after opening and hoped that there would be seating available.

When I have an early ride to the airport. I am seldom able to sleep through the night. The loss of control makes me too worried about missing rides to relax. The same thing happened the morning of the World Cup final. I got out of bed and took Mary out by 6:00. I took a long shower and dressed slowly. I finished breakfast before 7:00, so I went downstairs to get my morning meds from assisted living and then to the lobby to wait for my ride. After I made it downstairs, I decided to go outside and wait on a bench. The air was still cool and there was a gentle breeze. I was finally able to relax, knowing that I had done everything I needed to be on time for my ride.

The bus was on time. We took a short trip and made it to the stadium about twenty minutes before it opened. There were already several youth teams outside and tents set up, so I was confident that even if we couldn’t get indoors, it would be okay to let me wait on a bench next to the pub. When we got to the curb to unload, I asked the driver to check the pub doors. They were open, so I was able to go inside. With no one there but the staff, I was able to take any seat in the house. I sat at a picnic table with a gorgeous view of the field. Remembering how lonely I had been watching from a hospital bed four years earlier, today felt glorious already. And no one else was even there yet.

One effect the stroke had on my social life was that it made me start building relationships with different people other than just teammates and coworkers. I had come to know the guys I was meeting today better online, even though we played in the same soccer leagues. I really value the opportunity my second chance has given me to spend time getting to know them better. Soccer continues to be “the beautiful game” in how it never stops bringing new people into my world.

The first person to arrive was Jermal. One of the few African Americans in my soccer league, he had spoken with me about meeting up at a soul food restaurant but we had never actually hung out. A few minutes later, Conor joined us. Conor is from Ireland, and we have played with many of the same Irish guys over the years. The pub soon filled up around us. We ordered beers while we waited for the match to start in another hour.

One thing I love about the US women’s national team is that they always foster a family atmosphere. As with any sporting event, you have people who aren’t serious supporters of the sport who just want to crowd into a bar and chant “U! S! A! U! S! A!” But this seems like a much smaller percentage of the USWNT crowd. So many people bring their daughters and girls’ teams to the matches that it feels more well-behaved and innocent. This might just be my own prejudice. Nonetheless, I could be pretty drunk and rowdy at men’s matches back in the day.

The US seemed like the better team from the start of the match. They attacked more and got more shots on goal. Although none of their shots had found the back of the net by halftime, I just felt that they were clearly a superior team to the Netherlands. They finally scored on a penalty kick. As a former striker, I hate for a match to be decided this way, unless a player is obviously about to score and one of two things happens: (A) the player gets tripped, or (B) a defender swats the ball away from the goal with her hand. Unless the foul denies an obvious goal, it doesn’t feel as satisfying to me. So I was happy when the US scored a second goal – this time during the course of play.

Now the singing and chanting began in earnest, as there were only twenty minutes left, and no one expected the Netherlands to score two unanswered goals. The pub was jubilant as the squad played out the last few minutes, and the whole room erupted in joy after the referee blew the final whistle.

It was only noon when the match was over, so Jermal and I went out into the stadium to get pictures. The light was pouring in directly overhead from the open roof, so conditions were perfect even with my darker skin tone. After posing for a few pictures, we headed for the exit. Walking was unbelievably easy. As my left foot lifted and glided effortlessly over the pavement, I wished I could send the pictures back in time to the self lying alone in the hospital, just to show me that I would make it here.

The next day I was back in the gym. I knew that only constant years of intense work were what had gotten me from a hospital bed in Mississippi to Allianz Stadium in Minnesota. I was determined to push to get even more from my workout. I began by doing ten minutes on the upright stationary bike. This was the most I had ever done, but it was important. Five minutes was good for a warmup and to get my lower leg working, but pushing beyond that would be a true cardiovascular workout. Doing this regularly would be vital to increasing lung capacity, losing weight, and most importantly, maintaining healthy blood pressure to stay stroke-free.

Next I decided to do triceps exercises. To be honest, I had gotten away from doing triceps work because no matter how hard I fought, I didn’t see myself gaining much ability since I couldn’t straighten my arm. Before the stroke, I’d loved bench pressing, dips, shoulder exercise – anything that involved triceps. Not being able to do any of these was disheartening. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had regained a lot of triceps strength. I could sit at a table and prop myself up using just my arm. And as I did this, I could feel the muscles pulsating. So, with conviction, I walked over to the machine and just started performing pushdowns with light weight. I did them by just concentrating on letting my triceps feel the movement.

From there, I moved on to lunges. Lunges took so much out of my left quadriceps that it was difficult to finish three sets of eight reps. But as I grunted out each rep this time, I kept my mind on how wonderful yesterday had felt. I was no longer in a hospital bed. I was no longer in a wheelchair. I no longer dragged my left foot. With each painful push upward, I was walking more upright, like a champion.

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I had been lifting leg weights for two years. And while I had been seeing some gradual increase in strength, my walking didn’t seem to be getting that much better. This was due to the fact that my lower leg was still not very involved. There are so many muscles from ankle to toe that we recruit while striding that we never think about. Once these muscles were dormant, walking effortlessly – even with a cane – was next to impossible. The thing that really changed this was when I started using the stationary bike.

Biking wasn’t an exercise for building brute strength; I used it to restore fluidity of movement to a body part that rarely received individual attention. Unlike walking, where my lower leg was fairly static, biking focused on me spinning my lower leg in continuous revolutions. This increased blood flow, which in turn made it easier to control the muscles. Where I had once needed help lifting my left foot onto the pedal and required it to be strapped tightly, I could now kick my foot into place and pedal without having someone tighten the strap.

While my foot and calf were working hard, my inner thigh was working even harder, fighting to stay upright and over the knee. If my thigh was allowed to drift to the side, my foot would start banging into the housing of the gear box and eventually fall off the pedal altogether. So having to strain to keep the thigh upright strengthened it, and it in turn activated more when I wasn’t on the bike. Now foot clearance had become such an afterthought that I could focus on correcting other parts of my gait.

Shortly after I had begun doing the stationary bike again, I saw a video of myself from when I’d first started doing leg curls. It was from two years ago and it instantly made me realize how much I had advanced. In the video, I struggled as hard as I could, but the amount my leg moved was almost imperceptible. The only way you could tell my leg was working at all was by hearing the gentle clang of the machine as the top weight moved up and down against the rest of the weight stack. Staring at the video, I was reminded of how painful and frustrating just trying to move my leg had been.

Now, the little range of motion I was achieving on the same exercise was much more encouraging. My leg wasn’t going all the way up, but you could definitely see how much it was moving with every rep. I had been upset because I could still remember lifting in high school and being able to lift the whole stack. But now as I watched the ten pound weight going up and down, I was reminded that all I needed to do was keep going in several times a week and doing my best. The only person I needed to compete against myself.

All of the leg work in the gym was paying off in “real world” functionality. Every six months I have to go to the Hennepin County building in order to renew my social services. When I go there, one of the pieces of documentation I need to provide is a checking account report. Since there is a branch of my bank located directly across the street from the county building, I decided to have Metro Mobility drop me off there. I also wanted to grab a burrito from the restaurant on the corner across from the bank. So once the bus dropped me off at the bank, I could pick documents and walk across the street to Hennepin County; then I could walk back across the street and cross a second street to the Mexican restaurant, where the bus could pick me up and return me home.

As I waited for the bus to pick me up the next day, I saw that the skies were cloudy. I checked the weather app, and it showed me that there might be light rain in a couple of hours, but there wouldn’t be thunderstorms until around noon. By then, my business should be finished and I could wait it out safely in the restaurant. I was hopeful, but I had no confidence that the rain would hold off. By the time the bus was halfway to the bank, raindrops were hitting the windshield. It was raining in earnest but the time I emerged from the bank.

It wasn’t a downpour yet, but because I was slower due to the stroke, I expected to be drenched by the time I walked to the corner and crossed the street. I waited beneath an awning, hoping the rain would let up, but it didn’t. So I finally just went for it. The rain was steady, but I didn’t get soaked. The hardest part was when I had to cross the street. There was a wide puddle at the intersection, and I had no way to avoid it nor could I step in and out of it quickly. Having no other alternatives, I held my breath and stepped down.

It took me less than thirty minutes to complete my business, so I came back outside to wait for a break in the rain. The sidewalk was slick, but it wasn’t a slip hazard. All I needed to do was walk carefully but with intent. I hustled back to the intersection, where I had to cross both streets. As soon as I got to the strip mall where the restaurant was, a light rain started to fall. But at this point, all I needed to do was walk past two other businesses. I sat down to eat my burrito with over two hours to spare, but more importantly, I no longer needed to have anxiety about getting stranded in the rain.

The Women’s World Cup happens once every four years. In 2015, I had just suffered a stroke a month before it started, so I’d had to watch it while confined to a hospital bed. Moreover, I had been in Mississippi. So the few people who were around didn’t care about soccer or women’s sports in general. While I was happy the US won the tournament, it was a very lonely experience for me. Dad and I watched the final on my tiny TV in room 505. As we celebrated alone, I silently vowed that I would be watching in Minnesota in four years.

My friend Liz contacted me from a bar downtown after the US won their quarterfinal match. She wanted to meet there for next week’s semifinal against England. I told her that I’d be there, knowing that there was no way I’d miss it. I didn’t know how well a women’s match would be attended, but knowing that I wouldn’t be able to stand for several hours, I made plans to arrive over an hour early. With the stroke had come a sense of losing control of my schedule because I was not able to drive. So even though I had a plan to arrive early, I still spent the next few days worrying about when my transportation would get me there.

On the day of the match, I had an appointment with my ILS worker. I ran errands for an hour then had him drive me to the pub. This gave me a chance to relax more about being on time, but I would be lying if I said that I was completely at ease. I did beat the crowd (by a lot) and was given a table up front. I ordered a Guinness and settled down to finally relax.

Liz and her husband arrived thirty minutes later. They were meeting friends at a table on the rooftop patio and invited me to join them. I was enjoying not being in an apartment with no air conditioning, so I told Liz that I would come up for the second half. She refused to take no for an answer and hustled me up to the rooftop to join them.

When I got up to the patio, they had preemptively ordered me a regular chair so I wouldn’t experience pain in my thigh. However since they were seated at a high top table, I decided to sit at a bar stool too. My leg had recovered so much that I could be okay for a few hours.

The crowd was large and passionate. The patio was hot, but we were so full of excitement that it wasn’t unpleasant. The whole building erupted as the US scored the first goal. Liz was as nervous as a coach or parent. Soon England equalized, and the single table of England supporters began singing at the table next to us. The US has always had the best women’s squad in the world, so I wasn’t bothered, because I always feel like they will pull off the win. The US scored again, and everyone in the bar other than Liz breathed a sigh of relief.

At halftime, I went downstairs to the restroom. I was surprised by how easy walking was. Thanks to the lunges and leg press, I could walk leisurely and speak to other patrons. Because I wasn’t so frantic, it didn’t feel like an emergency. I didn’t feel like I had to rush to a latrine. I walked back to the table feeling refreshed and blissfully awaited the second half. It felt good to be regaining so much control of my body.

The US survived a scare in the second half and held on to win. Now people clapped and cheered. Liz began smiling and interacting now that the tension had finally lifted. This was the type of World Cup crowd I had been dreaming about when I was lying in that hospital bed in Mississippi. Many of the people were probably there to cheer on Team USA in any sporting event; a lot of us were true soccer fans. I was able to raise my voice, move around the room safely, and thoroughly enjoy the life I had worked so tirelessly to regain.

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Father’s Day gave me time to reflect on the important role my family had played in my life. Dad had been ubiquitous in our lives as we boys grew up, and he was still a loving, supportive presence after we were adults. But after I had my stroke, it was as though he had to take care of me through a second phase of childhood. He had to help me with bathing, dressing, cooking, walking. It had to be a tiresome task, because it was exhausting for me.

Walking was exhausting. Standing to fasten my belt drained me as I struggled to maintain balance. Standing up in the tub seemed fraught with peril, as I constantly imagined all the ways I could fall and hit my head. Dad would stand at the sink and hand me my toothbrush because my wheelchair couldn’t fit through the bathroom door and I couldn’t stand at the sink. Then he would hand a variety of cups to me so I could rinse, spit, and use mouthwash. I’m overwhelmed when I think of all he did to care for me, and he is part of my inspiration. I want him to see me walk without a cane again.

We had a family get together in Mississippi scheduled for September. My plan was to be walking without the cane by the end of the year; I still had almost three months to strengthen my leg. Each time I had gotten together with my dad and brothers over the last three years, I had improved physically during my time away. I was now at the point where I could really build a lot of strength and endurance before I saw them again. So I continued to throw myself into my workout, excited to impress everyone.

I had been working left arm aggressively. Although I couldn’t straighten it fully, my triceps were getting a lot stronger. During the first year after the stroke, physical therapists had pushed me to try supporting my body weight with my arm. Each time I tried, my elbow would just skid along the table. Frustrated, I tried holding it in place with my right arm. The arm wouldn’t move, but it felt like I was cheating. Once I started going to the gym, I did exercises that built up the triceps. Then in 2019, I suddenly noticed that I could generate enough force in the arm to easily hold my body up.

My left leg was coming along even better. All the squats, presses, and lunges had not only improved my balance, but my reflexes seemed improved. Most of my falls had come while trying to spin around too quickly. Now I could turn almost as quickly as before I had the stroke. When I would go from sitting to standing, I would often lose balance. Now my hamstrings were so strong that I had no difficulty standing up from the lowest of seats. My leg was just more solid in every way I could think of.

Getting up and going to the gym had ceased to be a struggle. After two weeks of lunges and leg press, things that had once tired me out stopped seeming like big obstacles. One such thing was the hill in the backyard. For the first eleven months I had lived in my building, the hill had seemed foreboding. It had once been my goal just to get to the top of it by climbing up the steps.

Indoor steps alone had once been physically demanding. I would cling to the railing and lean on it, hoping not to fall backwards. The prospect of falling back and hitting my head was so frightening that I would lean forward. If I did lose my balance, I would fall on my stomach. This way, I could simply rise to my feet and keep climbing. Although this method felt safer, I would see pictures of myself afterwards and hate the way I was so stooped over. I looked like an elderly person with a severe hump in his back.

Then I managed to climb up the hill. Sure, someone had helped me, but I had climbed it the difficult way: across grass and uneven ground. Climbing up the steps would be easier, plus I would have the help of a sturdy hand rail. I didn’t even have to worry about the descent, even though there would be no handrail on my right side. I had turned and backed down before. This would be nothing new for my brain and body to figure out and coordinate.

I decided to attempt it one Saturday evening while I was out in the backyard with Mary and my friend Maggie. When I suggested I try it, Maggie offered to hold Mary for me. I told Maggie that I wanted to try holding her myself. Mary is my responsibility. One day I am going to have to learn how to walk up and down steps safely while holding onto her leash. Maggie handed the leash to me and I gripped it tightly in my left hand. I grabbed onto the handrail with my right hand. Then Mary and I began our ascent.

My pace was cautious but steady. Mary was always a few steps ahead of me. I’d worried that she might get excited and try to pull ahead, but she didn’t. It was as if she realized that she could scout ahead but didn’t want to risk injuring me by upsetting my balance. In the past I had used the rail to help pull myself up, but after working so hard on lunges, my left leg could carry my weight without assistance. I straightened my back because I no longer needed to lean on the handrail. I virtually glided to the top without breaking a sweat. Stairs were now off the shrinking list of things I couldn’t do without great effort.

What I was really excited about was that I was about undergo another round of Botox injections. I received Botox injections in my left arm and left leg every three months. They act as muscle relaxant. They normally inject me in my biceps and calf to make it easier to walk by reducing the involuntary pointing of my toes and to help me to straighten my arm by allowing my triceps to overpower the involuntary constriction of my arm. These didn’t make me able to instantly walk normally or straighten my arm, but I was able to move with more fluidity over time.

When I first started working out again after two years of therapy and Botox, the amount of spasticity in my muscles severely limited how much weight I could lift. I concentrated on the low-intensity sessions. My range of motion was extremely limited, and most of the time was spent on set up or walking between workout stations. My energy was low in those days; I felt lucky if I could make two trips to the gym in a week. But over time, I was able to start doing a greater variety of exercises.

With increased strength and range of motion, I was able to access more muscle groups. Many of these supporting muscles still suffered from spasticity. So I asked my doctor to start injecting Botox in more sites. First we tried the scapular area. We saw results almost immediately. My shoulder loosened so much that I was able to get my arm around the bar to start doing squats the next week. After another year, I asked my doctor to inject me at my wrist. This didn’t grant me the freedom of movement I had anticipated, probably because every time I straightened my wrist, my fingers would contract. So to counteract this the next time I went in for Botox, the doctor also injected my hand.

The hand has many more nerves in it than the shoulder or leg, so I anticipated the injections to be much more painful. The doctor offered to use pain-numbing spray, to which I agreed all too quickly. I asked her to inject my shoulder and arm first, without using the spray. If I could endure the pain easily without using spray, the difference wouldn’t feel so jarring.

The injection in my scapula was almost like a pin prick. Next she moved down to my biceps and wrist. The pain here was a little more noticeable, but it was still only mild pain. Now it was time to do my fingers. The nurse couldn’t hold my hand open, so I did it for her as the doctor sprayed my hand where two off my fingers separated. This time it was painful. She injected me twice more; it hurt every single time. I can only imagine how much it would have hurt without the anesthetic.

It usually takes the Botox one or two weeks to fully penetrate the muscles. In the past, I would stay away from exercising for that time period because it was communicated to me that exercising could disrupt the muscle penetration of the Botox. But my physical therapist in Fall of 2018 told me that she felt exercising immediately would aid the Botox in penetrating the muscle. When we tried that, it seemed to work instantaneously. After that, I stopped taking breaks after Botox injections.

My ILS worker came over the day after my injections. We used the session to take me to the gym for a quick leg workout. I started out by doing some of my old exercises – leg curls and leg press. With leg curls, I noticed that I had much better endurance. I was able to lift my leg a little higher, but my strength quickly declined. But I could easily do 12 to 15 reps every set, and after I stood up from the leg curl machine, I noticed that my leg bent a little more as I walked.

Now I climbed into the leg press machine. My left leg easily found its position against the sled. As I pushed up, I could tell that my leg would endure a full set of15 reps. After I finished my first set, it felt like I was only warming up. So I added ten pounds and did two more sets of 15. I felt so pumped that I asked my ILS worker to add ten pounds to the other side. I finally slowed down to 12 reps, then fell back and rested.

Finally I needed to add some cardio. Normally I like to end workouts with time walking on the treadmill. But since I had recently begun using incumbent stationary bikes, I decided to try the upright one. Although I had expected this one to be a lot more difficult, I found it simple to slip my left foot onto the pedal. I tried a couple of revolutions, and they were so easy that I had to bring the resistance from level 0 to level 4. I pedaled comfortably for about a minute. My leg didn’t flare; my foot didn’t slip off the pedal. Now I wanted to grip the handlebars.

My left arm couldn’t reach the handlebar on its own, so I brought it over with my right hand. My hand gripped the handle bar and I rotated my elbow inward. Now I was riding with form as natural as any other patron. I rode for a full ten minutes, enjoying the feeling of my foot going around and around. I could have continued, but I knew we had a schedule to maintain.

As I climbed off the bike, I felt that a whole new world might be opening up. Even if I never drove again, with a lot of time and practice, this might be a way for me to start traveling short distances independently again.

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As May gave way to June, I knew I had to ramp up my leg workouts. We were almost to the midpoint of the year, heading into summer at the end of the month; now was the time for me to strengthen my leg and make it more flexible. The window to developing outdoor independence from the cane wouldn’t be open that long. I began doing a minimum of three leg exercises four times per week.

When I began walking on the treadmill that spring, my left leg had been so weak that I felt very uneasy about climbing on and off the treadmill. The first time I tried to step up onto it with my left foot, it had been impossible. I tried to lift my foot three times before having to give up and step up with my right foot. During the past three months I had done so much to strengthen my left leg that I was able to start stepping up with it. The first few weeks, I had a hard time pulling myself up after leading with my affected leg. But gradually, this became easier too. Ultimately I found that I could lift my left foot about four inches above the treadmill.

Once I was on the treadmill, walking was the easy part. Where my toes had once dragged every time I tried to lift my left foot, it now caught fewer and fewer times. When I had first begun using the treadmill, I had tried to step forward using my quadriceps. While I had become more adept at walking, the progress had not been fast enough. After a few weeks, it occurred to me that I needed to incorporate my glutes and hamstrings. At first I wasn’t sure how to access these muscles. It soon dawned on me to imagine that I was squeezing my inner thighs. This technique made it easier to lift and advance my foot.

At first I had to put the treadmill on the slowest setting. Each time I stepped, I had to squeeze my thighs to get my foot to rise off the treadmill. This wasn’t physically difficult, but it did require a lot of concentration. It was so mentally taxing that I longed for the day when this motion would become automatic. As I walked, I would gradually increase the speed of the machine. While I could keep up, I couldn’t relax because of my need to concentrate on my leg muscles. I had to step and squeeze every time over the next few months, and it resulted in an increase in my muscle strength. Through building strength, walking would soon begin to feel more automatic.

I was quite proud of how much stronger my left leg was getting. It was getting easier every week to advance it while walking. But while my glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings were getting regular attention, if I really wanted to be able to walk normally without my cane, it would take reactivating the muscles of my lower leg. I had been doing leg curls to try to work my calves, but I was seeing minimal gains. I needed to try other exercises.

Lunges seemed to be the ideal exercise. Placing my legs at different angles would help me to isolate each and work on developing balance. Alternating which foot I placed forward and which one I kept beneath me would help me to work specific muscle groups. The only drawback was that lunges are usually done while holding dumbbells. I didn’t yet have the stability to attempt this. I would need something to hold onto. I decided to do it by using the Smith machine. If I started out in a squat stance, I could do lunges safely that way.

For my first set, I slid my hands into place and ducked under the bar. Since it was almost time for muscle relaxant injections, I expected my left shoulder to be tight (It often takes a set for my shoulder to loosen up), but I had no problem with constriction. The physical therapist had been doing such a great job that I didn’t need to stretch my shoulder prior to exercising. I stretched out my arms, put my left foot out in front, tucked my right foot behind, and went down into a squat.

The exercise felt really awkward at first, placing me on a narrower base than I was used to. But with my arms wrapped around the bar, I knew I couldn’t fall over. I ignored how strange it felt and concentrated on breathing and form. I inhaled as I sank down. Then I exhaled as I slowly pushed myself up to a standing position, trying to use only the muscles of my left leg. This was much more difficult than I had anticipated. I lifted correctly, but my strength gave out after five reps. I sat down to catch my breath. It might take me a while to become proficient, but I knew I had found my next exercise.

After resting for a couple of minutes, I stood back up to repeat the exercise on the opposite leg. As I stuck my left foot out behind me, it took a little maneuvering to get it just where I wanted it. When I went down, I felt slightly unpleasant. My toes hadn’t borne the weight of my body in years. It wasn’t painful. So I kept going and eventually was able to reach a set of ten. Each time I stood upward, I tried to push with my left leg. As I did, I felt my calf muscles working.

I performed two more sets of ten reps with each foot forward. The exercise worked different muscle groups, from toes to glutes, depending on which foot was in front. When I was done, I didn’t stand up for ten minutes. All I could do was mop the sweat repeatedly from my head and torso. I felt good knowing that I had achieved my goal of activating my lower left leg. I was on my way to walking without a brace.

Now I wanted some cardio I could do with the same muscle groups. This had been tricky since the stroke. Initially they had me use the Nu-step machine. When I first started, my left thigh was so weak that they had to strap it to my right leg to keep it from flopping to the side. They would also have to lift my foot to the pedal and strap it in place. During those early days, my left leg was just along for the ride. Over the last four years, I had built up my leg through strenuous work. Now not only could my left thigh work independently, but I could lift my left leg onto the pedal without assistance. Not only was Nu-step easy for me, but I had progressed to a point where I needed a new exercise.

I really wanted to be able to do the stationary bike. When I had lived in Minneapolis before, I had enjoyed biking on urban trails. After the stroke, I had tried using a stationary bike a few times, but my left foot couldn’t stay on a pedal – not even when strapped in. Now I had gained a lot more control in my foot. Since my ILS worker was with me, I had him to help me lift my foot into the pedal strap. Setting the machine to no resistance, I pedaled carefully. My feet made a few rotations! I bumped the inside of my foot against the bike, but it wasn’t enough to knock my foot off the pedal.

After a minute, I felt like I needed more of a challenge. I moved the resistance from 0 to level 4. I was actually working now. I concentrated on pedaling as much as I could with my left leg. I tried to angle my knee inward so my toes would turn outward. After a few seconds, my foot stopped hitting the machine. I now was able to pedal smoothly. It was so amazing that I wanted to cry. My lungs started breathing rhythmically on their own. I felt my body heat up and begin to sweat.

After five minutes, I stepped off the bike. I wanted to do more, but I restrained myself because it was just an introduction day. I didn’t want to overdo it on my first day working calves. As I walked, I made sure to keep my toes pointed upward. I didn’t feel as though it required the same amount of effort as it had before. It felt as though my lower was actively working on its own, taking the mental strain away from walking normally.

With my strength improving so much, I knew it was vital to work on my walking technique. If I developed bad habits while relearning how to walk, I might carry them permanently. For instance, when I walked with the cane, I always leaned more to my right side in order to help lift my left foot. This was a compensating mechanism due to my having a weakened leg. Now that I was able to lift my foot more easily, I really wanted to stop walking incorrectly.

The next time I went to physical therapy, I had my therapist check the height of my cane. She stood it beside me and verified that it was the correct height. So I began try to walk with my body as erect as possible, with and without the cane. When I walked Mary, I would watch my reflection in the glass. I would correct my posture as I walked towards the door. At the gym, I would practice walking after every different weight exercise, anticipating that it would feel easier for my body to lift my leg after it had finished lifting weights. I had my ILS worker record me one day, and sure enough, I wasn’t deviating nearly as much.

Walking in my workout clothes was always easier. They were lightweight and I was usually warmed up from my workout when I practiced my stride. My moment of real triumph came when I was wearing jeans and a polo shirt. The fabric was more rugged, which constricted my muscles. It was a little more difficult to lift my leg, and I did roll slightly to the side. But my posture was much better than it had been. With hard work in the gym, it wouldn’t be hard to keep correcting my stride. And hard work in the gym was the one thing that seemed to be coming easily to me now.

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As May came to an end, it was time for more transitions. For one, my friend Manny was finally moving back to Indiana. On the last Thursday of the month, my ILS worker and I had a 3:00 – 5:00 trip to the gym scheduled. He encountered a family emergency and had to cancel at the last minute, leaving me free for the afternoon. A few minutes later, I received a text from Manny saying, “Pick you up at 5:15?” I had completely forgotten that his Nerds of Color group was getting together one last time for dinner and a movies. Canceling the trip to the gym had left me enough time for a late lunch and shower.

Manny’s dad, Felix was in town to help him move. He came along for the movie. His name is Felix. From the time they pulled up to my building, he was trying to hold doors and help me get in and out of the car. I assured him that I didn’t need help, but he tried every time we went anywhere. It was really kind of him and it made it obvious why Manny is the compassionate person he is.

We had dinner before the movie at an authentic Mexican place. I wanted to pay for Manny and his dad, but Manny assured me that his dad would never allow it. I tried to stand behind them both and pay, but his dad didn’t let me. He pretended not to hear me, and paid for himself and the two teenagers with us. As we sat down, several other guests had already shown up. Many of them had brought Manny creative gifts tailored to his personality. I think my favorite was an Infinity Gauntlet piňata. It said “Chicano” and “scifi nerd.”

The movie we saw was Godzilla. I had no desire to see it in the first place, so I wasn’t really expecting much. I think when most people go to see movies about giant monsters, they are just waiting to see monster fights. This movie seemed to focus a lot on the science of its own world, which didn’t make sense. It also tried tell a compelling family narrative, in order to give the movie more emotional weight. This also fell flat to me. It seemed like the movie was trying to be too sophisticated for its own good. There are people who want intellect and drama in their movies; there are people who want blockbuster action scenes. In trying so hard to deliver both, I think the movie failed to satisfy both audiences.

When the movie was over, we gathered to take a couple of group photos. It was bittersweet, potentially the last Nerds of Color outing organized by Manny. Even if it wasn’t, it would be the last one attended for a long time. It was a very positive, warm experience. There was a genuine feeling of love whenever Manny brought people together, and he was the ingredient that made the flavors of the salsa work.

The following week I knew I’d have to go out and buy food for Mary. Normally I have someone else take me to the pet shop because the food bags are too heavy for me to place in the cart by myself. It had been a few months since I had last needed to buy food for Mary. During that time I had gained so much strength in my upper body that I wanted to see whether I could do it by myself. And if I couldn’t, I could always ask a store clerk for assistance.

I also needed to go grocery shopping for myself. However, I had a Meals on Wheels shipment coming soon. To make my food at home last, I decided to go to the sandwich shop near the pet shop. Both businesses were in the same strip mall. In the past, just walking this amount of space outdoors would have felt like a huge task. In those days, I would have my roommate drive me from one store to the other. This time, not only would I be walking from one business to the other, but I would also be doing it alone. I had to rely on myself for safety and security.

On the day of the trip, I scheduled myself to be there for an hour and a half. That way, even if there were long lines at both stores and if it took me longer than expected to walk between them, I would have more than enough time. I easily found the dog food aisle. My product was about ten dollars less than I had budgeted for. It was surprisingly easier to handle than I thought it would be. I slid it off the shelf and into my shopping cart. When I got to the register, the clerk told me that he could hold it while I went to the sandwich shop.

When I got outside, I saw that the sky was getting dark. Although I had been very excited about walking between businesses, I now became concerned that I might get caught in the rain. Knowing I would get caught for sure if I hesitated for too long, I just decided to start walking. I was in such a hurry that I almost tripped a couple of times. I had to remind myself to take my time.

There was no line at the sandwich shop, so I got my food quickly. I had barely eaten that day and sat down to eat a few bites. The sky was continuing to darken, so I packed up my food and headed back to the pet shop. Ten feet away from the sandwich shop, I felt rain. Rather than panic, I told myself to just walk calmly. Even if I got a little wet, the important thing was not to fall down. I would be indoors shortly, and I could take a hot shower when I got home. I made it to the pet shop before it really started raining. The clerk gave me a chair to sit until my ride arrived. I sat and ate my sandwich as I watched the rain stream down.

I was really enjoying things as simple as not being afraid to handle my own money, walking and not getting exhausted, or running errands on my own. But I was also going to so many international restaurants and spending time with amazing people. These are the types of things that I had dreamed of during the year I was struggling to rehab well Mississippi. During those lonely days, I would often dream about being back in Minneapolis, engaging with people from different cultures.

My first time living in Minneapolis, I had enjoyed myself. But as I spent more time in the city, the novelty wore off. Life became a mundane experience. Since surviving the stroke and coma, I’d fought every day to be strong enough to move back. Now that I was back, I was loving my life. But I was still lifting weights or going to physical therapy almost every day. Not only was I on a quest to keep getting better, but I wanted to make sure that I never took my second life in Minnesota for granted. Life should always be lived as a magical experience if possible.

Life presented me with new challenges to overcome every day. For instance, I had moved into my building last July. Mary and I spent a lot of time in the backyard. The more hours we spent back there, the more I wanted to be able to conquer that landscape. On the far end, there was a high hill that led to an upper patio ten feet above the lower one. I had never been up there because the hill was so steep. There were steps leading up there, but there was only a handrail on one side. I could go up the steps with no problem, but I had no way to descend safely.

One Saturday my friend Maggie came over to take me grocery shopping. After we got home, we took Mary out to the backyard. Whenever someone comes over to visit Mary, I ask them to walk Mary around the yard. I like to see her cover more terrain and walk faster than she could do if I had to walk her. After they had walked around for a few minutes, I told Maggie that I wanted to try walking up the hill.

The lower part of the slope wasn’t as steep, so I began walking up, About a third of the way up, the grade became steeper. I spread my feet and leaned forward even more. I took smaller steps and climbed even slower. The going was more arduous now, but I was determined to keep going. As I neared the top of the hill, it became even steeper. Now I had to hold onto Maggie’s arm, so I could complete the climb.

Once I made it to the top, I was so tired that I immediately went over and sat down at one of the tables. The day was so hot that I had already been sweating profusely before I’d ever started climbing. Now that my body had been working, the sweat wouldn’t stop.

At this height, I could catch the breeze coming over the sound wall. The heat didn’t feel nearly so oppressive. I could see a wonderful view of the skyline. It was breathtaking. I asked Maggie to hand Mary’s leash to me, and I let it out so I could watch her prance back and forth in and out of the shadows. She played until she was tired. Then she just stretched out and relaxed on the grass.

After about half an hour, it was time to go back down the hill. I was in a quandary, because it was a steep decline and falling forward would be more dangerous on the way down. The handrail on the steps was on my left side. Maggie pointed out that I had gotten much better at going backwards downstairs. I looked at the handrail. It looked sturdy, so I asked Maggie to take Mary so I could come down safely.

I walked to the top step, turned around, and grasped the rail with my right hand. I held onto it firmly as I began walking backwards. The steps were short and wide, which took some adjustment because I was used to steps that were much steeper. It took me longer than normal to descend, but I felt a lot safer than I had on others. I finally felt safe enough that I began turning my head a little, so I could see where I was going.

Before long, I was back on the ground. I was so proud of having been able to work so hard and adapt. I had made a plan, stuck to it, and mastered the obstacle. I admired the picture I took of Mary in front of the skyline. This was the type of enchantment I wanted to savor now that I was back. As long as I was courageous enough to climb, the magic was right in my backyard.

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As I have said countless times, at a certain point, physical rehabilitation is no longer exhaustion and sheer physical pain. Once I had regained a lot of muscle function and gotten back to where summoning the energy to lift weights was easy again, just going in and trying not to be bored became my new challenge. It was a given that once I was on the bus and headed to the gym, I would be able to get through my workout. But I was worried that the workouts themselves were becoming stale. Staying mentally engaged would be vital if I hoped to keep progressing.

My arm was the body part that required the most work. The most instinctive thing to do would have been shoulder exercises. However, the physical therapist had informed me that these kinds of exercises might be great for regaining brute strength, but they could be hampering my muscle control, because they didn’t allow me to isolate fine muscle movements. Working my arm along a single plane would mean that the elbow would stop flaring out every time I attempted to lift my arm.

Once the physical therapist explained this to me, it became a lot easier to stay focused. I could now design workout plans that were more streamlined, because I was limited in the number of upper body movements I should perform. Knowing that compound movement was contributing to the problem also meant that I could alter the way I lifted for even better results. I concentrated on tucking my elbow in towards my rib cage each time I used my arm. This helped me to build strength and increase my range of motion. Before long, I was performing things like lat rows with very little impairment.

Leg exercises were coming along even more smoothly. Working out exclusively without my leg brace was giving me a lot more confidence when walking around in the gym. It also meant that I could flex and extend my more foot during leg exercises. This led immediately to better form. I was able to keep my foot engaged with the floor or the weight whenever I lifted. My lifts were no longer short or jerky; I was exercising the way these exercises were designed. I noticed strength gains immediately. When I had to step into position to use a machine or onto a bus, I began always leading with my left foot. Gains would be used to spur more gains.

Learning to walk without the cane or brace was the ultimate goal. To make this feel less alien, I always tried to warm up by walking on the treadmill. Although this was good for relearning the mechanics of walking, it was still aided walking. In order to work on balance, I needed to practice walking with nothing to hold me up. I had begun carrying weights around the weight room a few months earlier. That gradually became easier. Now I had to start doing it without the aid of a brace.

At first I worried that my ankle would buckle or that my foot would drag. But I took tiny, measured steps. I bent down to pick up the 25-lb plate, then I swiveled to carry it over to the machine. Now I was even more methodical in the steps I took. Now I had to figure out how to get the weight safely onto the machine. I sidled up next to it so the weight was still close to my center of gravity. It took me a few heaves to get it up high enough. But I was finally able to swing the plate into position. After a couple weeks of carrying and loading my own weights, I was even more comfortable walking without adaptive equipment.

As always, the goal of all the exercise I was putting my body through was to ultimately be more functional. The place I had always gone last year to gauge my progress was the Target main store in downtown Minneapolis. It was the closest location to me when I was on 2nd Avenue, and this hadn’t changed now that I was on 3rd Avenue. It was only about a ten-minute trip from either building, so it was the most convenient shopping trip I could book.

Security had been my primary concern the first couple of months I went to Target. At the time, I felt less stable and in control of my body. I worried about tripping and falling while crossing the street. After entering the store, I would head straight for the men’s room, afraid that I might not make it back in time once I started shopping. Upon leaving the restroom, I would find a riding cart and start shopping. I always gave myself far more time than I needed, because I also feared not being back at the front of the store in time and thus being left by my return driver.

I would text my shopping list to myself so it was impossible to lose, then I would place my phone in the basket of the cart, because I didn’t trust myself not to drop my phone. Usually I still had about an hour between the time I was finished shopping and the time my bus came. Since I still worried about incontinence, I would take my cart down the family restroom, where I knew I could transfer my bags from the cart to the restroom floor. When this was occupied, I would ask a store associate to watch my bags. Once I was done, I would ride my cart to the front of the store, and wait by the security desk until my ride arrived.

My trips to Target had been exciting challenges. I was always excited to go, and every couple of weeks I reached a new milestone. It was during these trips that I had become comfortable handling money in public; I had regained the balance to stand and take things from the store shelves; I began walking instead of riding while shopping. I would not have traded these trips for anything, but I always worried about falling, losing money, forgetting merchandise, or wetting myself until I was safely home again.

Presently I booked a ride to Target. I needed to buy razors, bleach cleanser, and energy drinks. These were for shaving, cleaning up messes, and heavy weightlifting days – all things I could handle for myself. I wasn’t worried about how long it would take me to get to the restroom, or juggling my wallet and merchandise. I had the leg strength to walk confidently across the street, and up and down the aisles. Shopping was no longer an endurance sport for me.

My leg was getting so much work every day that I felt like it wouldn’t be too difficult to achieve my goal of not needing a cane by the end of the year. But working on the shoulder was more difficult. I was doing a lot at the gym, but I was worried that when I was away from the gym or physical therapy, it would just constrict again, negating a lot of the progress I had made. One thing I did to counter this was to try to elevate my left arm while sitting.

I had begun this practice in 2019, while in transitional care. I would sit on a couch in front of a television and raise my arm as high as I could, hoping to rest it across the back of the couch, using my right arm to guide it into place. Because my shoulder was so tight, my arm would not stay in place, so I would have to push it over and behind the couch. I could sit like this for a few minutes, feeling the joint stretch passively. But it would begin to hurt after a short time, and I would have to pull it back down altogether. What I later learned in physical therapy was that as you stretch a muscle group, tone often kicks in in the corresponding muscles, causing the body part gradually snap back into constriction.

During my physical therapy sessions, the therapist would perform the stretches in slow movements, supporting the weight of my arm with hers. Since the movement wasn’t so sudden, my arm wouldn’t just snap back into place. Over time, this would alleviate a lot of the pain and constriction. Then one day, I decided to wait for my ride on the bench in front of the building. As I lifted my am, I noticed that it didn’t require assistance. It cleared the back of the bench by several inches. I rested it for about ten minutes. Before long, it became obvious that I could have left it there indefinitely without feeling the slightest amount of pain. Slowing down was speeding up my recovery.

I was feeling a lot more confidence in the recovery process. Every morning I was gaining energy, and I was also regaining more control of my body. One morning I awoke to find that Mary had thrown up in the living room. In the past, I had panicked when this happened, because all I could imagine was losing balance and falling face first as I attempted to clean it up. But I wasn’t nervous this time. I knew my mind and my body were up to the task.

I sprayed bleach cleanser on Mary’s mess and placed paper towels over it. I put Mary’s leash on her and we went outside for half an hour, just so she could throw up or use the restroom until everything was out of her system. When we returned, the paper towels had soaked up everything. So I was able to use it to scoop up the dried vomit and throw it in the waste basket. Then I sprayed down more cleanser so I could disinfect the floor.

Knowing I could get down on one knee and clean for myself felt so empowering. It allowed me patience and foresight to work out a plan of action. Developments like this are how falls and personal security concerns lessen with physical rehabilitation. You become comfortable with what your limitations are, but you constantly push past those limitations in carefully controlled environments. As you gain more control, your reflexes increase. Time “slows down” and the world doesn’t seem so chaotic. Soon you’re no longer thinking about every movement because your body is working instinctively again.

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I had overcome such a great deal in the last four years. I co uldn’t tell you how many people have expressed that they don’t know how they could have pressed forward under such dire circumstances. Without the countless number of people who have supported me along the way, I couldn’t have sustained my efforts. One of these people was my friend Manny. Manny had been the first friend I’d made in Minnesota. We’d met while playing soccer in 2002 and have been friends for 17 years. After my stroke, he’d taken a lot of initiative by inviting me to social outings and helping me to get out and socialize. So when he told me that he was moving back to Indiana, I was completely dumbfounded.

Manny had moved away before. He was in California from 2005 to 2012. I was living in Mississippi from 2011 to 2016. So of the 17 years we’d known each other, we had only been in the same city for six years. But because we knew so many of the same people, his influence was still there when I played soccer or went out with friends. Half of the memories I have of Manny are stories someone told about him in his absence. I would make sure that this would just be another time when it would feel like Manny wasn’t really gone.

Manny’s birthday is in late May, so he decided to have a going away and birthday party in one. It began at a Chinese restaurant near the University of Minnesota campus. From the time we walked in, it was obvious that Manny had been a regular there for years. The owner and waitress talked to him like he was an old friend; the cook came out from the back to joke and slap him on the back. He had begun frequenting the eatery when he was a student. I hadn’t been in the Midwest that long!

When I go out in Minneapolis, the crowd is normally large and diverse and full of interesting people. It’s one of the reasons why I felt at home after a couple of years. Sometimes I just enjoy sitting back and listening to other people’s stories. As I met the array of friends there to wish Manny farewell, I was reminded that I initially met a lot of my Minnesota circle thanks to people like him – hungry young urban citizens on fire with causes. Civic engagement and caring about people produced interactions where the people you met were more than teammates and coworkers.

While we were there, Manny did something I had never seen done before. He went out to his car and came back with two cardboard shipping boxes. One was full of books; the other contained cassette tapes and CDs. He began digging through them and handing them out to guests. He was trying to give away as much as he could at his own party, an act that just seemed so spontaneous and selfless.

As dinner drew to a close, Manny announced that we were going a few blocks away to Augsburg College, where the semiprofessional soccer club Minneapolis City would be playing. I had played in leagues at the Augsburg field for years. This was the first time I’d been back since my stroke. I wondered how difficult it would be to climb up the step of the stands. Would it be impossible to get to a seat that was higher up? Then I remembered my trip to LSU’s Tiger Stadium. It was much larger and I had gone there almost four years ago. If I had made it work then, this should be no problem.

As I climbed onto and walked across the bottom row of the stands, the railing was on my right side. Since that is also my unaffected arm, this part was easy. After I made it to the middle of the section, I had to go up a few rows to get to my seat. Although I was anticipating this being tiring, the strength I had developed in my left leg made it simple. After months of performing weighted squats, walking up steps wasn’t noticeably different than walking along a level surface.

My next concern was my eyesight. Would my vision allow me to follow the ball and the action? When we went to Minnesota United matches, it would always take several minutes of my eyes attempting to work together before they could focus on the ball. As it turned out here, the small stadium meant that we were always closer to the action. My eyes didn’t have to work so hard to stay in tandem, so I was able to enjoy the action in a way I hadn’t done since before the stroke.

Manny was having a great evening. Every few seconds someone new passed along and stopped to say hi. Most of them were there to share his birthday with him. Others just knew him from attending matches. The atmosphere felt intimate and friendly. It was a great place to hang out with family or friends. We didn’t pay much for admission or food. Parking was close and free. The only inconvenience was the labyrinthine route to the restrooms. But after so many years playing at the venue, I was able to find them by memory.

Once the match had ended, we retired to an Italian restaurant just across the interstate. It happened to be the same place we referees would go after a long day at the Augsburg field. A year ago, this would have been the time in the evening when I would be ready to go home. If exhaustion hadn’t set in, my muscles would’ve been sore from sitting in rigid seats. But my body was fine. My voice didn’t falter, either. After four years of grueling work, I could finally sit there and enjoy the evening that was unfolding around me. It felt so satisfying that weakness in my body could no longer put a damper on someone else’s night.

I took a couple of days off from the gym after the night out with Manny and his friends. I had been pushing my body incredibly hard. With all of that work, I had finally gotten myself back to the point where I could enjoy a long evening out without pausing for a nap. By extension, I could get through a long day without getting sleepy as well. This was an important milestone for me, as it meant that I would have the energy it would take to complete a full workday. Now I could focus on rebuilding the use of my limbs.

When I was ready to start going to the gym again, I attacked the weights with new vigor. For the first time, I added weight to leg curls. I was only achieving limited movement with no weights, but I was bending my leg slightly. So I figured that adding resistance would help me to build additional strength. Although to really achieve greater range of motion, I will probably need to have assisted range of motion for a few months, because my hamstring needs practice bending fully at the knee.

The exercise I was most enthusiastic about was lying leg press. Since I had begun lifting without my leg brace, this exercise was easy. The additional range of motion in my ankle made the movement natural again. I did my warm up set with no weight on the sled. After that, I added two 10-pound weights. I had a powerful urge to increase the weight with each successive set. However, I just increased the number of reps and sets. I didn’t want my enthusiasm to cause me to overdo it. I was definitely on the road to recovering leg strength. I would be able to add a little more weight each week.

Next I turned my attention to my arm and back. I wasn’t really trying to build strength; I wanted to stretch out those body parts. My left side felt too bunched up for me to use properly, and strength would come when I regained the dexterity to lift with good form. I started off with lat rows. Even as I did them, I felt the muscles around my scapula loosen. My range of motion wasn’t limitless by any means, but it had really increased from where it was when I’d started lifting weights two years ago. Two years ago, much of my movement had been achieved by rotating my trunk. Now I was focusing on proper technique. The only muscle groups working were the ones the exercise was designed to recruit.

The last exercise for the day was lat pulldowns. When I do these, it’s so tempting lean to my left and only use my right arm that I often have someone shoot video so I can review my form. Then I will go through the next set trying to lean to the right, lift my left arm higher, and bring it down farther than my right arm. Though these exaggerations in effort, I achieve something akin to balance.

After each set of pulldowns, I hold on to the bar and let it slide upward. When it gets as high as it can, I stretch my arm out by pressing my body weight forward. I gradually rotate to and fro, letting each muscle fiber unclench as much as possible. Then I slowly widen my grip and continue twisting. Eventually I feel a twinge of pain in my deltoid. I stretch and sway gently until the sensation disappears.

After a two-week hiatus, I finally had physical therapy again. I expected to be tight or to not have progressed my from where I’d left off. When the therapist asked me to rotate my palm out, she remarked at how much farther I could move it. I couldn’t tell the difference, but I did notice that it wasn’t bouncing involuntarily. This meant I was retraining my arm to move without tone. It was slight but unexpected progress.

From this point on, I would be able to mark my progress more tangibly. I would be able to count how much more weight I could lift with my left leg. I would notice if my arm jerked when I rotated it. But there would be things I didn’t notice as readily, such as improved grip strength, balance while walking, strength bending down, and foot clearance. Rather than noticing every advance in each of these abilities, I would be doing things like shopping, stepping into an SUV, or walking my dog, and it would occur to me, in passing, how much simpler this was that it used to be.

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