My last month of travel and social outings had gone better than I expected. My leg strength had improved so much that I never fell. I could routinely lift it so high that I no longer dragged my foot constantly. When I did drag my foot, it was due to absent-mindedness. I might stumble, but I would always recover before I fell. Not dragging my foot also meant that I was more energetic. When you drag your foot, it generates a lot of friction. The force needed to move it forward expends a lot of energy. Without having to put in nearly as much effort, I found that walking no longer tired me out.

Not only did this allow me to stay out longer and enjoy myself more, but it also made my time in the gym more productive. Not having to put forth so much energy walking from one workout station to another meant that I had more in reserve when it was time to lift. I was excited about engaging in more intense workouts. I didn’t increase the weight for any of my workouts during September because I didn’t want to risk injury while on vacation. But now that I was back, I was more than ready to attack the weights.

Being back in Minnesota after a month meant that I could go back to my favorite gym. I was so happy to be able to do lying leg curls after a month away from the exercise. When I had started doing them two years ago, I could barely do one set of ten. Over the years, I had gradually worked my way up to the point where I could grind out three sets. Now that I was back, I felt my leg go up a little higher. My hamstring felt so strong that I was able to push out a fourth set. Now when I’m sitting down, I will practice extending my leg and pulling it backward.

I started doing more weight on the leg press, too. Before and during my vacation, I had only worked out pushing the weight of the empty sled. This time, I only warmed up with the weight of the sled. After my warm up set, I added ten pounds and did two working sets. This went so well that I added ten more pounds and did two more sets. I committed to this exercise two days per week. I figure that I can go up ten pounds each week. Even if I don’t gain a lot more control of my lower leg, this should definitely improve strength and stability.

The last major modification I made to my workout was to add time on a row machine to my rotation. Like the one in Mississippi, my club here had a machine that placed the weight at one’s feet. But unlike Mississippi, this row machine had an elevated platform. Rather than being flat on the floor, the feet are at an angle. This adds a greater degree of difficulty since it requires the use of many more leg muscles to balance one’s body. The first day I used this row machine, I spent a lot of energy just trying to keep from falling off the machine. But I committed to using it every day I went down to the gym. It would force me to use leg muscles that had gone dormant.

Mary has always been on a health plan. When she was a puppy, she was on a specialized puppy plan. After she matured, she rolled over to an adult plan. Then when she had her summer check-up, I asked about dental coverage. They told me that it would be $300 for a teeth cleaning; but if I added it to the plan, the upgrade would only be $13/month. No matter what my health or financial status, I always wanted Mary to be healthy, so the upgrade was a no-brainer.

I was due a dental exam and cleaning, so I scheduled appointments for Mary and me on the same day. I asked my friend Rob to rent a car. We dropped off Mary at the vet, then I went home and got ready for my visit to the dentist’s office.

When I got to the dental office, I had to fill out new patient paperwork. Because of my double vision and my fingers, I hadn’t filled out forms by myself. There was usually someone else there with me. Since there was no one else there, I took the clipboard from the receptionist and resolved to fill it out by myself. I sat down, balanced the clipboard on my lap, squinted my right eye, and began writing down my answers. It was a little difficult to make sure all my answers were on the correct line, but soon I was finished. When I was done, I handed in my form and waited for my name.

The cleaning went well. The staff were pleasant and efficient. They were obliging, even pausing to take pictures for my blog. I normally make my dental appointments by calling the insurance company and asking for a list of providers. This time, I think I have found someone I want to keep coming back to.

I wanted to pick Mary up around noon, but the vet had informed me that, because they would have to sedate her, she wouldn’t be ready to go until after 5:00 pm. Instead, I got dinner and wasted time until 6:00. Mary was still a little woozy when we picked her up. Rob had to lift her up and place her in the truck. After we got home, I took her out to use the restroom. When she was done, we came back up and sat on the couch.

Before I went home, I had committed to leaving the building at least once per day. I’d felt that amount of activity was important for my rehabilitation. But I would often find myself napping after workouts. Now that I was back, I wanted to rebuild my energy. My plan was to do this by trying to stay active all day, forgoing naps. I might be tired at first, but I would ultimately be walking around with more energy.Today had been long and productive. I let Mary stretch out across my lap. We were both on the path to healthy futures.

The following week, my friend Allene came back to visit. I was happy to have the company for a few days, but Mary was even more delighted. Whenever a human comes into my apartment, Mary’s energy goes up. She dances around in circles, then climbs all over the person. If I can get Mary to sit still long enough, I try to get a few pictures. It usually doesn’t work out, but it’s satisfying just to see how happy she gets.

After a brief shopping trip, Allene and I returned to the apartment with another surprise for Mary: Izzy, Allene’s dog. Mary hadn’t seen Izzy in over two years. Once roommates, they sniffed each other before Mary was ready to play Tag! Izzy, being older, played a little, but had no interest in wild play.

The next morning, Allene and I went out for a short workout. I didn’t need to spend all day in the gym; I just wanted my body to get used to moving all day without a nap. I did one explosive movement for the upper and lower body respectively, while book ending the session with a fat-burning cardio workout designed to get the metabolism moving. A lot of days, I might have felt disappointed that I didn’t workout to muscle failure, but I reminded myself that getting the muscles moving is a victory in itself.

When we were done at the gym, we went home and took the dogs outside. This was one of Izzy’s first times in an elevator. Each time she had to get on, she took her own leash in her mouth and dragged her feet in an attempt to stall. Once inside the elevator, she would lean against the wall or Allene’s leg. I can only assume that the swaying of the room caused her a great amount of anxiety. Mary had been riding elevators since she was two years old, and now rides this one an average of six times a day. For her, it’s just a routine part of life.

Once they were outside, Mary tried to chase Izzy and play. Izzy didn’t like the chilly weather. She used the restroom and hustled back indoors. Mary and I followed, as we had the keys to the apartment. Once she was warm again, Izzy was ready to play. She charged and boxed with Mary. This was what I wanted to see. Until I can begin taking Mary to the dog park again, I want to make sure that Mary has all the opportunities she can get.

Allene and I went out to dinner in the south metro area that evening. Unlike the days when we were broke, we looked at the menu and didn’t need to calculate how much anything would cost. As we laughed and reminisced through a long dinner, I told her about how it used to take me several attempts to stand up from the table after dinner. When we were done this time, I stood up with barely any assistance from my right arm. I walked out into the cold Minnesota night without a care. It had been a long, arduous journey to this point, but every step seemed effortless now.

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Having a stroke at a time when I was working two jobs spelled a drastic change in income. It meant going from a position of always having disposable income to one where I was constantly having to choose between food, transportation, and having a social life. I would go grocery shopping as soon as I received my disability payment. I would try to keep the bill under $100, since I was simply trying to supplement my Meals on Wheels. The $75 monthly metro Go-To card was good for around two or three weeks’ worth of rides. This constantly left me worrying about money the last half of the month.

Over the past three years, I had found ways to cut some of these expenses. For one thing, the county assigned someone to help me with basic tasks like cleaning, showering, cooking, and dressing. I taught myself how to do these things for myself during my first year back. So I was able to use these hours for transportation needs. This eliminated my out of pocket costs to go places.

Since I wasn’t driving my car, I sold it in December of 2018. I took the down payment and paid my rent and phone one month in advance. I set up the sale for three additional installments. With these payments, I was able to stay comfortable, though it inevitable that my expenses would catch up with me. But because I really wanted to make it to the semi-annual family get together, I bought my ticket and trusted that something would work out.

A month before my vacation, I had to go to the county services office to drop off paperwork for my medical insurance. While I was there, a clerk asked whether I had been receiving my Medicare reimbursement checks. When I told her that I didn’t know what she was referring to, she explained that, because I was paying for a Minnesota insurance plan, Hennepin County would reimburse me every month for the amount Medicare was withholding from my disability payment. I asked her if I could get any retroactive repayment. She told me that she could probably do that. Now I felt pretty confident. I could enjoy my vacation, confident that there would be a check or two waiting when I returned.

My return flights went smoothly. I got everywhere I needed to go early and safely. When I landed in Minneapolis, I waited for the other passengers to exit the plane before I did. Then a wheelchair agent sped me to baggage claim, where we discovered that my luggage was still on the ground in Dallas. This might have upset me in the past, but I was at ease. I went out to the curb to wait for my ride. Although my CPAP machine was still in Dallas, I slept more peacefully than I had in years.

The next morning, I began the process of getting everything back to normal. The first thing I did was get up and check the mail. The Medicare reimbursement checks from Hennepin County were there. Not wanting to risk disaster, I tucked both checks inside my wallet. I went immediately back to my apartment, where I got dressed, called a cab, and went directly to the bank to deposit the checks.

After I came home from the bank, I called up to the dog sitter on the fifth floor and made arrangements for him to bring Mary home. An hour later, he walked into my apartment with her, and she bolted towards me, licking and rollingall over me. It was so genuine and unabashed. I felt so loved. Whenever I am going to be out of town, I ltry to lessen her anxiety by leaving her with someone who will do a lot more with her than I’m able to. But it’s always rewarding when she shows me how much she missed me.

To help with the transition, I left Mary’s travel crate in the middle of the floor. I left it open with her toys inside. She was free to come and go as she pleased. I wanted her to realize that she had her own space. This was her home and she should feel comfortable. It would reassure her that everything around her was stable. This was probably more about my guilt, but showing consideration doesn’t harm anyone.

Taking care of Mary and me had been a struggle for me since I had moved back to Minneapolis. Whenever I went out or ordered food for delivery, I had constantly worried about whether all the money would run out before the end of the month. Now I was in the position where I no longer had to worry about money. If I so desired, every penny for the next three months was disposable. I would work to get farther ahead, but I didn’t have to. I felt so relaxed.

I decided to take myself out for sushi. My favorite Japanese restaurant in the area would open for happy hour at 5:00. I called a cab and timed it to get me there after they were open. I ordered several rolls and sake, satisfied that I easily had enough cash or credit to order whatever I wanted. The most difficult part of the evening would be walking up and down the steps to the restaurant’s door, which tapered in a way that presented challenges in aligning my feet. When it was time, I stepped carefully up and into the restaurant without an issue. I was walking into a new realm in the journey of my recovery.

That weekend, the Nerds of Color were getting together at Mall of America to see the movie, Joker. I’m not a big fan of the Batman franchise or its related characters. However, I wanted to keep pushing my recovery. Going to a movie at the mall would mean that I would have to do a lot of walking. It would also entail having to search and navigate new terrain, since I had never had to go through the valet entrance. I would also be challenged to practice speaking and scanning with my eyes.

I called Metro Mobility and told them what time the movie started. I agreed to have them drop me off about half an hour early, but after thinking about it, I realized that this might cause me to be late for the movie. Since I had no idea how to get from the bus to the theatre, I decided to have Metro Mobility drop me off two hours before showtime. That would give me plenty of time to get lost or to stop and rest while still getting to the cinema on time.

When Saturday came around, I went down to the lobby to catch the bus. When it arrived, I told the driver that I had never taken Metro Mobility to the mall and that I didn’t know the way to the entrance. He calmed my fears, reminding me that he would be walking me to the entrance. If he got me safely inside the mall, I could wander around safely until I found the cinema. The bus got me there even earlier than I had planned. I had to walk over a hundred yards to get to the front door. This would have felt daunting before, but now that I was no longer dragging my left foot, I made good time.

Once inside, I saw the courtesy desk where they rent out wheelchairs. The last time I had been to the mall, I had rented one. Not only did I not require one today, but I was also unescorted. I asked the security officer where the nearest elevator was. He pointed to it, noting that it only went up to the third floor. Once there, I would need to walk to an elevator that could take me to the top floor.

I arrived at the third floor food court. It was massive, and I had no inkling where the elevator might be. I scanned the room, feeling helpless, before finally deciding to just start walking toward the restrooms. When I made it to the restrooms, I saw a custodian. I asked her where the elevator to the fourth floor was. She seemed to point me to somewhere at the edge of the food court. After several minutes, I made it where I thought she had been pointing. The door did not lead to an elevator. I wanted to cry. But soon the same custodian appeared and pointed down the hall. “It’s on around there.”

Now I had to walk down a long walkway, past several stores. This would have worn me out a few months ago, but I was in better shape and I was determined. I was very slow, but soon I arrived at a corner with escalators. I asked a worker in one of the stores where the elevators to the top floor was. He directed me down another corridor, but I recognized now that he meant the main elevators. I remembered what they looked like from visits years before my stroke, but I didn’t know I was so far away from them.

I took a deep breath and made my way in the direction of the main elevators. It didn’t seem nearly as far now that I knew exactly where I was going. Before long, the massive glass elevators came into view. I walked up to them felling triumphant. I pushed the UP button. It seemed to take forever to finally arrive. When I got to the top floor, I followed the signs for the cinema, around three turns and down several long corridors. And it was here that I finally started to feel a little tired. It just seemed like I would never get there.

Then I finally saw the theatre counters. I needed to sit down, but there were no seats. I had paid for my ticket through someone else, so I worried that I wouldn’t be able to go in and sit down. I walked up to the counter and asked the attendant if there was somewhere I could sit until my party arrived. He told me to just go right in.

The cinema was very fancy. There was a bar that stocked everything. I pulled out my phone and checked the time. It was still 90 minutes before the start of the movie. I ordered a beer because I hate sitting somewhere and just taking up space. I didn’t have to worry about the price of the beer. Money was no longer my primary concern. I couldn’t believe how quickly I had made it there, either. I was entering a new phase in life – one where I wouldn’t be obsessed with time, endurance, or money.

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My time back in Mississippi had been devoted to working out and walking around with family. I typically gain weight any time I visit the Deep South. With all of the rich culinary delights, it’s hard not to. Before the stroke, I would lose about ten pounds before my annual trip home, knowing that I would add them back during the two weeks I was down there. I loved the fried catfish, crawfish, and oysters that seemed pretty ubiquitous, and I would always return to Minnesota with the waistline to reflect that. You just couldn’t often get that kind of seafood in the Upper Midwest.

Dad enjoys cafeteria-style dining. So when Sharon and Ivory came down the following weekend, we all went out to one of Dad’s favorite restaurants. The last time I had eaten here was two years ago, during the period where I was newly out of the hospital and still in a wheelchair. One person had had to push me through the cafeteria line while another pushed my food tray. I felt powerless having to look up and point at the food I wanted. I didn’t want to be a burden.

Presently, I had the leg strength to stand in line until the restaurant closed. It was empowering to look down at the arrayed food and clearly tell the staff what I wanted. When they handed the plates across, I was able to take them myself. I switched my cane to my right hand so I could push my own tray along the line as I headed toward the register. It sounds trivial to me as I write this, but there are no adequate words to express how humbling not being able to walk and push my own tray had been. Whatever I was feeling now was the opposite of humiliation.

That same week, I had gotten sick. I had begun developing a cough. I wasn’t coughing up anything, but it was constant enough to hinder my sleep. Since it also seemed worse when I slept, I asked Dad to help me sterilize my CPAP mask and tubing, and buy some cold & cough medicine. Finally, I decided to take some time away from the gym to rest. None of this seemed to help much, so on Saturday, I had Dad drive me to urgent care.

When we arrived at the clinic, Dad asked me if I wanted him to drop me off at the front door. I said no. Despite the fact that I was sick, I knew that walking across the lot would be easy. When I got to the front desk to check in, one of the employees recognized me immediately. She exclaimed over how good I looked, because I hadn’t been able to walk very well the last time I was there. When I got back to see the doctor, I told him that it was probably the annual lung infection that I get every fall. With the difference in climate, it probably happened a bit sooner. It’s normally resolved by a breathing treatment and a prescription for steroids and antibiotics.

I told the doctor that a shot was preferable to an oral 5-day script. So when the nurse came back, I started pumping my right fist to produce a visible vein. Then she asked me to stand up.

“Why do you need me to stand?”

“’Cause I gotta shoot you in the butt.”

I had assumed it was going to be in the arm. The last time I had been shot in the butt, I’d experienced pain and stiffness for a couple of days.

Dad and I checked out of the clinic and went to the pharmacy. As they handed me my prescriptions, I thought of why I was so thankful to be living in Minneapolis again: the office visit and pharmacy bill cost me zero dollars. When I had been a Mississippi resident, the whole affair cost me $200 The affordable health care, along with free gym memberships and free rides from the county made it easy to keep advancing my recovery. Peace of mind helped me concentrate on daily commitment to rehabilitation. I went home, took my first dose of pills, took a long nap, and dreamed about working out again.

Because my brothers decided to come back to town a second time, I wasn’t able to go to the coast for the final weekend of my vacation. As a result, I couldn’t meet up with a lot of my friends. My friend Marcus and his wife Fontreia did come up to have dinner with me on Sunday. I had only met Fontreia once, the last time I was in town. They were just dating at the time, but they had married during the past year. I was looking forward to seeing them again.

They picked me up at my Dad’s house. Coming down the steps and walking the length of the driveway was simple now that I could lift my foot easily. Getting into the car and walking into the restaurant was simple. We ate at my favorite New Orleans style restaurant in Jackson. I ordered the oyster po-boy with remoulade and tabasco sauces. We also ordered drinks and an assortment of appetizers. The food and drinks were perfect – an ideal dining experienced for my last night out.

Fontreia and Marcus are an interracial couple. They know several people who harbor prejudices about other races and them as a couple. However, they are both grounded, educated individuals who have cultivated a welcoming community of like-minded people. We spent the evening discussing topics as varied as politics, race, faith, and atheism. Fontreia remarked at how much healthier I looked. I told her how different benefits in Hennepin County accommodated my rehabilitation needs. Marcus has lived in Chicago before; we tried to convince Fontreia that visiting Minnesota during the snowy months really wouldn’t be that bad.

We laughed and talked for about two hours. Just like with the other outings, it felt good to be energetic and fully engaged. We drove home talking about the next time we could get together. I walked back up the steps, went to my bedroom, and fell asleep immediately. I love how I don’t realize how tired I am until I arrive at home later. Physical fitness and high spirits allow me to thoroughly enjoy the moments with loved ones.

The next day was Monday. Since I was feeling fairly healthy again, I decided to make it my last workout in Mississippi. I did a generous amount of time on the stationary bike and followed that up with fifteen minutes on the hand bike. All of this gave me a good amount of cardio, so I was breathing more freely than I had in a week. With this increased oxygenation I had the energy to get a great workout session in. I did a couple of leg strengthening exercises, and I even added some back exercises with the purpose of stretching my left shoulder. When I finally walked out, I was ready to travel again. I was looking forward to getting more muscle relaxant injections in a week.

I spent Tuesday packing my suitcase slowly so that I could make sure I was ready to go. The next day, I got up early so I could eat, buy souvenirs, and leave Jackson by 11:00 am. That would get me to New Orleans three hours before my flight took off. Dad thought that was far too soon, but I wanted to make sure that we could make it on time, even if we encountered the unforeseen problems.

We made good time, and by noon, we were already at the Louisiana state line. We stopped at the welcome center to use the restroom. The last time I had stopped at this welcome center, I was still using the wheelchair. My brother had wheeled me up to the sculpture of the state map so I could take pictures. Proud of my continued progress, I walked over to it again. It felt like I had struggled a lifetime to get to this point. A journey of years had led to this confident series of steps.

By the time we made it to the airport, it was still hours before my d timeeparture. We checked in at curbside. The agent told me to wait on a nearby bench so they could have someone bring out a wheelchair (at this point, the only time I take a wheelchair is so I can speed through airports). So Dad and I sat down and chatted about how much fun the visit had been. I told him how much confidence I now had about traveling by myself. Next year, I would no longer need a cane to walk outdoors, either. We said our goodbyes before I turned to go into the airport.

Going through security was pretty automatic by now. I slipped off my belt and shoes. The agents told me that I could keep my leg brace on, but I told them that it was to slippery for walking without a shoe. So I sent the brace through the x-ray machine. They were skeptical about my ability to hold my left hand above my head, but I assured them that it was no problem. I walked into the full body scanner and held my arms high above my head.

The agent helped me get dressed and sped me to my terminal. Once we got there, I told him that I wanted to eat – local cuisine, if he could help it. He advised me that there was a Copeland’s in the terminal “Perfect.” When we arrived at Copeland’s, I got out of the wheelchair, placed my order, and stood in line. Even though I was indoors, I was still sweating. It would feel like autumn when I was back in Minneapolis in a few hours. My shrimp po-boy was up before long. I sat back down in my wheelchair and found an agent to push me to my gate.

I made it to my gate with almost two hours to spare. Getting out of the wheelchair, I sat in a regular seat again. I closed my eyes and bit into the sandwich. This was the last time I would be able to eat in New Orleans for months. I finished eating and waited for them to call my name for early boarding.

When they called my name, I got up to walk down the jet way. The gate agent asked if I wanted a wheelchair. Again I refused it. I walked down to the plane and found my seat. Once there, I placed my cane in the overhead compartment and sat down. I held onto my seat belt with my left hand and pulled the buckle end across my lap. Now that I was safely strapped in, I stared out the window and waited to return to my life.

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I woke up the Sunday morning after a full weekend with my family. I had walked so much and visited several historic places, and I had done it all without stumbling or growing tired. I had wanted to start my day with a workout before getting together with my brothers and their wives one last time. I asked my dad what time he would be going to mass in the morning, but before he answered, I realized that I was being overzealous. I would have to come home, jump in the shower, and get ready to go out and meet them for lunch. Rather than put Dad through all that, I might as well sleep in and have a leisurely day.

We met up at a restaurant on the northern edge of town. It had occurred to me to have lunch there so Sharon and Ivory could jump right on the interstate and head back to Saint Louis. I was so happy to be surrounded by everyone and thrilled to have more than enough money in my checking account to cover my expenses for the entire vacation. Since my stroke, I had sometimes been short for money when we got together. Living mostly on disability insurance meant that I might require help covering my portion of the bill. My family were helpful and weren’t condescending about it, but I still felt like a charity case.

I had paid enough of my bills in advance, plus I was expecting to have two Medicare reimbursement checks waiting for me once I got home, so I could just enjoy myself without worrying about how I would afford next month’s bills. I had even timed my return flight to coincide with the date of my September disability payment. That way, I could afford baggage fees, meals, and a taxi home from the airport even if I had managed to spend all the money in my account during vacation. That wasn’t the plan, but the feeling was liberating.

Now as we sat around the table, I listened to them talk about travel plans and when they could visit one another again. I wanted to be in a position where I didn’t have to plan my trips so meticulously. My goal was to be three months ahead of all bills by the end of 2019 and six months ahead by the end of 2020. It would require a lot more fiscal discipline, but once I was at that status, it would feel like I was living a comfortable retirement. I could easily afford a flight to Mississippi, Missouri, or Texas any month I felt like it.

I had been watching Dad play with Parker for three days now, She adored her grandfather. She was friendly with me, but I felt like I owed it to her to visit at least twice a year. It could be like when my brothers and me were growing up: we didn’t see Mama’s side of the family that often. But we saw them regularly, and it was always magical.

The next morning, it was back to business as usual. I got up early and had Dad drive me to the gym. By the time I got there, I was still feeling a little tired. I jumped on a stationary bike and started pedaling to wake myself up. I didn’t care for the bikes at this location. They weren’t comfortable to sit on, so it was a chore to ride for twenty minutes on a good day. But if I made it to five minutes, I could push myself to go to ten minutes. If I was feeling good after ten minutes, fifteen and twenty minutes were pretty easy.

I made it to ten minutes, but I was still feeling a little tired. I wasn’t ready to start lifting weights yet, but I wanted to find a new machine to work out on. There was a hand bike at this location. Although I had used the hand bike in almost every occupational therapy program in the last four years, there hadn’t been one at any of the fitness clubs I belonged to. But the last time I was here, I had seen one and planned to factor it into my workouts.

In therapy, the hand bike had been hard for me. My left shoulder hurt every time my arm was extended, and it was hard to maintain momentum because it was hard for my left arm to keep up with my right arm. The whole affair had felt like a battle. This time, I experienced no pain. I cranked up the resistance, expecting to at least have a difficult time maintaining rhythm with my left arm.

But hand bike was easy. With greater mobility in my arm and shoulder, every revolution was natural. My left arm could extend my farther, and I could even feel a little activation in my triceps. The last time I’d attempted this exercise, it was all I could do to make it to five minutes. This time was so much easier. I turned up the volume on the video I was listening to and tried not to look at the clock. Before I knew it, I was at ten minutes. After I hit fifteen minutes, I stopped and sat back, breathing hard. I was proud of myself.

I was motivated now, but I still wasn’t feeling great. I began setting up for lunges, as setting up a workout station down to the centimeter has always been one way I focus on days when I feel out of it. After setting up, I slid into place to begin. Right as I was about to start, I heard someone call my name. I looked around to see my friend Keri. She greeted me warmly, not having seen me since before I moved back to Minnesota three years ago. She told me how proud she was of all my progress.

Seeing Keri was just the motivation I needed. It no longer felt like an anonymous workout. Now it felt like someone was watching me. I banged out three sets of lunges on each leg. After that, I went on to do two more leg exercises and two upper body ones. It ended up being the second best workout of my trip. By the time I was finished, my energy was up. Keri came over and found me while I was seated at a table, waiting for Dad. I was happy to tell her how much more the workouts meant when I people were cheering for me.

I was going to be home for three weeks, so a lot of my visit would be learning how to do home chores again. Sure, it might seem mundane, but these were things I hadn’t wanted to spend time doing in occupational therapy. Since the assisted living staff normally did my laundry at home, I decided to do it myself while on vacation. I didn’t have a laundry bag in Mississippi, so I had to carry it in a plastic basket. This had been too difficult for me to carry in the past; I’d needed to walk with my cane, so I couldn’t simultaneously hold it in my right hand.

Now that I had been doing so much leg work, I just decided to carry the basket with one hand. I picked it up, surprised at how light it was. Not wanting to trip, I walked slowly. It didn’t take me long at all to get to the laundry room. From that point, it was a simple task. Bending down and reaching my clothes was no different than picking up after Mary each day.

A day or two later, I was eating burgers with very finely chopped onions. No matter how carefully I ate, a few fell on the floor. Ordinarily, I would have asked someone else to clean up the mess for me. But I stopped, remembering that this was going to be a trip where I reestablished a lot of my independence. I asked my dad to get the vacuum for me. He plugged it in and brought it over, ready to vacuum up the onions. I told him that I wanted to do it myself.

It was a one-handed task. Balancing was easy, I ran the machine back and forth, confident that I could put weight through either leg because I could move and reset either foot without much effort. The lunges had made me feel a lot more comfortable putting my legs in various positions without worrying about losing balance. The task was so easy that, after I got all of the onions up, I felt like I wanted to run the machine for another hour.

One thing I wasn’t able to do was take my pills on my own. I hadn’t brought a pill planner, nor was I able to open all the bottles. Opening the smaller bottles wasn’t hard, but the large ones were a challenge. I couldn’t grip the lid with my right hand, and I couldn’t grip the bottle with my left hand. I tried turning it either way; I braced it against the bed; I tried to grip it with a towel. Nothing seemed to work in helping me open the pills. It reminded me of the day I had the stroke. I kept trying to twist it off, but it only spun around and around in my left palm. It was so disheartening.

Then one afternoon while Dad was napping, I decided to try one more time, I gripped the pill bottle in my left hand, then tried twisting off the lid with my right hand. Again, the bottle just spun. So I turned the bottle upside down. Pressing the lid against my palm, I pushed down on the bottom of the bottle and twisted hard. I felt the lid click and twist off. My relief was boundless. I was quickly moving toward the point where I would be living completely independently again.

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Our road trip through the Delta had felt like a journey through epic times. We would enjoy a family get together in town the next day. My father’s only living sister, Aunt Ruth, came down from Memphis on Sunday. Her son Emmett had driven along with his lady friend. We all met at Dad’s house then settled on lunch at a Mexican restaurant near downtown.

During our meal, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had been at a large family gathering and had really felt like interacting again. I had struggled just to drag myself to a chair the last couple of times we were together. My strategy for those meals had been to find a table relatively close to the restroom, hunker down, and try to get through the meal without having to go more than once. I would be tired from dragging my left foot by the time I sat down, and talking was even more of a labor. I had enjoyed the idea of dining out with family, but it was constant work and only made me feel slightly less alone.

Going out to eat with family was now fun again. I didn’t need them to park right next to the entrance or help me up the steps. When we got inside, we had such a large party that our table was very close to some of the booths. It felt amazing to be able to tiptoe in and out of narrow spaces that would have been impossible one or two years ago. I laugh and joked, happy that I could project my voice or even keep up with the rate of conversation. Gone were the days when I would have to take in a gulp of air at the beginning of every sentence then listen as other people impatiently finished my sentence for me.

At the end of dinner, I asked Aunt Ruth if she could take a picture of the table with my phone, since she was on the end. She wasn’t able to get the perspective with herself in the shot. So I got up, walked to end of the table, and took a selfie so you could see everyone behind me. I purposefully didn’t try to get everyone’s attention. I wanted to get a more spontaneous looking shot. Some people are eating; some have their backs turned; others are talking; only a few have looked up and paused for the camera.

I feel like this communicates the ease with which I was moving that day. I was in the middle of eating when I stopped to snap a picture. Without grabbing my cane, I stood up, sidled past Aunt Ruth’s chair, walked in front of the table, spun and clicked. It didn’t require planning my movements to avoid a fall. I performed all the calculations in my head so quickly that I didn’t distract most of the family from their activities. In the picture, it almost looks like I “photo bombed” in. Like I had the speed and balance to just dart into someone else’s family photo. It only looks so effortless because of years of grinding work.

After we finished eating, we stood around outside trying to figure out what to do next. Since he hadn’t been there before, Jonathan suggested that we go to the civil rights museum. I had gone when it opened two years ago, but I had required a wheelchair to get through it. Back then, I had only been lifting weights for a few months. I could walk, but my legs had been too weak to get through the museum on my feet. I had vowed to walk all the way through the museum the next time I went. This was my chance.

We had to walk several hundred feet to get from our vehicles to the museum. Everyone else walked at a normal pace to get inside from the heat. I walked the majority of the way alone. I had just shaved my head the previous day, so sweat ran into my eyes. Every minutes or so, I had to stop and wipe my face. Walking didn’t tire me out; it just annoyed me how slow I was getting to my destination. The best method was to look down and concentrate on something that could take my mind off the task at hand.

As the security officer swung open the door to let me inside, cool air hit me in the face. It was wonderful. Because Dad was a member of the museum, we got free admission. They brought me a wheelchair, but I refused it. Dad told me that I might need it in order to keep up with the group. So I reluctantly agreed to take it.

As we went past the first exhibits, I listened to Dad telling everyone about it and realized how natural he was as our guide. I have a degree in history and can describe the times and concepts just as well, but you could definitely tell how adept he was from years of lecturing in the classroom. He walked back and forth, pointing and gesticulating. He would pause or emphasize his points in ways that conveyed the most important information.

After we had stopped three times in the first exhibit, I decided that keeping up with the group was not going to be a problem. I asked Jonathan to hold my wheelchair in place. I stood up and balanced with my cane, allowing the expected jolt of involuntary tone to temporarily straighten my leg. After the surge, I was able to start walking. I strolled slowly, letting the other pass me so they could hear Dad. I had been here before and was capable of guiding myself. I wanted to have time to linger and take individual photos of certain exhibits. I could easily catch up with the group if I lagged too far behind.

Whenever I visit a really good museum, I struggle with which part to tell my readers about. I love taking pictures of the larger, more striking displays. While I thoroughly enjoy communicating my awe, I am leery of my tendency to say too much. I want the visitor to the museum to still have opportunities for surprise. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is no different. I could spend an eight-hour day there and never run out of things to read. So I think any description will just add to the reader’s enjoyment.

Upon turning the first corner in the museum, the visitor sees a series of immense black panels. They are made of glass and chronicle the names of hundreds of lynching victims. The first time I saw these obsidian hanging scrolls, there were so many in the room that I didn’t even notice that there were also two behind me. The scrolls bear testament to the scores and scores of people who died at the hands of hateful men determined to stop progress. They could not stop freedom’s sun from rising.

This time I noticed that there were several smaller panels scattered throughout the museum. One titled “RACIALLY MOTIVATED KILLINGS” was divided by years Scanning 1955, I located the name, Emmett Louis Till. This adolescent boy was tortured and killed by white men for the alleged crime of whistling at a white woman. The obvious “real” transgression was not respecting the color line. “That boy don’t know his place” was a charge that could get any black man killed in the segregated South. A careless faux pas was often something that the tenuous white power structure would not brook.

It is nearly impossible to fathom what these people endured. It must have been sheer terror knowing how arbitrary the rules of segregation could be, yet they were enforced swiftly and often with deadly consequences. It was in this stifling environment that African Americans finally reached the limits of acquiescence. The murder of the youth inspired a wave of defiance among black Mississippians that helped to usher in the modern day civil rights movements.

One of the things that seem present in every civil rights museum is the segregated schoolhouse. There are scale models of “White” and “Colored” classrooms juxtaposed to show the disparities. Many people can convince themselves that Separate But Equal wasn’t really that unfair. But exhibits like these show in graphic detail the material differences between what each set of students had to deal with.

There are other factors that hinder a student’s ability to learn: Did she have anything to eat this morning? Did he have to come to school in the winter with no socks? Is one parent incarcerated? Now imagine upon making it to class under these conditions – often byproducts of segregation themselves – and having inadequate learning materials and a crumbling building. Sure, a motivated student can learn under stark conditions. But a child living in the wealthiest society on earth shouldn’t be asked to – certainly not when there is a demonstrable ability to build a proper school for white children in the same county.

A couple of rooms away there is a mock up of a jail cell. This is often the destination of civil rights demonstrators. The walls are littered with the mugshots of many students the state of Mississippi rounded up and housed like livestock. Segregation was enforced so strictly that when extrajudicial lynchings didn’t work to intimidate people out of demanding change, the power of the state could be brought to bear down on them.

Whether in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum or here in Mississippi, these jail cells communicate to me in powerful ways. I will sit in the shadows and contemplate that long line of ancestors stretching all the way back to slavery. Whether they resisted with arms or performed the far less lauded task of ensuring that their descendants would survive. It is because of them that I can walk the earth a free man. I am forever in their debt.

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My brothers came to visit the second weekend I was in town. Since it was the first time we were all in Mississippi together in six years,Dad wanted us to take a family road tour through the Delta region in order to talk about the history of our family and community. I was excited – not only because this would give a lot of opportunities to get in and out of vehicles, to walk around, and to stretch my legs – but I had also majored in history and loved reviving the ghosts of the forgotten terrain.

We all got together in the afternoon in Jackson, split up in two SUVs, and rumbled north. There were only three of us in the lead vehicle – my dad, Ivory, and me. But due to our experiences and interests, it was actually the one where there would be the most discussion of history. We drove up to Yazoo City, then switched to Highway 49, where we were able to make our way up toward the agrarian towns of the Mississippi River. We passed alabaster rows of cotton fields stretched out beneath the blue sky as Dad pointed out dusty roads to places that no longer existed.

After over an hour, we had to stop for gas. The last time I been in the Delta, I’d needed frequent restroom breaks and felt quite guilty about how often I had slowed the trip. And once we would get to a service station, we would have to park right next to it because
I would become exhausted just trying to walk across a lot.

This time, we hadn’t even stopped for me. As Ivory drove to the gas pumps, most of them were occupied, so we had to park at the one that was farthest away from the building. When he asked if I wanted him to let me out, I assured him that I would be fine. He pulled up to the pump, and I got out, refused help with the door, then casually strode to the storefront. The restrooms were located in the rear of the store, so I wandered to the back, unphased by even more distance. I used the restroom, washed my hands, and came out to do a little shopping. After I paid, I made my way back across the sweltering lot. I can’t describe how good it felt to make that walk an easy one.

Our first destination was Greenville – the largest city in the Mississippi Delta. Since it was on the river, it had always been the major shipping hub of the region. It has since lost prominence with the expansion of overland shipping and the decline of importance of cotton and catfish. My favorite site – the Welcome Center– is no longer at the river crossing. The old Welcome Center is a model steamship. It sits in a shallow pond and has an iconic paddle wheel. I wanted to go and take pictures there, since the last group photo I have with my brothers is from when I was still using a wheelchair.

We parked right beside the boat. Then I realized that I would need to walk out onto the grass if I wanted to get the paddle wheel in the shot. I walked to the edge of the pavement and braced myself, because carpet and grass always created greater tripping habits for me. At first I thought about calling someone over for help. Then I remembered how important it was to keep gauging my improvement on this trip. Knowing everyone was there, I could just pause and ask for help if I needed it.

I took one step out on the grass. My foot didn’t catch on anything. Then I started walking. The ground was a little lumpy, but the grass was short and there weren’t any large holes. There was a sign that traced the course of the Mississippi from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The network of highway sections is known as the Great River Road. It has always been my ambition to drive this trek. Now that I’m recovering from a stroke, it’s a mission. By simply placing one foot in front of the other, I was soon at the sign. As I waited for Ivory and Jonathan to walk over, my heart swelled with pride.

Once we were done taking pictures, we joined my brothers’ wives, Sharon and Candice. They had taken Candice and Jonathan’s daughter, Parker, inside the welcome center. Since I had assumed it was closed, I was now curious about what was inside. Once inside, I found that the center had a second level. Everyone else went upstairs, while I sat down and rested on the couch because upstairs wasn’t air conditioned. It just seemed like unnecessary work to go all the way up.

Ivory came back and told me that there was a small museum up there. It probably wasn’t worth the effort it took to get up there. It didn’t sound particularly impressive, but going up there would be a feat. Everyone else had already come down, so I began climbing up myself. Grasping the handrail, It was no trouble climbing the first series of stairs. Once I got past the landing, the stifling heat caused me to sweat profusely. But it wasn’t more difficult, so I continued to the top.

The first exhibit was a large replica of Kermit the Frog seated in a pond. It was an homage to muppet creator Jim Henson, who was born in Greenville. Henson was one of many entertainers and athletes who are native to Mississippi. Because the state otherwise gets so much poor publicity, it celebrates its native sons and daughters. There are more historical markers, restaurants, and small museums than many visitors might expect. And locals will often greet you and tell you all about their personal connections to the celebrity in question.

The rest of the “musem” was a wraparound display of a planter scene. It had a an actal plow and several agricultural products that are grown locally. Since I was sweating anyway, I stopped in front of a bale of cotton and asked Ivory to come back upstairs and take a picture of me. I put my cane down, stretched my back, and moppped my brow with the back of my hand, as though I was weary from a long day picking cotton under a sweltering Delta sun. With a feeling of accomplishment, I went back downstairs. We got back into the vehicles and headed out of Greenville along Highway 1.

Our next stop was at the grave of my grandmother. It’s in a cemetary by the side of the highway. Unlike a lot of urban cemetaries, it doesn’t have an arched gateway with a name to let the visitor know that she is entering a sacred space. As a child, I imagined that was because you are always in a supernatural space in rural Mississippi. Even Grandmother had a story of being chased through town by the devil who was riding a bicycle one night. I used to close my eyes when we spent the night in the Delta, imagining that there were ghosts and demons and wolves everywhere.

Grandmother was born in 1904. As a child, I had been fascinated by the stories she told. I never expressed how much I loved listening to the old folks talk about the past. It was the haunted feeling of listening to these stories that had led to my impulse to major in history. Standing at her grave, I thought of the African proverb “Every time an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” I like to think that by being such an avid listener, I rescued several invaluable volumes from that conflagration.

Our next stop was the grounds of the Scotland plantation. Now a Monsanto crop development site, it was once under the Delta and Pine Land Company. My father had become familiar with the place because the families of the workers who lived there sent their children to Rosedale, Dad’s hometown for school. They were so socially close to slavery that the kids would sometimes name the owner of the plantation when asked by a teacher to recite the presidents in order.

We found the historical marker for the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the most storied river flood I knew of. The river had swelled beyond its banks for miles in either direction. People from farther down the river will recall that this was the flood that caused people to discuss dynamiting the levees of Placquemines Parish to save New Orleans upstream. Families all up and down the river had been changed forever by the great flood. Our history had been diverted when Grandmother had escaped Arkansas in a rowboat and floated downstream until it reached dry land in Mississippi.

We left the plantation and drove a few more miles north to Rosedale – the city where Grandmother settled and where Dad was born. At the port of Rosedale, where the boats were loaded and unloaded, there was a tugboat pushing barges down the Mississippi – a scene that seems to always be happening once you get south of Missouri. I stared across the river to Arkansas, imagining children from the opposite bank. It felt so serene.

We climbed back in our vehicles and drove the last mile into the actual town. We turned right down a familiar street to Gospel Temple, an old building that had always seemed to bet he tallest one in town. This had been the black congregation during segregation and was still the beating heart of the black community of Rosedale when we were kids. Several times while Ivory and I were in elementary school, we had come here to Easter services to participate in giving Easter speeches — one or two quatrain poems that celebrated the death and ressuection of Jesus.

We lingered here, talking, taking pictures, and watching Jonathan play in the grass with Parker. Then, when we decided the tour was over, we turned and started for home. I watched the sun slowly disappearing and peeking from behind the trees. It had been an incredibly arduous two years of physical rehabilitation following my stroke. But I was finally starting to feel like I was living again.

When we finally made it home, the sky was black. No longer reliant on my cane to go in and out of the house, I reached out and grasped the door frame. Then stepping up with my left leg, I went up the steps into the house. With the diversity of exercises I was doing in the gym, a long day of standing and walking around the Delta was no more perilous than strolling down the sidewalk. I was learning to master my body again.

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After a great night’s sleep, I woke up before 7:00. I was the only one awake in the house. This made me feel accomplished because I had so much more energy than the last time I had been here. In the past, I wouldn’t wake up until after 10:00. Dad would bring home food, then I would get out of bed at 11:00. I seldom had the drive to work out. When I did, it was normally in the evening, after I had marshaled my strength. I had been so weak and sluggish back then.

Today, getting out of bed and getting started didn’t take much effort. I was used to getting up to take Mary outside around 6:00. Then I would take my medications at 7:00, shower, dress, and eat. I had planned out a morning schedule during the spring and placed it in a Word document. Back then, I battled my fatigue by meticulously calculating everything ahead of time so that I would have a reference to keep me ahead of schedule. I had sleepwalked to the bus for a couple of months. But by the time I got to the gym, my body would be awake enough to complete a basic workout.

As time wore on, I found myself waking up on my own much more often. Instead of still feeling drowsy as I walked to the bus, I would be alert after I climbed out of the shower. This became increasingly simpler as the weeks wore on. Soon, I was completely awake by 7:00. Most days I was still going to the gym, but sometimes I was off to a medical appointment or to run errands. It was comforting to know that I would be fully engaged in no matter what I had to do that morning.

On an average day, I got dressed, packed my laptop, and went to the local coffee shop to work on my blog. Packing everything and walking to the car was simple, as my mind was alert. When I arrived at the coffee shop, I was able to get right to work. No writer’s block, no anxiety. Writing was something else I had conditioned myself to do through tireless commitment. So as I had been doing, I set aside three hours, went somewhere that I couldn’t leave without a ride home, and resolved to write a minimum of 500 words.

When I was done, I had to use the restroom. Unlike in the past, I got up with no worry of theft or injury. Leaving my cane at the table, I walked the few feet to the restroom. Having confidence in my balance had contributed to my general sense of security. So I no longer felt the need to pack up all my things and carry them with me. I hit SAVE, left the laptop plugged in, and walked off to the men’s room. My laptop was still sitting there when I came back.

I had gotten some writing done my first day back in Jackson. So I felt like it was starting out as a productive vacation. The next morning, I went to the gym. The last time I had worked out in Jackson had been during my first few months back in the gym, so I had hardly been able to do much. I had progressed so much during the last two years that going to the gym was no longer a chore. Working out was fun again.

The first time I arrived at the gym, the steps were shorter than I remembered. So as I had been practicing, I stepped up onto each step with my left leg, letting it support my body weight in order to keep building strength. As always, I began my workout with twenty minutes on the stationary bike. The pedals on these were set farther back, so I had to find an employee to help me fit my foot in the left stirrup. But after that, it was easy.

At both gyms in Minnesota, my ankle tends to pop slightly at the top of the pedal cycle. It doesn’t hurt; it just snaps forward as the pedal starts to go back down before popping back up when my heel is in a position to be parallel to the floor. On the Mississippi bikes, this doesn’t happen because the pedals don’t bring the feet as far forward. When I first got on, I wondered if I was going to feel like going for ten minutes. But the motion was so smooth that I was soon at 5 minutes … then 10 … 15 … 20. I could’ve gone on indefinitely, but I didn’t want to tire myself too much for weightlifting.

I didn’t feel like I had really worked that hard, but I got off the bike sweating much more than normal. I felt I should take it easy before I moved on to leg weights. I scouted around the room and found the row machine I used to use down here. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed these row machines. Because the weights were positioned near the floor, they seemed to work my back much differently than the overhead row machines. As with any lat row, I concentrated more on trying to extend my arm, then flexing my triceps as I pulled the grip towards me.

When I was ready to do legs, I found the personal trainer. Since I was starting with lunges, I didn’t want to lose balance. I also thought it was a good idea to have an expert check my form. He positioned my feet more narrowly than I had been doing. He also had me bring my left foot forward more. As I dipped, I could feel my hamstrings working harder; then the quadriceps went to work as I stood up. By the time I got to ten reps, I was sweating profusely. Then it was time to switch legs

With my right foot now forward, I shifted my weight to the toes and ball of my left foot. As I dipped down, I went almost to one knee before driving myself back upward. This was important for reestablishing standing and walking form in my feet. For years after the stroke, my toes involuntarily curled under. By exercising on my toes, I was forcing them to work and bear weight while bent in the opposite direction. I was also trying to activate my calf and strengthen my ankle. If I wanted to learn to walk well, it would be squats that would get me there.

Dad and I went out to lunch, during which I realized that we were down the street from the first hospital where I opened my eyes. I asked Dad if we could go by there, and he took me by after we had finished eating. Just seeing the hospital from the outside brought back a torrent of memories. I recalled being unable to speak and filled with despair. Would I ever walk again? Would my left arm ever stop hurting at the slightest touch? Would my double vision ever go away? Would I ever speak again?

I had Dad pull up in a parking space so I could get out and take a picture. It was just as hot as the day I’d left the hospital. But now I was able to stand under my own power. I had just come from the gym, where I was working my left arm. I was speaking to Dad about what I needed from him. And while I was uncomfortable with my voice, people understood every word. Every day was a struggle to get back to normal health, but, I was so far from where I had been.

After I was finished taking pictures, we went home. I was so sweaty that I was ready to take a shower. Showering at home was something I was never able to do alone. Although I did have a shower chair here, the tub walls were high and narrow. This meant that only part of the chair could fit inside the tub. We extended the legs of the chair as far as we could, but they couldn’t reach the floor because the seat straddled the tub wall. Only one side’s legs could touch the floor at once, so Dad had to stabilize it while I climbed into the tub. Once I was seated on the bench, he would have to help me lift my left leg over the wall, too. This was depressing, but it was the only way I could bathe two years ago.

Now that I had built up so much leg strength and coordination, I was ready to see if I could bathe on my own. I stripped down to my undershorts and had Dad hold the shower chair steady. With him steadying the chair, I sat down and swung my legs over the side. Now I told him that I could do the rest on my own. With him gone, I stripped naked, showered, and dried off. When I was ready, I swung each leg back onto the floor. Then, holding onto the doorknob for balance, I stood up. I pulled on a fresh pair of undershorts, then strode back to my room.

I sat down on the low bed and put my clothes on. This was a great start to three weeks that would see me move on to even greater things.

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I always fly on Wednesdays, when I assume that the flights will be cheapest. It also tends to make for an easier commute to the airport. So I don’t oversleep, I usually try for a late morning departure. This vacation was no different. In addition to these other precautions, I had my friend Rob pick up Mary the afternoon before. With Mary gone, I was able to finish packing by 7:00 pm without interference. The apartment was extremely quiet. I charged my phone and laptop to capacity. Then I went to bed before 10:00.

I got more sleep than I had anticipated, but as usual, I woke up before 5:00 am. My ride wasn’t scheduled to arrive until a little after 7:00. So I drank an energy drink, then I jumped in the shower. At 6:00am, I went downstairs to get my meds for the trip. At a little before 7:00, the assisted living worker came up to take my suitcase to the lobby. Metro Mobility was late, so I used the restroom. Even with my restlessness, my incontinence was greatly improved. I wasn’t worried about needing to use the restroom again until I was through security.

My ride was almost thirty minutes late, but we still arrived at ticketing more than two hours early. I walked from the bus all the way to the ticketing agent. After she checked my bag, she asked if I wanted a wheelchair. When I said yes, she directed me to a bench at the back where I could wait. It didn’t take long before the wheelchair agent arrived. I stood up, walked over, whirled and sat down. I was proud of how mobile I had become. He handed me my backpack and whisked me past the winding line to security.

After I showed my documents, the agent pushed over to the x-ray. I didn’t need help taking off my shoes and leg brace this time. When he pushed me over to the full-body scanner, I was so eager to prove that I could go through that I almost leapt out of the chair. When it was my turn, I walked up the ramp and stood in place. I raised my left hand as high as it would go, then I watched the scanning apparatus rotate. As I put my shoes and brace back, I was happy that it was official: I would never need to arrive at the airport sooner than the average traveler again.

When I arrived at my gate, I told the agent that I no longer needed the wheelchair. The boarding agent called my name a few minutes later, I approached the desk. I told her that I wouldn’t require a wheelchair to take me down the jetway.

“You sure? It’s gonna be a lot longer than normal.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve been working out a lot . It’ll be easy.”

When they called the names of the early boarding passengers, I allowed everyone in a wheelchair to go first. Then I walked down the jetway behind them. It was a slightly longer walk than normal, but it didn’t tire me out. Once I made it inside the plane, I used the overhead compartments as a handrail. That allowed me to walk faster. When I arrived at my row,, it was empty. I decided to stow my cane and use the restroom, because it would be harder to walk after the cabin was full and the bins were closed. I got to the rear of the cabin amazingly quickly, and since the plane was still motionless, I had no problem getting in and out.

Arriving back at my row, I saw that it was still empty. Since I always request a window seat, it was a relief not to have to climb over other passengers. The major drawback to having a widow seat is that it can be harder to fasten the seat belt, as the buckle always seems to face the wall. Because of my left arm, someone usually has to help me buckle in. This is compounded by the fact that my waist got so much larger due to my decreased activity after the stroke. A few times, the flight attendant even had to use a belt extension to strap me in safely.

I decided to try fastening the seat belt myself, before there was anyone crowded next to me. Using my right arm, I tried pulling the belt across my lap. It didn’t come all the way across, so I held the buckle and extended it all the way out. Now I set the buckle end in my lap. I used my right hand to fish down beside the seat to find the other end, found it, and placed it in my left hand. Then I brought the buckle across to join it, gingerly pushing both ends together until I heard them snap. I wasn’t even in the air yet, but I was starting to feel like an independent traveler again.

Eventually, they closed the door and the plane pushed back from the terminal. No one else was seated in my row. I would be extremely comfortable, having all the elbow room I needed. And I could leave the window up without disturbing anyone else.

I placed my head against the window and watched trees and buildings speed by. I felt the wheels bump two last times, then we were airborne. The features of earth grew smaller and smaller, finally disappearing as the plane rose through the clouds. In a few hours I would be in New Orleans, heading home with my father again.

It took two flights and around six hours total, but we finally landed in New Orleans around 4:30. A wheelchair agent pushed me to baggage claim where Dad met us. After we got my bag, we went out to find the car. Hot, heavy air blasted me in the face, and I instantly felt like I was coming home. It had been in the 60s when I left Minnesota. Dad and I got fast food because we still had over two hours to drive back to Jackson. We talked about life and politics as we sped across the wetland bridges.

It was night when we drove up to the house. I walked up the three steps leading with my left leg. Where I had once had to use my cane to steady myself, I now just reached my hand out and held onto the door frame. My arm would have stretched just as far before, but I had lacked the balance, confidence, and spatial awareness to try. As I climbed up the steps, I again felt so proud of all my work. Walking in and out of the house was no longer a perilous journey.

Dad led me back to the room where I would be staying. He apologized because he hadn’t had time to bring in a new frame; I would just be sleeping on a mattress and box spring. He offered to put me up in a room with an assembled bed. I told him that this would be fine. It was so low that it would make dressing easier than normal, but not so low that getting up would be too hard. It was my goal to be more active during this trip. Working harder every time I got out of bed could now be part of the process.

My last major concern was using the restroom. In the past, my incontinence had been so bad that I had needed to keep a latrine at bedside. Although it gradually improved, I still had to walk down a hall and through two doorways to get to the toilet. My walking had improved over the past few years, but I had never trusted myself to make it from the bed to the toilet in the middle of the night every single night. I envisioned myself falling one night and spraying urine all over myself and the hall. So not wanting to create unnecessary work for Dad, I continued to keep the latrine.

But it had been almost two years since I had last been here. I had been doing squats for over a year and lunges for several months. Every time I stepped up, I led with my left leg, and I no longer needed a cane indoors. Just as I had done on every leg of the trip so far, I would take my time to concentrate on the task at hand, trusting that my body had regained the strength to accomplish it independently.

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My trip to the South was soon only a week away. I always worry that I will forget something or miss my flight whenever I have to fly. In order to keep myself from forgetting something and to squelch the nagging feeling, I meticulously planned to busy myself with preparations each day.

The first thing I had to take care of was Mary. I had to secure a dog sitter and take her in for a check up. My neighbor Rob agreed to watch her and he even said he would help me take her to the vet. We rented a car and made a Friday appointment. This was the first time I was able to walk her from the car to the vet’s office.

While I was there, I upgraded Mary’s health plan to include dental care. I even had them trim her nails. Now she could jump up on people without scratching them. She could also breath in their faces without offending people. Because Mary is so affectionate, it’s important to make sure that everything about her is pleasant. Rob and I dropped her off and went to a nearby coffee shop.

We were almost finished with our coffee, the vet called to tell me that I could pick her up. When we arrived back at the veterinary clinic, the staff were fawning, telling me how wonderful she had been. My heart swelled with pride, It feels really good to have a dog who is healthy and pleasant. It gives me the reassurance that I am doing good things in life. Little things like this help me to sustain the momentum of my recovery.

After dealing with Mary’s health, it was time to take care of my own. While I didn’t have any pressing issues, I wanted to make sure my coverage was up to date while I was on vacation. I had scheduled a trip to the Hennepin County Service Center in order to pay my insurance premium in person. While I was there, the accountant told me that my insurance was paid through July. I paid the premium for two months so I wouldn’t owe anything until the month after I returned.

Now that I had achieved peace of mind regarding my health, I asked the accountant to transfer me to my service team so I could discuss payments owed to me. Medicare subtracts money from my disability payment each month, but I also pay an insurance premium, so the county is supposed to send me a reimbursement check. I began receiving this payment last month, but at the time the clerk told me about the payments, had indsheicated that she would try to get me a back payment for the time I hadn’t been aware of the reimbursement program.

When I sat down at the desk of the team member, he advised me that my medical insurance had been updated to reflect that I had paid my premium, I told him that I was there to discuss my Medicare reimbursement and that I wanted to know if there was a check in the system for the back owed amount. There wasn’t one, but the system indicated that I was entitled to the entire amount – almost $3000. He would put in a request. Meanwhile, my monthly check should arrive the following week. Since I would be on the road by then, I hoped to find a small windfall after I returned.

I walked out of the Hennepin County building feeling more confident than ever. My economic concerns were continuing to be less pronounced. Every month or so, some new bit of information seemed to surface that would make life a little more predictable. As I strode along, even walking was becoming easier. Where my left foot would normally catch on the carpet a couple of times, now I didn’t even have to think about lifting it to clear the floor. It was as though I had been walking around in a fog. Once it lifted, thinking and moving about in the world no longer required nearly as much effort.

Having dealt with the financial and health details that I needed to, I was now able to start taking stock of where my body was with regard to physical rehabilitation. The most glaring deficiency (to me) had always been in leg strength. There were problems with dexterity in my lower leg and arm, but having the brute strength to lift my leg high and step far would eliminate the issue of toe drag, thereby bypassing the need to activate the muscles of the foot.

I also had the ability to flex my toes. I would practice this exercises over and over while seated. Riding the stationary bike seemed to be helping my body to engage the muscles of my lower leg. I was also doing exercises like leg curls to target hamstrings. With all of the constant recruitment of the lower leg muscles, I could feel how much easier walking was becoming. It wasn’t as dramatic as waking up one day and having my left leg march the way it could prior to the stroke. But I was making progress toward never needing a cane.

It was in stair climbing that I had regained the most ability. For years I had struggled to find an exercise that would make this less of a struggle. I had tried quadriceps extensions, squats, and leg presses. While they contributed to overall balance and stability, none of these movements had the effect of making stepping up any easier. I would do them day after day, only to arrive at a high step and be forced to step up with my left foot.

Then one day I decided to try doing lunges. Lunges attack all the various muscles in each leg through alternate placement of each one in front of and behind your body independently. Moreover, by placing my left leg in front to rise from a kneel to a standing position, I was forcing my body to simulate climbing up a steep step. I could feel the effort in my quads, hip, glutes, and hamstrings with every single rep. It was so taxing that I often couldn’t complete one set of ten. But I would push myself until I felt my leg would collapse. Then I would sit down on the bench, panting and quivering.

I noticed a dramatic change shortly after I started performing lunges. When I came to a curb, I would try stepping up with my left leg. I would anticipate having to do so with great effort only to find that I had brought my foot significantly higher than I needed to. This excited me greatly. If I could lift my foot this high, I should try lifting it from the ground all the way onto the bus! The next time the bus arrived, I stepped up with my left foot, but my leg buckled when I tried to step up to the next step with my right foot. I quickly stepped down with my right foot so I didn’t fall.

For a little over a week, I couldn’t “step through” with my right leg. I would step up with my left foot, then have to bring my right foot next to it so that my body weight was fully supported. So I began aggressively doing lunges every workout, trying to focus more on using my left leg and taking my right leg out of the equation. Soon I felt as though only one side of my body was active during lunges, so I was lifting correctly. But after about ten days, I had no problem stepping onto the bus with my left leg, then stepping through with my right leg. Getting to my seat became one more exciting result of my workout.

After I arrived at the gym, it was time to gauge more of my gains. My arm had been severely limited in motion after my stroke. When I emerged from my coma, I couldn’t move it voluntarily. When others tried to move it for me, excruciating pain radiated from my shoulder. My muscles had atrophied from lack of circulation and use. It had taken years of stretching and weightlifting to get to a point where I could stretch my left arm above my ear. Now it was time to see how high and straight I could get it.

I began warming up my arm by doing lat pulldowns to loosen my back and shoulders, and straighten my arm. After each set, I would hold the bar as it rose, allowing it to stretch my arm and shoulder. Once my arm was extended to its maximum, I would slowly rotate it, getting an even better stretch at the joint. I would hold my arm at full extension, thinking of the years it had taken me to to be able comfortably lift my arm above my head again.

The last exercise I wanted to do was leg press. It was an exercise I loved doing, and I was now starting to add weight so I could build more brute strength. I stepped into place with my right foot. Now I had to step over the side of the machine with my left foot so I could lie down on my back and push the hip sled towards the ceiling. I lifted my left leg high and over the edge of the machine. Then I sat down to begin my first set. With every rep I kept thinking of how walking with my family again would feel wonderful.

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I purchased my airline ticket to New Orleans in late July – almost six weeks in advance. Back then, it seemed like it would take forever for my vacation to get here. Life seemed so monotonous. I busied myself by blogging, working out, and going to physical therapy. Then I took a couple of weeks off to let my body rest, file government documents, and to go to medical appointments. I tried to stay busy, and before I knew it, there were fewer than two weeks left until my flight. Now I could start my final preparations.

One of the issues I’d had when traveling before was that I seldom traveled with enough money. There always seemed to be too much to pay for prior to leaving. I had fixed expenses like rent, phone, and medical insurance. But one thing I knew I could control was my food expenses. Knowing that I had a food delivery coming thirteen days before my trip, I went to the grocery store one last time to supplement the food in my fridge.

My ILS worker and I went one Friday afternoon. I felt like walking that day because my leg had become much stronger. As I wheeled my shopping cart around, I couldn’t help but notice how much better I was walking. My posture was more erect. Undoubtedly, my speed had increased. I didn’t bang my shins on the bottom of the cart as I had done before. Thanks to all of the miles I was logging on the stationary bike, I felt my feet hitting the floor with a natural rhythm that allowed me to concentrate on finding my food items as opposed to on keeping a steady pace.

I whipped up and down the aisles, reading the signs overhead and negotiating the crowds in front of me. It became like a game as I backed up, turned, and spun. I calculated the prices of each item as I placed it in my cart; I checked the time on my cellphone; I handed the phone to my ILS worker to take video so I could track my progress. This shopping trip was fun. Unlike earlier trips that had been tiring, I wasn’t dragging my left foot or trying to rest my weight on the cart. I had the energy, strength, and awareness to make it a game like I used to before my stroke.

After we left the grocery store, my ILS worker drove me to a fast food restaurant. He wanted to drive up to the front door so I could get out safely. But I told him to park the car. I felt like walking. It occurred to me that I should only take special accommodation when my body couldn’t handle normal tasks. So I walked around the building, like everyone else. Also like everyone else, I stood in line to place my order. I had my ILS worker bring my food to the table because I didn’t want to drop it. But while I waited for him, I draped my left arm across the bench, so I could stretch my shoulder.

It used to hurt when I did this a year ago. Now I am always stretching it whenever I think about it. It is no different from my leg in that it requires as much exercise as possible when I’m not at the gym. This is how one keeps muscles loose and active. Recovery is made that much easier when you make sure the muscles are always prepared for exercise. And while I can’t lift my hand above my head voluntarily yet, I am able to actively use my arm in ways that I couldn’t just a month ago. This is obvious in the gym when I have to move heavy weights or set up to do lunges and squats.

After I let my arm hang for a few moments, I tried straightening it. This is an ideal position for working the triceps. The arm is limited to one plane of movement, so the elbow doesn’t flare out when tone kicks in in the biceps. This felt more rewarding than a lot of other triceps exercises, because I could actually feel the muscles firing, if ever so faintly. I flexed my triceps, closing my eyes and dreaming of a day when I would be able to extend my arm or do pressing exercises again.

The next morning when I got on the bus, I made sure to hold on to the grab bar with my left hand the whole time on the way to the gym. As I did, my biceps loosened up. As the tone in my left arm relaxed, I began to regain control in my triceps. I flexed them constantly until I arrived at my destination. I got off the bus excited about my workout.

Now that I had been back in the gym over two years, my workouts had become a lot more focused and efficient. I usually can get twenty minutes of cardio and five weightlifting exercises in without too much planning or rest between sets. I had already mastered stationary bike riding. Now I wanted to begin setting up on my own at a different gym.

The first thing to do was make sure I didn’t fall. I walked over to a bike, grabbed onto the handlebar with my left hand, then bent down to place my cane on the floor. Still maintaining a hold with my stroke affected hand, I adjusted the seat to a comfortable height. Once I got settled back into the seat, I rotated the pedals so the one on the left side was close to the floor. Then I carefully maneuvered my foot into the stirrup. The right side was much easier. I added resistance and began pedaling. As I rode, I marveled at how much muscle control it had taken to simply set myself up on the bicycle. Just performing the limited exercises I could on a consistent basis had allowed my body to expand and begin mastering other movements.

Next I went to the leg curl machine. My goal with this movement is no longer to build a lot of brute strength in my calves and hamstrings; it’s to retrain my leg to bend so that it’s more natural when I walk. I was barely able to lift my leg on this exercise before. But now that I was regularly riding the bike and performing lunges, I had trained my calf to respond. As I pushed myself to complete three sets, I could feel my foot rising a little higher.

Next in the rotation was leg press. This is a brute strength exercise that I use solely to make it easier to stand or to lift my foot while walking. The mechanics of this exercise are deceptively simple: draw your knee towards you, then kick it back out explosively. However, there’s more to it for me. I rotate my foot until it’s pointing toward the ceiling. As I bring the weight towards me, I keep going until I feel pressure in my glutes. Then I extend my leg slowly, trying to feel my calf working. Finally, I try to point my toes a little at the end of each rep. This how I try to make sure that as many leg muscles as possible are working.

Now it was time for the upper body part of my workouts. I started with lat pulldowns. When I do this exercise, I concentrate on trying to return mobility to my left shoulder. Because it is so constricted, I try to exaggerated the up-and-down movement while limiting the range of motion for my right shoulder. Any strength I gain in my latissimus dorsi is secondary to regaining flexibility in my shoulder.

As usual, I finished my workout by performing lat rows. This is another back exercise I use to help with shoulder mobility. When I first started this exercise two years ago, I had very little range of motion. Over the last few months, I have concentrated on stretching my left arm as far as I can at the top of the movement. Then, trying to keep my trunk rigid, I pull the weight towards me, tucking my elbow and trying to pull it was far back as possible. Now my shoulder is much looser and my grip strength has improved dramatically.

With my workout finished, I went to the locker room to retrieve my things. Where it once took me a few minutes fumbling with my pad lock to open it with one arm, I was now adept enough to slide the key in without moving the lock around. I used to make sure I had thirty minutes to open my lock, gather my things, use the restroom, and walk to the door in order to wait for my ride. These days, fifteen minutes was far more time than I needed to comfortably accomplish everything.

I slipped my backpack over my left arm, then I ran my right arm through the other strap. My left shoulder had become so dexterous during the last six months that I could quickly pull it off and on. I stood up and walked out to the front door. All the leg muscles I had just worked would have felt depleted in the past. These days, all I could notice was my increased walking stability even without my leg brace. My ankle was flexible but stronger; my calf fired a little as well. I couldn’t wait to walk around down south with renewed vigor. Every week, I was becoming more like the energetic person family and friends knew before my stroke.

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