As the weather became warmer, I found myself spending more time outdoors. On days when I had to go to the gym or somewhere else indoors, I would wait in the sun for Metro Mobility. As I waited for my ride, my body would start to feel more limber and alive. I would reflect on how much hard work had brought me to this point. Now I felt unhurried and serene.

When the bus or SUV would arrive from Metro Mobility, climbing inside and buckling my seat belt were very simple. When I had started taking Metro Mobility in 2016, I had required help from the driver at each step in the process. Just getting into my seat and ready to go had been a five-minute process. But the years of dedication in the gym had given me back more control of my body. The minute changes in physical ability made me feel so proud. It pushed me to keep working on the strength and flexibility of my leg.

Living with Mary reinforced everything I was doing in the gym. For instance, my favorite strength building leg exercises were squats and leg press. I supplemented these each time I had to bend down and pick up after Mary. As recently as March, I would worry about losing balance when I bent down. But the more often I did, the more I realized that my leg wasn’t about to give out. Having to take her out three times a day also contributed to my recovery. When I was in the gym or at physical therapy, I always did some walking exercises. But these were always things that were highly structured and planned. When I took Mary out, it was often early morning or at night, my body felt half asleep, and there was no handrail. Having nothing external to depend on helped me to train my body.

My friend Maggie had been asking me about letting her spend some time with Mary. While the request surprised me because Maggie is a cat person, I told her that we could definitely hang out because Mary loves people in general.

One evening when Maggie and I were out having dinner I invited her back to my building to hang out with Mary. We went out in the backyard so Mary could run and play. After we got outside, Maggie asked me if she could hold the leash. Since Maggie could walk better than I could, I let her walk Mary all over the yard. Mary strutted, ran, and basked in the sun. Maggie thoroughly enjoyed playing with her. We stayed outside for two hours, letting Mary frolic in the dying sunlight. I don’t think any of us would rather have been anywhere else.

A few days later, Maggie invited me over to her place for dinner. She had chicken that needed to be cooked soon, so she enlisted my help to cook and eat it. She offered the day before she wanted me to come over. This was a problem because I needed to have any ride requests in before 5:00pm. Since it was already after 7:00, Metro was out. Maggie told me that there was a light rail terminal outside of her building in downtown Saint Paul. I hadn’t taken the light rail since before I left Minnesota in 2011. Since then, they’d added the line that ran to Saint Paul, so I was excited about the idea of riding somewhere I’d never been by light rail before.

Since I didn’t know where the transfer point to Saint Paul was, I asked my friend Manny to drop me off at the nearest light rail terminal. I could go online and figure out what to do next. But when I went to the Metro Transit website the next day, there was maintenance being done on it. Manny told me that he could drive me to downtown Saint Paul himself. He picked me up and drove me directly to Maggie’s office building.

Maggie had parked a few blocks away and asked if I wanted to wait while she went to get the car. I told her that I wanted to walk with her. I was wearing my business casual shoes, so I didn’t have my leg brace. Consequently, it took a great deal more effort to lift my foot every time I stepped. Every few steps my foot would drag. I had to lean more heavily on Maggie than I wanted. I also had to stop periodically to gather myself. But I had committed to walking the entire distance. In my mind, stopping short would have been admitting failure.

When we turned the final corner, I was dripping with sweat. We still had to walk about half a block, but it was all downhill. This made lifting my left foot off the ground easier, but I was still exhausted. I was so relieved when I finally got to Maggie’s vehicle. I climbed in and sat back to catch my breath. I explained that not wearing my brace and running shoes made navigating more difficult. Next time I’d plan better.

Once we were back at Maggie’s she told me that she only had chicken tenders and a few other things like rice and peppers; we had to decide what to make. She suggested we make fajitas.

“I don’t really want rice, but these would be great on top of nachos,” I suggested.

“I do have cheese and tortilla chips. Would you prefer to bake ‘em in the regular oven or microwave?”

“Just microwave ‘em this time. We can plan ahead next time.”

We cut each portion of meat in half and fried them in oil. She poured the cheese over a bowl of chips and placed it in the microwave. Next we heated up the rice and peppers. When everything was done, Maggie brought it over to the table. Using my hand, I piled a piece of chicken atop a cheesy tortilla chip.

“Too bad we don’t have any sour cream.”

“I do have some!” Maggie went to the fridge and came back with a bowl of sour cream, spooning a couple of dollops onto my plate. I scooped some up with a chip, then placed a piece of chicken on it. I bit into it, enjoying the interplay of temperatures and textures.

We ate until we were each quite full. Then we retired to watch some TV in the living room. That alone would have been a perfect evening. But Maggie suggested that we go to the lake for the sunset. We went to get ice cream first, then we drove out to the lake. By the time we reached an empty bench, the sun was too low for us to see it behind the trees.

It was still such a tranquil scene, the trees and sky reflected by the shimmering waters of the lake. We were sitting in the middle of a palette, surrounded by all the colors of Spring.

The following day, I had a doctor’s appointment for an allergy issue I’d been experiencing. For the last few months my eyes had been red and irritated to the point where I was rubbing my eyes almost constantly. I needed some type of relief.

The first thing they did was take my vitals. I weighed in at 249 pounds. I had hoped to weigh a lot less, but I was happy that my weight was below 250. I was still down nine pounds for the year and had managed to keep the weight off. I was also confident that I would be below 240 by the end of the year. My blood pressure was 119/80. My systolic pressure had been in the 120s and 130s for the last month. Although it wasn’t a dangerous level, it was still too high for my comfort. Now my numbers were back in line for me.

The doctor was very friendly and even asked me how my blog was coming. At her request, I gave her the link. She examined my ears, throat, and lungs, then asked me about my allergy symptoms. She wrote prescriptions for me, and I was out in no time. The visit had been so brief that I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I walked out to the lobby and played on social media for a while before calling for my return cab ride.

The next day was a Friday. I had scheduled a trip to the grocery store with my ILS worker. Because I wouldn’t be receiving my disability payment for five more days, I was only planning to buy a few things. My ILS appointments are for two hours. The shopping trip had taken just over thirty minutes. To pass the additional time, I asked the ILS worker to take me to a local coffee shop.

Usually I order my drink and have someone bring it to me so I don’t spill. However, my ILS worker was still out parking the car when the barista brought it to the counter. I had been walking indoors without a cane for over a month, so I decided to pick it up and walk it over to the table myself.

I scooped up the cup, rolled my shoulders back, and began taking small, even strides across the floor. The surface was smooth, so my foot didn’t catch. I was surprised at how easy it was. But at this point, not stumbling is more about concentrating on my movements. I have the strength and balance to get where I need to go so long as I think about the steps I need to complete.

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As May arrived, it actually started to feel like Spring. The weather was pleasant; my shoulder had improved; I was walking more; my energy was up; and my economic situation was without stress. It definitely felt as though change was in the air. As I sat down one day to work on my blog, my laptop began to freeze. I had known for some time that it would probably require some maintenance because it would not take a charge and only worked when plugged in. So I wasn’t really surprised now that it was developing more glitches.

I took off Saturday from the gym and from running errands to concentrate on writing my blog. As usual, I went down to the basement, bought something to drink, and set up everything on one of the tables. Knowing that the laptop was having the charging issue, I plugged it in before powering it up. Ordinarily it takes a few seconds before the login screen comes up. But this time it seemed to be taking too long. It seemed to be frozen on the powering on screen. I shut off the computer and tried powering it up again. It still wouldn’t advance screens.

Sensing that the laptop was about to experience a major crash, I texted my friend Dave who handles all of my IT issues. I sent him a screenshot and a description of the issue. He agreed to come have a look at it the next day. He also said that he would bring a different one for me to use in the meantime.

That was a good long-term solution, but I had a 1200-word document that I had been working on. I could have written a 2000-word blog from scratch, but I didn’t feel like starting over when I had already completed over half. I resolved to leave it on indefinitely, waiting for it get to the login screen. After I logged in, I opened my email. It froze three times before I was able to compose a message, but I was finally able to attach the blog fragment to it and email it to myself. Next I opened the message on my phone and downloaded the Word document. After reviewing it, I was satisfied that the whole text had been saved. I powered down my laptop and went up to my apartment.

Dave came over the following afternoon, after I came home from the gym. Knowing how much Dave loves pho, I asked if he wanted to go to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. I had a taste for banh mi, so it was ideal. I was rehabbing so much by now that even the increased amount of time I was socializing only amounted to over 20 % of the days I left the building. Dave and I caught up on each other’s lives. I know Dave from my adult soccer leagues, and he always notes how much better my left leg seems than the last time he saw me. Because I know how many sports he still plays, the compliments never ring hollow. Instead, they inspire me to stay active.

After an hour, we came back to my apartment so Dave could get set up on the new laptop. The only issue was that the touch pad didn’t read my fingers easily. Dave told me that he could bring a mouse for me to use. I wasn’t too worried, though. The more I used it, the more it would come to recognize my touch. After he left, I took it downstairs to finish my blog post. I had no problem downloading the old content or typing the rest of the post.

The following day, Dave texted me to let me know that the original laptop was dead. It would cost more to repair it than it was worth. He asked me whether there were any files I needed, but there weren’t. All of the blog posts were in the cloud, in email, and in the document history on my phone.
I had been needing to do some housekeeping on the old laptop. This would give me the opportunity to start storing and deleting my blog posts properly.

Getting to the gym was now becoming automatic. I got up and went through my entire routine, with almost two hours to spare. I was doing things more efficiently, but I often found myself getting drowsy as I waited until it was time to go downstairs and catch Metro Mobility. I had embedded things in my morning routine to help me to wake up. After I first go out of bed, I would grab an energy drink and sip from it for over an hour. After the assisted living staff brought up my meds and finished stretching my shoulder, I would jump into the shower. These activities would provide me with the eye opener I needed to get me through to 8:00.

However my bus didn’t arrive until after 10:00 most days. During that window of time, I would often start to experience an energy crash. Most days I would try to walk around more to wake myself up. Other days I might climb back in bed for an hour. What I feared most was falling asleep and missing a ride altogether. Missing three rides in a month would cause me to be banned for 90 days. So on rare occasions, I would drink a second energy drink before departing for the lobby.

After I returned from the gym, I would often end up taking a nap because my body felt depleted. As I got in better shape and the days grew longer, I began experimenting with skipping naps. The more intense sunlight made it harder to sleep during the day, anyway. I also wanted to see if staying awake all day would help me sleep better at night. But skipping the naps seemed to just sap me of my energy after 7:00. I crashed most nights between 8:00 and 9:00. The need to sleep would hit me so hard that I was lucky if I had the energy to take Mary out one last time. It was really starting to frustrate me.

One night when I knew I was going to get in late, I asked the staff to pack up my evening meds. The staffer asked, “Do you want me to pack your Trazodone?”

“Trazodone! Have you been giving me Trazodone every night?”

“Yeah. Every night since you said you were having trouble sleeping.”

It all made sense now. Of course I was drowsy after 8:00 pm. I was taking sleeping pills every night! The prescription I had was per as needed, so it would be easy to halt it and see how it was affecting me.

I was becoming more confident in the gym. My leg workouts without my brace were going so well that I decided to start working out without my leg brace all the time. I like doing hamstring curls there, but my leg brace makes it difficult because it covers my entire calf. Without the brace, I should be able to recover some flexibility.

On Friday morning, I slid into place on the hamstring curl machine. I pulled my foot upward toward the ceiling. I felt my leg hit the pad. I felt the weight providing resistance against it. I strained, curling my lower leg back as hard as I could. I knew my leg was barely moving, but it was progress. And it was only the first day.

Next I went over to the lying leg press machine. Without the brace, my foot had the maneuverability to slip into place. When I rested it against the pad, my entire foot was in contact with the surface. I pushed up with my leg. It was the easiest time I’ve had with the exercise since my stroke. I easily did twelve reps. Then I did the same thing for two more sets. I was overjoyed after I finished my leg workout. After years of progressing to and through two different corrective foot devices, I was finally poised to start regular weightlifting again.

That evening, my new friend Maggie told me that she was going to take me out for a surprise. She drove us up toward north Minneapolis. Soon I saw the World War I memorial come into view. I told Maggie that I had driven along the parkway before, but I had never actually walked it. Maggie has been very good about taking me walking. Not only is the exercise very healthy for my muscles, but it’s good to challenge my brain by forcing it to adapt to new places. If it can figure out how to adapt on the fly, I will be less inclined to lose my balance in general.

Maggie also prefers to exercise in the evening. I am a morning workout person. So it usually works out that when she asks me to do something, I have already had physical therapy or weightlifting that morning. This would have been too much activity in one day last year, but it is now something that my body benefits from. My stamina increases and my gait improves with every step. And because Maggie is practically as tall as I am, she can assist me when I push myself to the limit, because she can match my stride.

It was a beautiful, cloudless Spring day. Trees of all colors seemed to cuddle the memorial to the fallen. Its flag pole pierced the fading blue sky. The flag undulated endlessly in the breeze. Maggie pointed to the house she grew up in, right there along that very street. As we walked along the paths, she told me the stories of the tree and crevices where she had played as a child. This lent a feeling of enchanted innocence to the scene.

In the dying evening, we walked and talked until my leg was burning from exhaustion. So we drove to a 1950s nostalgia restaurant where Maggie used to eat as a kid. We shared the most delicious burger and malt I have had in years and talked as I listened to the songs my dad used to play for me when I was a kid. Everything about the evening seemed to blend perfectly. As Fats Domino came on the radio, I shut my eyes and imagined being ten years old and terrified as we drove across Lake Pontchartrain after a perfect evening in New Orleans.

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April was only slightly warmer than March. While I wasn’t thrilled with the weather, I did have a birthday coming up. I was really hungry for Thai food. As I had done for my monthly dinner meet ups the first year I was back in Minneapolis, I created a Facebook event and invited everyone on my friends list who lived in Minnesota. I knew that only a handful of people would actually come, but it would be a magical time just the same.

This would be my fourth birthday since the stroke. Every year I was a little more active than I had been the year before. I felt really good about this year. I was far more energetic because I was exercising so much that I had managed to lose 11 pounds – the first real weight loss since my stroke. I was sleeping better at night and more alert during my days. I was talking a lot more and walking to develop my lung capacity and endurance. This outing would be far more enjoyable than any I’d had since 2014, because I would feel like being there the entire evening, as opposed to wanting to go home and collapse from exhaustion after an hour.

On the day of the party, my friend Allene came over from Wisconsin. Since she was giving me a ride to the restaurant, I had asked her to come early. She arrived over 2 hours early, so I told her that we could go to the department store in the suburbs and still make it to the restaurant on time. So she drove me down to Bloomington; I picked out a brown leather belt; we stood in a line that was way too long; we still made it back to the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis with around fifteen minutes to spare.

We parked then had to walk through a large building and across the street. This amount of walking would have been too much exercise for me the year before. Every time before, people had dropped me off at the front door and gone on to park without me. Now parking and walking along with people was an afterthought. I was a little slower than Allene, but I didn’t even have to stop to rest.

When we got out to the street, it was full of tents, seating, and people. The entire block was cordoned off, and there were police and loud music. It was too early in the year to be the Uptown Art Fair or the Pride Festival. I couldn’t tell what it was, so we just continued to the restaurant. Allene got to the door first. She told me that it was closed. I was incredulous and had to check it for myself. Apparently there was a Thai festival that I hadn’t seen when I checked the website. Allene suggested that we just go to one of the restaurants in the building we had just walked through, since people would probably be parking nearby. That sounded like as good an idea as any, so I updated the Facebook event page.

Allene and I were seated immediately. Shortly thereafter my friend Sandra started texting me for my whereabouts. She found us and sat down. After a few minutes, my friend Kari showed up, completing our foursome.

Within a few minutes of conversation, both Sandra and Kari were remarking about how much clearer my speech had become. I see Sandra every two or three months, and it had been almost two years since I had last seen Kari. Unlike with physical rehabilitation, there aren’t many tangible markers with speech rehabilitation. So it’s something that I need to hear from others before I can assume that I’m making progress. It always feels wonderful because progress is so gradual. It’s also a compliment I’m never anticipating. Where I was once very reluctant to speak, it now makes me eager to talk more. So this becomes progress on top of progress.

In the time I have known them, Kari has earned a Ph.D. and become a tenured professor; Allene has gone through nursing school; Sandra has moved across the country and back. There was a time when these accomplishments would have made me feel woefully inadequate – as though they were experiencing life while I was simply running in place. But now that I am reaching so many people online, constantly working out, and improving my financial situation every month, I am able to keep everything in perspective. I am doing more with what I have now than I ever did before It has been an amazing journey and I have overcome more than most people seem to think they could. And it is still a story only I can write.

Knowing that it was that much easier to understand me gave me confidence to continue speaking. I told them about my plans to practice walking outdoors without my cane. I spoke with enthusiasm about how I was starting to lift leg weights without my brace. My fitness level had increased so significantly that I had the energy to stay out for a few hours. During the course of dinner, I had to get up and go to the restroom twice. I walked across the room with so little effort that I was practically gliding.

My birthday wasn’t until the following day. It was going to be a long one, too. A month earlier, I’d made plans to see the new Avengers movie the evening of my birthday. Then someone I was seeing ended up inviting me over to her place for a few hours. In order to accommodate both, I decided to have Metro Mobility drop me off at her place at 11:00 then pick me up at 3:00. On the day of the movie, I told my friend Manny that it would be difficult for me, but I might be able to be home by 4:30. That would give us a thirty-minute window to get to the theatre in Minneapolis. But he told me that the theatre was in the suburbs, so I was afraid that I probably wouldn’t make it. Manny suggested that he could come and pick me up from my friend’s house. I told him that I would be far away in east Saint Paul. He simply asked me for an address and the time I would be ready.

The person I was visiting doesn’t cook very often, but she wanted to make food for me. She decided to try her hand at making an omelette. It was something I don’t usually make, but I knew that I could basically guide her through the process from memory. She had me select the ingredients – red pepper, sausage, and provolone. She chopped them up, poured four eggs in and sprinkled the ingredients on top. I made sure that the eggs on the bottom were good and brown before I had her to flip them. I asked her to flip them twice more so the inside didn’t come out runny.

When she slid them onto the plate, they were neither too undercooked or overdone. There were just enough of the ingredients so that every bite had the correct balance of textures. It was a great job for her first attempt at a dish. As I sat down to eat, she remembered to present me with a small birthday cake. It was very sweet, so I took alternating bites, the saltiness of the eggs and sausage followed by the sugary, frosted cake.

We ate and watched television for four hours. Because I had never been inside her house before, I had to walk slowly and let my body become accustomed to walking around. I wasn’t in any danger of falling, but my mind always benefits from having fewer things to think about. Falls often come when a person tries to concentrate on something else while the mind is negotiating an unfamiliar environment.

The movie Manny and I were going to see was Avengers: Endgame. As silly as it might seem, I enjoy watching athletes and superheroes even more since my stroke. Their feats inspire me in the gym. Even though I’m just pushing to restore normal muscle function, it helps me to imagine my struggle as an epic one. I learned years ago that, in the gym, you take your motivation from wherever you can get it. If it helps you, you don’t ask questions.

Since we had more than enough time, Manny stopped for gas and to get us food. Even after he took twenty minutes in the gas station, we still arrived at the theatre early. He dropped me off in front and went to park the car.

I wanted to use the restroom before the movie started. Although my incontinence had been resolved, I still usually had to go once during most movies. Since the run time for this one was three hours, I was virtually guaranteed to have to miss part of it. When I got to the restroom, my cane slipped on the floor. I looked down to see the entire floor was covered in water. I walked cautiously over to the urinals, convinced that I was going to fall before I got there. I had to negotiate several children and the first sink I tried didn’t work, but ultimately I made it out still on my feet.

When I came out, I was able to go right to my seat because Manny had purchase two rows to include everyone in his group, Nerds of Color. As implied, we were a collection of minorities of all types. There are Latinos, Asians, black people. Some are straight; some are LGBT+. The bottom line is we are progressive, brown people out enjoying a positive experience that centers around superhero movies.

The movie had everything it promised. It was visually stunning. There was a riveting storyline. The stakes were high, but it was easy to get lost in the outlandish details of the internal universe. The writers were tasked not only with resolving the story of last year’s blockbuster but with tying together the threads of a decade’s worth of semi-related movies. There were scores of characters to fit into the narrative. No one felt neglected or tacked on. After three hours, I felt thoroughly satisfied.

I got up and headed to the restroom when it was over. I was surprised and a little proud that I had made it through such a marathon film. It was another obvious example that my body was returning to normal. What had once seemed as though it would take forever was now just a matter of actively working every day. The stakes were high, but I looked forward to the challenge.

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I initially began therapy on my left shoulder because of severe pain. There was a standing order to stretch my arm and shoulder each morning, but my deltoid began hurting so badly that I soon had them to pause working with me until I could have an x-ray done. The x-ray came back negative, but I was still in therapy. Although there was no damage to the region, it still required professional attention to resolve the issue.

During my first treatment session, the therapist stretched my arm and probed the shoulder area for any muscle problems. She told me that a stiff pectoralis minor was what actually was causing me pain every time I extended my arm to the side. In order to avoid further aggravating the joint, I would need to isolate and strengthen my rotator cuff – the tiny network of muscles and connective tissue surrounding the shoulder joint. What I had been doing was working the auxiliary muscles. This was largely why my range of motion had remained fundamentally unchanged.

She showed me a basic exercise for this. Lying on my side, I was to take two small face towels; roll them tightly; and tuck them in my arm pit. Then I was to tuck my elbow to my rib cage and swivel my fist back and forth. I asked the therapist whether I could perform this exercise at the gym using very light weight. She advised against it. She told me that working against gravity was providing enough resistance at this time. I really wanted to do more, but I realized she knew what she was talking about. All the muscles on my left side had been compromised due to my stroke. I would have to engage in basic rebuilding for over a year before I could hope to do any serious training.

I was to do this rotator cuff exercise every day. I found it frustrating to roll the towels and keep them in place, so the following week she gave me a therapeutic band to try out. I was to wrap one end around my left wrist and hold the other in my right hand. I could barely move my left arm through this moment, so she had me lie on my back and try it. That was much easier.

She told me that trying to move my wrist instead of my hand would stimulate less tone in my arm and would be a much more productive way of building strength. Doing three sets of ten would be more than enough exercise every day. I left the clinic excited for a third week in a row. The exercises prescribed for me were very light, but I was being directed by a medical professional. I no longer felt like I was doing everything on my own. It’s always easier to stay encouraged when you have someone to push you.

The shoulder irritation was just a minor setback. I had planned for 2019 to be a year of radically increased physical activity and rehabilitation. Hurting my shoulder was a mere byproduct of enthusiastically trying to lift more weights with my left arm. But while I now had to take it easy with my shoulder for a while, I didn’t slow down on the challenges to the rest of the left side of my body. I was still going to make 2019 a year of unprecedented muscle recovery.

My leg was the easiest thing to target. While weak, my upper leg had been working since two months after my stroke. I felt comfortable pushing it as hard and as frequently as was convenient. When I was at the gym, I performed squats, leg curls, leg press, and leg extensions. When I was going about my day, I was constantly walking. To increase the speed of recovery, I began going shopping more frequently and going to places like museums that required more walking. I had avoided going to these places before because I didn’t want to exert myself. Now I just wanted to push my endurance to its limits.

The leg curls and leg press were exercises that were designed to make me focus on bending and straightening my knee. I couldn’t lift as much weight with these exercises, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to get as much practice swinging my knee as possible. That way, my walking stride wouldn’t be stiff. I also began trying to walk the weight room floor more often. I would start by carrying weights to and from the various workout stations. When I was empty handed, I would marvel at how easy it was for my leg to move more naturally. I looked forward to rebuilding a lot of grace and stability.

While I was trying to rest my left shoulder, I still wanted to increase strength in my arm. Although I now knew that I was probably adding to the tone in my biceps, I wanted my triceps and wrist to become accustomed to work again. The simplest way for me to achieve this was to start carrying weights in my left hand whenever I was in the gym. If I wasn’t doing a targeted movement, perhaps the level of tone buildup wouldn’t be quite as bad, but the muscles would get a little stronger. It wouldn’t culminate in my being able to fully straighten my arm, but I gradually began to feel my triceps firing even while I was just sitting in a chair.

The most obvious unintended gain from my arm workouts occurred to me one day while I was sitting at dinner. I felt like resting my chin on my hand. This had been impossible since my stroke. My shoulder had been so tight that I would have to tug on it to get it to rotate. I could barely move my arm voluntarily, so I would have to guide it to my head. Once it was in place, I would need to crank my wrist back with my right hand. The whole thing was uncomfortable and difficult to maintain.

Now as I sat there, I thought to myself, It’s been a while since you tried binging your fist to your chin. I bet you could do that. I expected it to be difficult, but I tried it anyway. I slid my elbow onto the table, then slowly rotated my arm until it was upright. As I brought my chin to rest atop my knuckles, I couldn’t believe how effortless the whole process had been.

The next big challenge I was looking forward to was going to the gym with my new shoes. They had arrived the week before, but I hadn’t dared to work out in them until my ILS worker was with me. Since I wouldn’t be wearing a brace, my ankle wouldn’t be nearly as stable. I preferred having someone there to prevent me from falling.

The first exercise I tried was walking on the treadmill. I had expected my left foot to drag, so I fired up the treadmill anticipating that it would be a little difficult. However I was surprised at how easy walking was. The shoe was a half-size smaller, and I wasn’t wearing a brace, so my left shoe felt surprisingly light. My foot came up high, only dragging a few times. To combat this, I would squeeze my inner thigh and glutes, helping me to easily lift and advance my foot. All I would have to do to maintain a normal stride was concentrate on my thigh and glutes each time I stepped. It would take a great amount of concentration, but the key was to keep doing it every time I walked in the shoes until walking became normal again.

The next exercise on my agenda was quadriceps extensions. These had felt like an easy thing to do, because my thigh was probably the strongest muscle group on my left side. From my earliest workouts, I was always able to generate some movement. The hardest part had been that due to the constraints of the brace, I couldn’t point my toe. Although it is a thigh exercise, having the ability to point one’s toe means that one is getting the right amount of ankle flexion to complete the movement. Since the point of working out without a brace is to regain strength and mobility in the ankle, it felt good to feel control in my foot again.

The third exercise I tried was seated leg press. The key thing affecting my performance with this exercise had also been my brace. It hugged my leg so closely that I couldn’t feel adequate movement in my ankle or calf. Without the brace, I could feel these areas of my leg working. I would set the machine to a severely acute angle, so the brace would normally rub against my leg before my leg was fully extended. With no brace to constrict it, I felt the warm sensation of exertion surging through my calf. It felt wonderful to be working again.

The last exercise I would try for the day would be squats. In many ways, this would be the most vital part of my rehabilitation. Since it was the only standing exercise, the ankle stabilization provided by the brace had been vital. The brace also didn’t allow my toes to curl involuntarily, forcing my foot to sit flat. I aligned my body for the exercise. This was the moment of truth.

I squatted down and shot back up. I didn’t like the way the first rep felt, so I repositioned my left foot. Without a brace constricting the movement, it was remarkably easy to shuffle my foot along the floor. Now I began exercising in earnest. I could feel my individual toes grip! When I was done, I stepped away from the bar. It did feel like there was slightly too much room around my ankle and heel. However, I knew this was merely because I had grown used to the sensation of wearing a brace.

Even though I considered this a light day in the gym, my body was pouring with sweat. I wiped my face and neck with paper towels three times. I walked slowly toward the front door, careful not to fall. This workout was a promising first step. The road I was about to walk down in 2019 would require a lot of discipline, but it was full of promise.

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I had been out of physical therapy for my left leg since last year. So now my quest to move beyond needing a cane was completely self-directed. I needed a cane because the muscles below my knee were very weak. I walked with a brace to help my foot lift off the ground, but now the muscles of my upper leg were so strong that I might be able to lift my foot high enough by brute strength.

The brace ran from the top of my calf down along the back of my leg and beneath the sole of my foot. It not only kept my toes from dragging but also stopped my foot from twisting when I walked. My biggest issue was that, without the brace, I couldn’t step down with my heel. The brace made certain that my stride was a natural heel-toe motion every time I stepped.

But while this made walking easy, it wasn’t helping me to develop the independence I needed to walk without the cane. For instance, I was lifting leg weights much better with my new brace. But while the rest of my leg was getting stronger, my ankle was not. Because the brace was stabilizing it and providing support through all movement, the ankle didn’t have to absorb any shock or stabilize itself. I also wanted to be able to feel the pressure of the floor against my toes and the ball of my foot. As it was right now, there was too much padding between my foot and the floor. My leg would need to feel the movement and strain of working out again.

To accommodate the brace, I’d had to order shoes a size larger. These had felt bulky and lifting weights in them had taken some getting used to. My right foot would sometimes slip around inside its shoe if it had to be elevated. But the larger shoes seemed to make balance easier by providing a larger surface area against the floor. So I ordered a pair of Nikes that were a half size larger than I normally wore. That way, it wouldn’t be such a dramatic difference when I switched between shoes. To ease the transition, I planned to work out for an hour with the brace, then shift to the smaller shoe and work out for a half hour. This way my ankle would get a lot of feedback while in correct position, then I could work on strengthening it while trying to hold it in the correct position. After a few weeks, I would gradually spend more time without the brace until I was ready to walk without it.

My shoes were scheduled for delivery the second Wednesday in April. Since UPS generally just leaves my packages outside my door, I didn’t schedule any trips outside of the building for that afternoon. It would mean that I had to spend a lot of time around the apartment feeling restless, but I didn’t want anyone stealing something that I had designed and paid for.

I waited around all day. Mary was happy to have my company and she was even happier to get to spend additional time outdoors. I was not receiving email updates about the shipping progress of my package as I normally would have, so I kept opening the door, hoping to see a box sitting in the hallway. I knew I could count on Mary to bark if she heard someone outside the door, but I was just too eager to sit still. By 5:00 pm, there was still no package. I went online and chatted with a representative at nike.com. His query revealed that the shoes had never left the warehouse in Vietnam, so he ordered rush shipping on them and assured me that I would receive them in three to five days.

I began receiving shipping updates by text message the following morning. The first one estimated that they would be delivered on Tuesday. It was Saturday, so I went to the gym for three straight days and worked out with renewed intensity. I wanted my left leg performing at optimal level to get an accurate sense of how well it could do with and without the brace. This would help me strategize how to begin working out safely in my new shoes.

The shoes were finally delivered on Tuesday afternoon. I tore then out of the box and placed them next to my current shoes for a size comparison. They seemed to be the same length, prompting me to wonder if I had ordered the wrong size; these were supposed to be smaller because I would wear them without a brace. I slipped them on, and I could instantly feel how snug they were. They were a half-size smaller than the shoes I had been wearing but a half-size larger than my normal size. I was confident that I had made the right choice; I would be able to shift between each pair during the same workout and not feel disoriented.

I was eager to begin working out in the new shoes, but I knew I had to wait until the following week because I wanted my ILS worker with me in the gym for safety. I decided to test them out by walking around in my apartment with the laces untied. This went better than I thought, so I went down to the assisted living office to have them tied. After that, I went down to the basement to practice walking.

I was thoroughly surprised at how easy walking was. I had expected that I would be able to lift my leg higher. This would help to eliminate the problem of foot dragging. But I had anticipated having a problem with my foot drooping. Quite the contrary, every time I stepped, my toe pointed upward and my heel struck the floor first. My foot no longer had a tendency to twist when I walked either. It was just as I had hoped: the brace had retrained my foot to stride properly, so my brain was remembering what to do even when I was no longer wearing it. This reassured me that I would eventually be walking and exercising exclusively in regular shoes again.

The following night, something truly chilling happened. It had been raining all day. Since the skies were overcast and dreary, I had only let Mary out to use the restroom and come right back in. I wanted to let her out one more time, but I was feeling unmotivated. Then I heard a loud thud. At first I thought a transformer had blown. When the lights failed to go out, I decided to get up and take Mary out immediately. I didn’t want to wait until there was lightning, driving rain, or an elevator outage. I would have to choose between the risk of her having an accident indoors and the risk of me slipping down in the storm.

After we were in the elevator, a building worker got on in a panic, then got off on the ground level. For a brief second, I saw a gathering of emergency workers. While I could tell that something serious had occurred, I wasn’t deterred from continuing to the basement and letting Mary out. Once we were back inside and headed up in the elevator, an assisted living worker riding with us explained that someone had jumped out of a window and committed suicide. “Yeah, they say he was up on the 19th flo’.”

“What side of the building?”

“He landed on the roof above the front door. So it had to be outta 902.”

“That’s right above me! I bet that was that loud sound I heard.”

“Probably so. You could hear it all over the front half of the building.”

I lived in 302 and was one floor above where he must have landed.

When we reached my apartment, I unleashed Mary then walked over to the window. The whole scene was surreal. The man lay there with his arms stretched out to the sides. He had one knee bent and his hips were turned in a natural way. His head was against the surface as if upon a pillow. Except for what I knew had happened, he could have merely been sleeping.

The same assisted living worker I had just seen in the elevator had often told me about people who had chemical dependency issues or who otherwise suffered from loneliness and depression. Until recently there had been several suicides a year in the building. Someone would just grow tired of life, go up to an upper floor, and jump out of a window.

I could see how easy it might be to lose all hope in this building. Most of the people – myself included – suffered from a serious mental or physical illness. Most of us didn’t work full time. Most of the non-residents who came into the building were staff or Hennepin County social service workers. All of the residents lived on fixed incomes. There was enough money to live on, but not much to do other things with. There was isolation and a concentration of human misery. You had to find things that motivated you to keep on living, because there were not enough external incentives.

Working on my blog gives me the drive to keep moving forward. It keeps me sharing my successes and my days. My blog isn’t so much for my recollection as it is a way to reach out and inspire others. It’s easier not to feel isolated when you know that there are others reading your words and using them as a source of strength or cheering you on. So the blog has become less of a job and more of something I feel called to do.

Another thing I love doing is going through my photos. If I view them in chronological order, I can see the progression of my recovery. I might start with pictures from when I was confined to a hospital bed. Then there are pictures after I was released but still in a wheelchair. There are pictures from when each of my brothers first saw me stand. I even have a picture of my niece as a newborn and the photos from a year later when I could finally hold her myself. Taken individually, these are nice photos, but the main thing that keeps me going is seeing how far I have already come.

The final thing that keeps me going is that I literally keep going. I have a dog I am responsible for. I feed her twice a day and I have to let her out three times a day. This means that I have to dress, walk, bend down, and maintain my balance no matter how I feel. There are days when I feel groggy. There are days when I feel down. But I have to clear my head enough to know that I won’t end up on the ground.

I also try to get up and go somewhere every day. Most days I go to the gym, where strengthening my muscles has an obvious physical recovery purpose. But my body keeps building natural endorphins as well. People will often stop and greet me, and strangers often interrupt me to tell me how much I inspire them. When I’m not at the gym, I will spend my outing at a doctor’s appointment, physical therapy, shopping, or at a movie or restaurant. These are opportunities to work on passive rehabilitation. I have to walk, talk, force my eyes to focus. These skills and the small victories that come from improving them might seem insignificant, but they are the practice and the process of living a post-stroke life.

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I was now thoroughly enjoying my workouts. I would get up most days and feel wired during my time at the gym. It felt wonderful to not be worried about how I was going to perform four good exercises by the time I was done. The only issue I had now was trying to pare the selection of exercises down to six each day so I didn’t run out of time. Where once I had struggled to lift the lowest weight setting, I was now pushing myself every workout session. Other patrons began randomly walking up to me and telling me how much of an inspiration I was.

When I’d started back lifting weights, there were only a few movements I could perform. So I would do every exercise every time I went to the gym. In just under two years, I had regained so much control of my body that I was analyzing what my various muscle groups could do and designing different rotations to keep them stimulated. Now when I went to the gym, I always emerged dripping with sweat. But I also felt marvelously alive.

On the first Sunday of the month, my friend Manny and I went to see Cold Sweat – a movie about a female Iranian futsal player She was unable to travel to the championships in Malaysia because her international travel privileges had been blocked by her estranged husband. Manny and I regularly see soccer-related films. Whenever we do, I sit there trying to move my left leg in the shadows. It is as if I hope my brain will be stimulated by the action on the screen to recall how to control my leg. My leg doesn’t magically start to kick again, but I never feel truly disheartened. I take solace in the fact that my leg regains a little more function every week.

When we had gotten to the theatre, the staff told Manny and me that our film would be playing on the second floor. Spying my cane, one attendant offered to lead me to the elevator. I declined, opting to see how well my left leg would handle climbing up the stairs. Stairs always make me nervous, so I hugged the rail and only took one at a time. I did not want to get tired out and trip on the way up. Even if I didn’t fall, stumbling would be an embarrassment.

I began stepping up with my right leg, then bringing my left leg up to join it. I was used to this methodical breakdown of foot placement feeling interminable, but before I knew it, I was already at the landing halfway up. Feeling really energized, I didn’t want to stop. I continued stepping up one stair at a time, and soon I had made it all the way to the top. I hadn’t even broken a sweat. Although I was still a little slower than other people, I was no longer exhausted by walking around in ordinary social settings.

After I got home, Mary greeted me at the door. I felt guilty, so I took her outside and let her stay out for over half an hour. The dog she has played with a few times came out of the door with his owner while we were in the yard. The owner asked if the two dogs could play together. I said of course. So the other dog barked and darted playfully at Mary. She strained at her leash and tried to chase him.

We didn’t let them get close enough for the leashes to get tangled, but that didn’t stop them from frolicking all the same. They ran to and fro, barking and growling for several minutes, before it was time for the other dog to go in. I waited for them to get on the elevator before walking Mary back indoors. Mary began panting and hacking, winded from the burst of activity. When we got back to the apartment, she drank water from her bowl for several minutes. I listened to her gulp deeply, happy that we had both gotten our activity for the day.

A few days later when I went to the physical therapy wing of the hospital, the receptionist couldn’t find my appointment in the system. She searched across the entire network and found that my appointment was at a different building on the complex. When we got there, I saw that it was the sports medicine outpatient building. This put a smile on my face. If anyone would be willing to engage in the kind of aggressive stretching I needed to achieve full range of motion, this would be the department.

After I filled out paperwork, the physical therapist took me back to an evaluation room. There she asked me what my complaint was. I told her that I had hurt my shoulder while stretching and lifting weights. It was all pursuant to trying to regain shoulder movement after suffering a stroke. She stretched my arm in several ways to get an idea of where I felt pain and which muscles needed to be strengthened or stretched to lessen the pain and to regain some use of my arm.

When she was done with the evaluation, she advised me that the x-ray had revealed nothing negative. She wanted to help me learn fine motor exercises because the gross arm movements I had been doing in the gym were actually causing the muscle tone on the opposite side to get stronger The more I fought to strengthen my triceps so I could extend my arm, for instance, the tighter my arm was drawn in to my body. I told her that I would faithfully work any exercise program she gave me. Although I knew I couldn’t expect total recovery, I would meticulously follow the recommendations of any professional who was able to treat me as more than a patient who just needed to learn simple, modified household tasks.

She told me that my insurance company would allow 20 visits before they requested medical records. She wanted to see me once a week. Although I had initially wanted to come more frequently, I calculated that this time would take me into September. I could go to the gym three or four days a week and come to therapy on Wednesdays. This would make it easier to implement whatever she showed me and we could get even more out of the relationship than we could from a two-month plan. I had always been more active than the average person, so I was excited to feel like I had finally found a therapy program that was focused on getting me back to an active lifestyle.

It had been a beautiful April. The temperature had been climbing and the sun was out most days. Then we suddenly had a two-day winter snow that left ice out on the rear patio. I would have to let Mary out in front of the building. Her recreation would be limited without green space for her to romp in.

The snow no longer bothered me. Over the past few months, my left leg had become even more reliable. Even when I had to walk through light snow, I no longer had visions of me slipping and falling. My only source of annoyance was that I had already switched to my light jacket. While it was more convenient because I could easily zip it, it made me quickly succumb to the cold. I would make Mary come in as soon as she had done her business.

I used the opportunity to go to the gym more often again. Getting as much leg exercise as possible during the bad weather days would allow me to play outside with Mary when summer arrived. I also knew that the ideal window for muscle development was the month immediately following Botox injections. Since the muscles are saturated with relaxant during this period, it’s much easier to move affected limbs voluntarily.

I was careful not to do too much arm movement, as I didn’t want to activate the tone. So I did a lot more leg work. I noticed that walking on the treadmill didn’t bother my lower back much any more. Because of the Botox, my stride was long and reliable. My left foot didn’t jerk every time I lifted it. Nor was it difficult to strike my heel evenly every time I stepped down. Walking the treadmill was a pleasant experience. I now had to force myself to get off of it after my warmup and start lifting weights.

Although I didn’t want to lift too much with my shoulder, I did want to stretch it as much as possible. When I performed squats, my left shoulder was tight. It was still looser than it had been in May of 2018, before I could even use both arms. But I had so little flexibility that my trunk would twist to the left If I wasn’t careful; this could easily contribute to a spinal injury. I also couldn’t get the bar to come down low enough on my back unless I piled on more weight, so I was also risking neck injury.


Either of these would mean a temporary or permanent setback. But I was more worried at the prospect of not strengthening my leg. So I tried to be meticulous with my form, but I didn’t stop doing squats.

After the Botox had a couple of weeks to penetrate my shoulder, I noticed that it was much easier to lift with correct form. The bar could rest like a beam across my back. I didn’t have to twist my body to get into position, either. I went down smoothly and pushed back all the way up. Each time I did squats now I thoroughly exhausted myself. As the sweat pooled at my feet, my shoulder and leg burned. Three years ago, I would have given anything to feel this kind of energy being drawn from the left side of my body.

Today I am a month away from four years since I almost died of a stroke. I still recall that warm, sour taste in my mouth when I wondered if I would ever move my left arm again. I can remember the terror of wondering if I would ever walk again. I was being guided completely by my therapists, and we celebrated every tiny advancement. I have no idea how much muscle function I will ultimately recover, but it feels so wonderful to be responsible for most of the planning and heavy lifting.

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I had recently fought through four days in a row at the gym. Most of those mornings I had awakened at 6:00. I was so sleepy that it would take me over ten minutes to put on my clothes. Once I was dressed, I would take Mary out. She would have to finish quickly because I had to be back by 6:30 so the assisted living staff could stretch my shoulder and arm. Then there was e-stim, shower, breakfast, thigh exercises, and more. Although I had carefully scheduled time for each of these activities, it was still a struggle to stay awake through all of them.

One strategy I tried was drinking an energy drink. I would wait until Mary and I were back from outside, then I would crack it open and I would swallow my morning meds with it. I would casually sip it during the half hour I had to sit for my e-stim treatment. If there was more than a swallow left, I would drink the rest with breakfast. After that, I would brush my teeth and go downstairs to wait for the bus. The walk to the lobby would usually be enough to wake me up enough to be alert for my ride.

Now that it was my day off from the gym, I was able to sleep in. Getting up later meant that I didn’t need an energy drink to stay awake. I was also able to keep Mary outside for much longer. I showered and got ready for my trip to get my head shaved, then on to a Southern restaurant I had been wanting to try for more than a year.

Since the stroke, I had been going to the barbershop to have my head shaved. However, I had recently regained confidence in doing it myself and now went only once a month for a professional cut. When I arrived there that day, it was packed. There were so many people that I wondered whether my turn would come during the ninety minutes until my bus arrived. A gentleman recognized me from the gym. He hadn’t seen me in a year, and he remarked at how much better I was walking. I told him a little about my program and plans.

It took an hour, but they got to me with about thirty minutes to go. I was now flexible enough to lean over while in the chair, and place my lanyard and earbuds on the counter so the stylist could cut around my neck. It felt good not having to worry about falling over. Since all I was having done was a shave, it didn’t take long. I was out of the barber chair and waiting for my ride with twenty minutes to spare.

When the bus got there, I decided to try stepping up onto the bus with my left leg. I was surprised at how easy it was. At the beginning of the year, I hadn’t even been able to step on a curb with any regularity. My leg muscles seemed to be gaining strength more rapidly than my other muscle groups even though I was only doing my leg lifts once or twice a week. This only reinforced my feeling that I could be walking without my cane if I just kept at it.

One of the reasons I had wanted to visit the restaurant was that I needed to pick a location for my birthday dinner. The dining area turned out to be a tiny storefront where they crammed in as many tables as possible. I asked them to seat me at a booth. Since this meant that I would be sitting on a shared seat against the wall, I had to turn and sidle between two tables, and I half expected to trip or to upset the glasses when I put my hand down to steady myself. But I didn’t need to. I was able to scoot sideways into the booth with no problem.

I ordered fish with red beans and rice and pickled string beans. These were all appetizing dishes separately, but I was surprised to see them arrive in one bowl. I didn’t want them piled atop each other. So I used my plate to separate them out, and each was very good. It felt wonderful to just be able to eat and relax. I didn’t need to worry about money or getting to a lobby to meet Metro Mobility. It gave me an idea of what life would be like when I didn’t need to work out so often to rehab.

I had my quarterly Botox injections the next day. I was extremely excited for them because I was really starting to hit my stride in the gym. My leg was getting much stronger and my speed was improving I planned to start walking outdoors without my cane in May. So this and the July round of Botox would occur during the ideal times for outdoor practice. By the time of my October injections, it would start getting too cold to spend a lot of time outside.

The first thing I did at the doctor’s office was make sure they weighed me. I was disappointed to see that I hadn’t lost any additional weight since March. But I was still down five pounds for the year, so I was doing a great job of staying active. I made a mental note to eat less meat and more vegetables so I could lose even more weight and ultimately allow my doctor to treat my blood pressure less aggressively.

After they took me back to the examination room, I sat down to remove my shoes and brace. I realized that so much of the weight loss was in my stomach that it was easy to bend down to take off my shoes. I had needed the nurse to help me do this before. Now this was one more thing I could do by myself. I was so excited that I didn’t even feel the needle go in. The shots were over in no time.

I was about to leave when I remembered to tell the doctor that she needed to evaluate my left shoulder to see why it was causing me pain. She tried manipulating my arm, My shoulder hurt immediately. So she typed up an order for a same-day x-ray and another for physical therapy. They would call me with the results by the next day. I decided not to lift weights and risk further injury. They never called to give my results, but since it was done at the same hospital where I would be attending physical therapy, I would just request it at the time of my first therapy session.

A couple of days later, it was time to shave my head again. As with the first two times I had shaved it, I blocked out an hour on my schedule. I anticipated having to go back over it several times until my right arm got tired. But my hair was still very short, so it went fast. I could feel what I was doing to the back of my head, so I shaved it pretty evenly. When I felt it was done, I sat down and took a snapshot of the back of my head I had only missed one small area. I put shaving cream on that spot and scraped it until I could hear no more hair being cut.

With my head freshly shaved, I felt fresh. I grabbed Mary’s leash and took her outside. It had been dreary and cold the day before, so we had only stayed out for twenty minutes. Today it was warm and sunny. I let Mary play for an hour. Before we went in, I walked over to opposite side of the patio where a flight of steps leads to an upper patio area. Mary always wants to go up there to explore. Last year, it had just seemed dangerous. I had made a great deal of progress with my body over the winter, so the steps didn’t seem nearly as forbidding. I vowed to myself that I would climb them before the end of the month.

My body wasn’t fully recovered, but I was getting exercise almost every day, and things were moving in the right direction. I was more concerned about Mary. She was unable to leave the building most days. The person who used to walk her for me had decided to stop doing so, so she wasn’t getting her daily walks to the park. I was still unable to drive, so I couldn’t take her to the dog park either. What would have been ideal was if she had another dog in the building to play with, but the other dog owners almost never brought their dogs out when I was out with Mary.

One week I wanted to ask my friend Sandra to come over and bring her dog Rocket. Rocket had been around Mary before, but he largely ignored her, as he’s the type of dog that prefers playing Fetch and Tug-o-War with humans. Mary enjoys the stimulation of having another dog to follow around. It doesn’t matter if she’s the only one playing Chase.

The same afternoon I was set to call Sandra, she called and asked if she and Rocket could come over the next day. Mary was delighted when everyone walked in. She jumped up on the couch and greeted Sandra face-to-face. After that, she got down on the floor and started trying to chase Rocket around. After a few minutes, she saw that he was more interested in her chew toy than her. So she just started running between Sandra and me so we could take turns petting her.

After half an hour, we took the dogs out into the backyard. The weather was nice, so even though I was exhausted from the gym, I wanted Mary to be able to get exercise. I sat down at a table and asked Sandra to walk Mary around the yard. Mary enjoyed being able to move at a faster pace. Any time I can have Mary out to experience the sights, smells and sounds of the world, our life feels like a dream.

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As Spring came around, I took the change in weather to assess my fitness plan for the year. I knew I wanted cane use to be optional by December. That meant that I should be practicing walking around caneless outdoors after the weather turned nice, as I didn’t want to begin when the fall weather was rolling in. In order to be strong enough by summer, I needed to start conditioning my body immediately.

Since I was already walking around without my cane indoors, I figured the best thing to do was to add a degree of difficulty to my walks between workout stations at the gym. The obvious challenge would be carrying weights around more. I was moving some plates in place already, but that really entailed things like holding on to a machine while moving the weight from a rack onto a peg. What I needed to do was walk across the floor without holding onto anything. This would force me to work on my balance, and having to carry the weight would increase the difficulty.

The first place I tried this was at the gym where I do most of my upper body work. Seeing that the lat row machine was open, I walked over and laid my cane beside the machine. Then I carefully walked to the weight stack, all the time hoping I wouldn’t trip and embarrass myself. The easy part was bending down and picking up the 25-pound weight. As I stood up, I was surprised at how light it felt. I turned and walked back to the lat row machine.

When I got to the machine, I swung the weight up and pushed into place. I sat down and did a few sets. When I was done, I started stripping the weight off. Another member asked me if I wanted help. “Nah,” I told him. “I got this.” I proudly carried the load back to the weigh tree, trying to stay as centered as possible.

That successful experiment gave me a great deal of confidence. I began purposely planning my workouts so they would entail even more walking around with weights. The first few times carrying the weight around were like the first few times I tried walking around the building without my cane: I had to literally and figuratively learn to let go. The brace I was wearing was designed to stand up by itself’ and the ankle was hinged, so my foot could swing up but not down. I might stumble wearing this brace, but it was designed to make falling nearly impossible. It struck me that every time I walked across the weight room without my cane, I just kept reminding myself of this. This didn’t annoy me because I will have to concentrate and give myself mental prompts for at least a year after I stop using the cane.

Another body part I really wanted to start developing again was my chest. Before the stroke, I loved doing several different exercises every chest workout. In fact, I had been bench pressing when I suffered the stroke. I had been able to do flies, but having a severely bent wrist prevented me from pressing. I really missed the bench press. In addition to how much I enjoyed the exercise, being able to perform the activity that I was doing when the stroke was triggered would give me a feeling of overcoming the stroke.

I had tried forcing my wrist backward with my left hand, hoping to make it more pliable. However, my occupational therapist had explained that all forcing a body part to move would do was increase the corresponding tone. So I was stimulating an increase in the pressure that was causing my wrist to bend. Since that wasn’t a solution, I asked my doctor the inject my wrist the next time she injected me with muscle relaxer. After waiting for two weeks, I didn’t notice much of a difference. Even when I went to the gym and tried bench pressing, I wasn’t able to get my wrist to bend the way I needed it to. So I stopped trying.

That was in January. Since then, the staff had started stretching my shoulder, and I had formulated my plan to stop needing a cane by year’s end. I was on a quest to be able to use my shoulder and triceps by the summer as well. Therefore, it made as much sense to me to try to push my body to bench press. I would give these muscle groups three months to start responding to my exercise attempts.

The next time I went to the gym, I found an open machine and dragged a modified bench to it. I elevated it slightly and slid beneath the bar. I helped my left hand into position, so my hands were shoulder length apart. I pushed upward, squeezing with my left hand, and trying to make sure that my palm was absorbing the force. My left side was barely doing any of the lifting, but the point was to continuously force it to maintain correct positioning while the right side pushed the bar up and down. The day would come when the form was so natural that that side of my body could start engaging in the work too.

Another exercise I had gotten away from performing regularly was lat pulldowns. Before the stroke, I had made these a vital part of my regimen. They were fun to do and they really helped strengthen my back. After the stroke, I mostly used them as a way to stretch my left arm and shoulder out. These muscles suffered from such tight constriction that I barely had much range of motion. My right arm would start out higher and come down lower than my left. In addition to not maintaining proper lifting form, my back twisted while I attempted this, too. I tried several different methods to correct my form. When none of them seemed to work – at least without a great deal of mental effort – I gave up lat pulldowns altogether.

With my renewed commitment to regaining upper body strength, I decided to rededicate myself to lat pulldowns. From the first time I sat down to do them, things were different. I reached up with my right hand and pulled the bar down. Where my left hand formerly wouldn’t stay open, it opened and slid along the bar into position. I concentrated on raising my left arm high at the start of the exercise, then pulling it all the way down. I also tried to lean a little to my right side, assuming that it would correct any deviation to my left.

The movement felt correct. I was even able to use more weight than before. Fearing that I could merely be feeling a workout high, I asked someone to shoot video of me doing the exercise. I carefully broke down all of my movements and body positions. Sure enough, my arm was moving a lot more. There was no curve in my spine. The exercise felt right because I was doing it the right way.

After four days of working out in a row, I awoke with my shoulder feeling stiff and sore. I wondered if I had mildly dislocated the joint, because it felt like it was drooping and I couldn’t lift my arm as high as I could remember. I could only lift my arm until it was level with my shoulder, but I felt like I had once been able to lift it to my ear. To make sure that I wasn’t deceiving myself, I looked through the photo gallery in my phone.

Sure enough, my arm reached no higher in previous photos than it did presently. It was probably just soreness. I recalled the first time I had lifted upper body weights years ago. The next day, my arms were so sore that I could barely lift them in the shower, so painful that I wondered how anyone could stand working out and facing this pain every day. But I let my friend guide me through a second workout that day. To my surprise, I wasn’t sore on the third day. Endorphins had taken over. There was no more pain after that.

I would learn, through years of trial and error, that no matter how long it had been since I’d stopped working out, I was never sore beyond the third day. Whenever I let myself get truly out of shape, the goal was to try to get back in the gym three days in a row. Since all muscle building since the stroke was revealing itself to be a slower process, I assumed the same would be true of soreness. It would linger for four or five days.

Prior to having the stroke, I would have worked a sore muscle group almost as intensely as I had the first day. This time, since I had already scheduled two days off, I allowed my shoulder to rest for two days. When I went back to the gym, I still worked the joint because I assumed that no use at all would be even worse for it, because it would lose all of the flexibility gains. I backed off to about 50% of the intensity I had been recently working at. Since I was scheduled to see a doctor for my quarterly Botox injections in four days, I could ask for diagnostic testing if it was still bothering me at the time.

During my last few days of shoulder exercises I had started experimenting with a greater variety of movements. One I settled on in order to isolate my left shoulder was side raises. I would begin by gripping a dumbbell in my left hand while resting it on my thigh. I would lift it up and out past my thigh, lower it as far as I could, then bring it back up. After a set of 12, I would bring it back up to rest on my thigh.

Not only were these raises good for my shoulder, but they also helped me with my entire arm. The first two times I did them, I was unable to get a lot of movement; as I lowered the weight, it would slide along my thigh. I could not straighten my arm much, so the exercise was generally about maintaining my grip. When the set was done, I could bring the weight back to my thigh, palm down. But I lacked the ability to rotate my wrist, so I would have to guide it with my right hand.

By the third workout, I was able to move the weight out and down without it touching my thigh. I was able to stretch my arm more, so I could feel my triceps working at the bottom of the movement. But even more dramatically, I could rotate my wrist to bring the weight to rest unaided on my thigh. It might have just been a 5-lb weight, but I was already making gains. Diligence was the only thing that was required now.

I was quickly losing my fear of walking around the weight room without my cane. Walking to and from the weight rack with a dumbbell in each hand was no longer an intimidating prospect. Before and after the exercise, I walked between my bench and the rack, concentrating on facing my target and not trying to move too quickly. I didn’t stumble or misstep. Bending down to pick up my cane was now an afterthought. And as I walked on to my next challenge, my legs felt light enough to run.

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By late March, I was really starting to feel good about how easy walking was starting to feel again. I was going all over the city for shopping, social gatherings, workouts, and dining out. Not only was I no longer afraid of falling, I no longer was coming home exhausted, either. I was well on my way to being done with using a cane by the end of the year. I would still be doing a lot of leg exercises for the rest of my life, but hitting that milestone would allow me to relax some.

Now I needed to focus even more on my shoulder. Although I had regained a significant amount of mobility in the joint, and the independent living staff were stretching it every morning, there was still a great deal of pain when it was stretched too far. I wondered how much of a barrier this might be to regaining even more use of the shoulder. From early experience I knew that exercise would be the best way to alleviate the pain. The irritability was from lack of use, so passive movement could only help so much. But which exercises to do?

When I was an inpatient, the therapists had used an e-stim hand bike to get the joint moving. But in the gym, I was on my own when it came to finding ways to target the muscle group. The point on my body that seemed to be the source of most of the lingering pain was the top of my left deltoid. While I regularly engaged in exercises like pulldowns and lat rows to stretch out my arm and shoulder, these were also more passive movements. I don’t wish to downplay how much they helped with the problem. But these exercises were designed for the back. I needed something that would build shoulder muscle.

I had recently begun performing shoulder presses on a Smith machine. This exercise involved grasping a bar behind my head and lifting as high as I could. I was barely able to raise the bar above my head. My shoulder and arm were so tight that they just wouldn’t allow me to fully extend on my left side. Nonetheless, whatever amount of movement I could force was important for my shoulder. In fact, if I just sat there with the bar laid across my back, it would help with the constriction in my shoulder and wrist. So just pausing in starting position for a few minutes between sets became part of my routine.

I was still on a quest to find an exercise that would strengthen my shoulder. Then it occurred to me that the best movement at this point of my recovery would be some form of shoulder raises. In the past, I had worked out in clubs that had machines that could isolate the muscle group. This seemed ideal, given the limited mobility in my left arm. Since I didn’t know of any such machines at either of my current gyms, I would have to accomplish this with dumbbells.

The next time I went to the gym, I went through my normal gauntlet of upper body exercises. When it came time for shoulder raises, I selected a pair of 5-lb dumbbells. Starting with them atop my thighs, I brought them up and to my side, mimicking flapping wings. I couldn’t bring my left elbow to my ears. My left wrist drooped; I couldn’t even maintain a tight grip. Somehow I willed myself through fifteen reps. I wanted to try using more weights during my next two sets, but I knew that I shouldn’t risk form or safety. Doing moderate exercise had been what had gotten my body to this point over the last few years. Regaining use in my elbow should be no different.

With all of the time I was putting in at the gym, my body was recovering its ability to do many of its daily tasks so quickly that it was hard to keep track. There had been many things that I either couldn’t perform after the stroke or had to find new ways of doing. For instance, before the stroke, like most people, I had been used to taking a shower every morning. After I lost such significant use of the left side of my body, this became a drawn-out and tiresome task

I would lay out my socks, underwear, and pants on the bed. Then I would strip down and hobble to the tub. Next I would maneuver myself onto a shower bench or stand upright in a shower. When I was standing, it was because I was in a shower that couldn’t accommodate a bench. When I was using one that couldn’t, I would lean against the wall, making sure that I didn’t move so much that I would lose balance and fall. During these showers, I felt so restricted that I never did enough to fully get clean. But standing was so exhausting that I would finish the shower feeling drained. I would drag myself back to the bedroom and take thirty minutes to dress.

I had a little relief when I used the shower bench. Sitting didn’t take as much energy, nor did it require much effort to balance. So I was able to wash myself until I felt thoroughly clean. These showers felt wonderful. But I was usually living in a house or a facility with other people, so I had to wait until there was someone to help me cover up and to walk alongside me. So even though I had a shower chair, I would only shower about two times a week.

After I moved into my own apartment, not only could I keep my shower bench in place permanently, I no longer had privacy concerns either. The shower was designed for wheelchair access, so there was no need to sit down on the bench and swing my legs over the wall of a tub. I could simply walk in and out. At first I only felt like showering every other day. But as time wore on and I built more leg strength at the gym, I began standing for longer intervals. Then, sometime in March, I realized that I was showering every day. There was no fanfare or eureka moment. I just noticed that I was using my last dry towel every week on laundry day.

One day I was getting dressed after a shower. When it came time to put on my shirt, I wondered whether I should try putting it on over my head first. When I had been inpatient in 2015, I had been unable to move my left arm at all. As consequence, I wasn’t able to put on a shirt the normal way. Instead of putting my head through first, then sticking my arms through the sleeves, my occupational therapist taught me to put my left arm through the sleeve first, then the right arm, then I could pull the shirt over my head. It would often take me several tries to get the shirt all the way up my left shoulder, and it usually took me about ten minutes to get the shirt all the way over my head.

Now, with the additional stretching my shoulder was getting every morning and the fact that I had been using my left arm to lift weights, something told me that I just might have the mobility to get the shirt on the way I used to. So I pulled it over my head. Then I rotated it around my neck until I could see the writing on it. Now I found the left sleeve, and punched my left fit upward till it was through. The right arm went through without any effort. Just like that, I was able to start putting my shirt on like I always had. Now I have options.

I was no regularly taking Mary outside three or four times per day. Picking up after her had been an easy job when I could scoop up the surrounding snow with her droppings. But now that the snow was melting, it was becoming more difficult to get everything in one scoop. Sometimes I would have to drag the bag over the spot, and some would fall out of the bag as I tried to get more from off the ground. I could squat as long as it took me to complete this task, but it was annoying.

It occurred to me that I could just use disposable gloves. That way, I could just handle the feces quickly without getting any on me. But I couldn’t put on regular gloves. I could use my right hand to pull a glove over my left hand initially, but I couldn’t move my fingers enough to get them into the finger holes of the glove. I could move the fingers of my right hand easily, but my left hand lacked the dexterity to pull the glove over my right hand. I felt like plastic gloves, which would be far less rigid, were completely out of the question.

Then one day I decided to just try putting a plastic glove on my right hand. I loosely held it with my left hand, then pushed my right hand halfway down inside it. Then I wiggled my fingers by feel into the finger holes. Only the two smallest fingers didn’t find their finger holes. So I pulled the fingers of the glove as best I could with my left thumb and forefinger and forced my fingers along the back of a chair to get them in farther. This still was not enough, so I used my teeth to try to pull the glove all the way down over my palm. It got most of the way down before my teeth sank through.

This was the method I used over the next few days. I learned to bite the glove a little more gently to guide it over more of my hand without tearing it. I succeeded in not ripping it after a few tries, but I never got it all the way over my hand. This really didn’t matter because the glove covered the part that might come into contact with dog poo, so at least picking up after Mary would be simple.

I was now doing so many regular exercises that it was becoming easy to neglect some body parts in a given week. One of the things I had to remind myself to work on was my hip flexors, the muscles that I would need to strengthen if I wanted to step up higher. Neither of my gyms had machines dedicated to this body part, and I didn’t have exercises that the staff could help me with. So I was on my own to find a way to work this muscle group.

Then I remembered what they taught me in physical therapy. I could lie on a raised surface and lift my leg toward the ceiling, a simple exercise that just needed to be done on a consistent basis. To avoid neglecting this step, I added it to my morning routine as the item scheduled just after my morning shower. I also added it in any time I was idly doing something like sitting on the couch, petting Mary before leaving for the gym.

Although I had initially been discouraged at how little I could lift my leg, my strength developed quickly. In two weeks, stepping up with my left leg no longer needed a lot of planning. When I got to low curbs or steps, I now stepped up with my left foot with my right foot firmly planted. This felt like a safer option, so I was happy to have it at my disposal.

The treadmill was a different beast. It sat higher up and required me to step higher. It took me another week of intense leg raises, but I mastered it next. I barely got my foot over it at first. But I didn’t let the difficulty keep me from boarding it that morning and every day since. It has simply become one more routine exercise on the road to getting stronger.

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I cannot stress enough how hard I was working to make 2019 the year everything became more or less normal. In the gym, I always ended up doing more sets of each exercise than I had initially planned. I would plan to do three sets of a given exercise for the sake of time. But after I got started, the endorphin rush would feel so good that I would push myself harder.

It had been so recent that I had struggled to find the energy and drive to workout. Now my energy drive felt boundless. Where I had once needed the time on the bus and at least ten minutes in the massage chair to encourage myself to get moving, now I felt motivated before I stepped on the bus. From the time I left the locker room until the time I was finished, it took no effort to maintain my level of energy. Before I had been worried about how long it would take me to get started Now the only thing I worried about was running out of time.

I was now working out my leg at high reps and various angles. On leg press, I was using an extreme setting level. When I did this, not only did my hamstring get a good workout but I could also feel it in my calf too. I can’t describe how excited I was to feel this muscle group burn. I wasn’t able to move it voluntarily yet, but any time I could feel muscles below my knee working, it made me feel as if I would soon be walking with a more normal gait.

One of the first times I was really able to put all of this improvement to the test was a day I blocked out to go to two different Hennepin County buildings. The first place I had to go to was the thirteenth floor of the Government Services building. My CADI case worker had been unable to get my supplemental Go-to cards to me in the mail, so she arranged to have them sent to a government office. I agreed that this would probably lead to less frustration. My insurance premium would be due in March; since I like to know it as soon a government employee receives it, it occurred to me that I should stop by Hennepin County social services in the same trip. The easiest way to do this was to go with my ILS worker.

The day we went was cold and windy. I was relieved when we arrived at the Hennepin County Government Services building because the drop off was beneath the building and was shielded from the wind. I went inside and had to go through security and two different elevators. By the time I got to the thirteenth floor, I was starting to feel winded. The building is shaped like a gigantic letter H. I realized that I was in the wrong tower and had to go back down to the eighth level, walk across the bridge between the towers, and back up to the thirteenth floor of the other tower.

After I got there, some workers leaving the office told me that I should get into the elevator with them because their department was being moved to the fifteenth floor. They asked me my name and told me they would go into the office and tell them I was there. Before long, someone brought out two Go-to cards. With the cards in hand, I texted my ILS worker to meet me downstairs.

When we got to the social services building, I told my ILS worker to just drop me off. Since I was only dropping off a check, it would be faster if he just drove around until I was ready. The clerk asked me what I needed then sent me up to an accountant. When I got there, I wrote a check for three months’ worth of premium. I’d intended to pay through the end of May, but she informed me that this would cover me through June. Remembering how I had come into the year with my insurance accidentally cancelled, it felt good to know that half a year’s premium had already been satisfied. I walked out of the building thinking about how all of the running around had in no way left me feeling exhausted. I was on the way to taking control of life this year.

I had been practicing walking around the building without my cane for a month now. This was becoming easier every week. One of the reasons why I had wanted to start walking without the cane was that I wanted to be able to walk Mary unencumbered. So I decided to start trying to do this indoors as well.

This didn’t involve a great deal of preparation because I didn’t need anyone to help me zip my jacket. I could just throw on a t-shirt and leash her. I noticed that when I wasn’t leaning on my cane I walked much more upright. My pace was much better, so Mary didn’t have to slow down as much. I didn’t worry about falling. She enjoyed being out of the apartment. It went so smoothly that I made sure to find reasons to walk her around the building twice a day. With all of the walking, it won’t be nearly as frightening when it’s time to transition to walking without a cane.

I had been shopping standing up for years now. However, because of the inflexibility of my right leg, this was uncomfortable. My shin was constantly banging into the undercarriage of the cart. My endurance was fairly low, too, so I would get tired after a short period of time. Consequently, I still did most of my shopping in riding carts. But since I started putting in a lot of time on the treadmill, my form had improved dramatically, and I no longer got tired from a lot of physical activity.

So the next time I went grocery shopping with my ILS worker, I told him that I would be using a standard cart. This time, I didn’t have any problem with my shin hitting the cart. I also had more control of the cart. I had no problem handling it in turns or backing up. Only months before, this would cause me to lose my balance. I was safer and faster now. I finished shopping and checked out in less than half an hour, feeling so exuberant that I resolved to never use a riding cart again.

During this time, I was asked by the independent living nurse to give her my updated medications list for the year. She advised me that I could do this the next time I got a routine checkup. So I called the Allina Clinic and set an appointment for the next week. With all of the exercise I had been doing lately, I really wanted to see how my efforts had affected my health scores.

I checked in at the clinic the following week. When the nurse took my weight, I was 253 pounds. I wanted to be lighter, but I wasn’t disappointed. After the stroke, I had ballooned to 258. No matter what I had tried, I had not been able to lose the weight. The treadmill workout seemed to be helping me to move in the right direction. If I continued to intensify my program, it would be a productive year.

After I had been waiting for a while, the doctor came back and informed me that it wasn’t time for my annual exam yet. She asked me whether I wanted to be seen for anything else. I really couldn’t think of anything. She did listen to my lungs and checked my blood pressure. It was a little higher than I expected, but at 124/80, it was nothing to be alarmed about. I asked her if she could give me something to address my shoulder pain for about three weeks – just long enough for me to push past the period where mobility was severely curtailed. She advised that she didn’t want to prescribe anything that was potentially addictive, but she would check with my neuromuscular doctor to see if she might recommend anything and get back to me. I thanked her for her help and headed home, feeling optimistic about my health numbers.

My friend Manny had helped me out by buying food for Mary on a day when the wind chill had been too dangerously low to go out. Now I had money and wanted to pay him back. So I asked him if he wanted to go out to eat. We decided to go to Hamberguesas El Goedo, a Latin hamburger joint on the south side.

Since there was a winter storm warning that afternoon, we got together at 11:00 am. We made it to the restaurant before noon and placed our order. The seating at Hamberguesas El Gordo is mostly indoor picnic tables. These used to present a problem for me because it was difficult for me to lift my leg over the bench. I had worked out so much recently that my leg had grown a lot stronger. Lifting my leg high enough to clear the bench was so easy that it was as though I had never lost the ability to move it.

Manny is a much faster eater than I am. So although we talked about everything from politics to soccer, we weren’t there for very long. He thoughtfully wrapped up some of my leftovers for Mary and offered to bring the car around to the front of the restaurant so I wouldn’t have to walk down the block. I told him that it wouldn’t tire me out, but he cautioned that there was too much water on the passenger side. So I waited for him at the door of the restaurant. As the car pulled up to the curb, all I could think of was how I no longer worried that I would drag my foot and stumble on my way to a car.

The temperature didn’t drop significantly for the winter storm. We got a lot of large, watery flakes that made for a good cover of snow, but it wouldn’t stick around. Mary loves snow; I can’t stay out for too long if it’s very cold; so it was literally a perfect storm.

When Mary and I went outside, the sidewalk was already full of slush. Rather than risk falling, I pulled up a heavy ironwork chair to sit on. I could see a few droplets of water on it, but I didn’t have anything to wipe it off, so I just sat down anyway. Water seeped through my pants and underwear. I jumped to my feet. I tried to step sideways so I could wipe off the seat, but I tripped over the arm of the chair.

Before I knew it, I was lying down next to the overturned chair. My greatest fear was that I would fall in front of the building, let go of Mary’s leash in the process, and she would seize the opportunity to run off and end up being hit by a car. Looking down at my hand, I could see that it was gripping the leash more tightly than normal, as if by reflex. I used the chair to get to my knees and stand up. Then I righted it and sat down. Mary came over and hugged me. That was the day I mastered my fear of falling in the snow.

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