Pulling It Together

In the years leading up to Mary and me moving into our own apartment, I had constantly worried about being able to adequately care for her. I knew that it would be hard for me to walk her and pick up after her, but things like that didn’t worry me too much. Gaining the strength and balance to do those sorts of tasks could be accomplished by frequent trips to the gym. What I could not do is provide Mary with the exercise she needed. We were living with no other dogs now. Plus I still wasn’t driving, mostly due to my eyesight. So I couldn’t even take Mary to the dog park.

To remedy this, I started letting her hang out in the basement community room for brief intervals. This area was off limits to animals, but I felt it was necessary until I could find a permanent solution. If she couldn’t get time with other dogs, she could at least be able to socialize with humans.

I began by asking people whether they were okay with it before I brought her in. If anyone ever expressed any aversion to a dog in the room, I simply took her upstairs. Mary became quite popular with most of the residents who routinely hung out in the basement. Then came the Thanksgiving celebration. The resident council had to cook and clean for a week prior to the celebration, so Mary couldn’t enter the community room for days, because of dog hair concerns. Then there were two more get-togethers the following week, so we went through the same thing again.

After the November celebrations were done, the mood about Mary being in the community room seemed to have changed. One resident council member began saying that people were complaining about dog hair when they ate in the room. Sensing a problem, I stopped takinng Mary into the community room. Then like clockwork, I returned to my apartment on Wednesday night to find a letter from the building vice-president, requesting a Friday morning meeting. It conflicted with an orthotics appointment I had an hour later. I found a number on the sheet and called to say that I couldn’t make it.

The next morning, I called and left another message at the number telling them that I couldn’t make it and asking them to call and confirm that they got the message. I watched my phone all day, but it didn’t ring. So I called and left another message Thursday night. I got up and called again on Friday morning. There was still no answer, so I went down to the building office just before the scheduled time, on the off chance that they hadn’t bothered to listen to any of my messages.

When I got to the office, the building manager and the vice-president were there waiting for me. I advised them that I still had a doctor’s appointment that conflicted with the meeting. I told them that I had left three messages since Wednesday night. They looked completely bewildered and admitted that they had not listened to them. I asked them whether the meeting would take longer than thirty minutes, because I had an appointment. They indicated that it shouldn’t, so I sat down to talk with them.

They began asking questions about Mary. What bred is she? How long have you had her? How much does she weigh? Did you register her with the city? Do you have immunization records? I told them that Mary had been with me since before I moved in. I had gotten her weight and immunization records before we’d gone down to register her with the city. I had even left the license with my move-in packet the day I had come down to finalize things with the building staff. Everything they were asking me about had been submitted before I ever moved in. It should be recorded somewhere.

The vice-president opened his binder and began checking my file. As he looked through the paperwork, he found verification of everything they had inquired about. They had even recorded Mary’s weight before she moved in. This struck me as having been largely an inefficient use of time. I was relieved that everything had checked out, but just like the voicemails I had left, this should all have been reviewed before today. When all was said and done, the only thing they asked of me was to start letting Mary out on the first floor, since they didn’t remove snow from the patio area of the backyard. I had been taking her out in the backyard to avoid frightening people, but I had no issues with going out the front door.

Once we had finished with the Mary issues, I told the building manager that there was one thing I wanted to complain about. I had an extremely noisy neighbor. He loved to play loud music and sing over it. This would often continue past midnight. It was so noisy sometimes that I would close the bedroom door to act as a buffer and still hear him. Aside from the obvious, a big problem was that the hours he chose to do this were completely random. So I was seldom able to relax. This was a serious issue because it could elevate my already high blood pressure. With my history of stroke, I couldn’t risk living in such a stressful environment. I told them that I could even deal with him playing his music too high for a few hours a day. I just needed it to be scheduled. That way I could be away from the apartment at the same time each day.

The building manager assured me that it wouldn’t be necessary to interrupt my normal schedule. She handed me her business card and told her to call her whenever there was a problem, day or night. I confirmed with her that it wouldn’t be necessary to even contact the security desk. It seemed too efficient a solution to work, but I took the card, thanked her for the meeting, and left for my medical appointment. Mary would be confined to my apartment, but at least I could be with her, because the music from next door wouldn’t be so loud that I needed to go elsewhere to concentrate.

The following day was the first time I walked Mary outside on the first floor. This also meant that I would be walking her outside of the building by myself. There would be no fenced yard to contain her if I let go of her leash. She would be free to run out into one of the busiest streets in Minneapolis. So even if I fell down, I would need to hold the leash in a tight grip. To add to the difficulty, I would have to walk much farther until we reached grass.

After the nursing staff brought my 7:00 am meds, I took Mary downstairs. We got off of the elevator and had to go through two different glass doors to get outside. I checked my grip at each door before walking outside. Once we were outside, I started taking tiny steps, obsessed that I might slip and fall. However it was quickly apparent how much more immaculate they kept the sidewalk out front. The footing was so normal that I was able to take broader, faster strides. We got over to grass and Mary urinated. Then I turned and led her back to the building. The whole process had gone down without incident.

It began snowing that evening. This added a new wrinkle to the challenge of walking Mary in the front. In addition to the added difficulty of footing, snow was something Mary loved. She began pulling on her leash, trying to run and play. I walked her over to the grass to use the restroom. Then I brought her over to a patch of snow just in front of the building. I sat down on a bench so I could be safe, then I let out her leash some so she could scamper about. As the tiny flakes of snow came down, I thought of how Mary and I had just reached another milestone: I could walk her outside without worrying.

Improvement in my left leg and arm had been slow but steady. As long as I went to the gym and worked them, these limbs always saw some progress. The thing that I couldn’t seem to exercise properly was my voice. I was dissatisfied with it, even though it had come a very long way.

When I first came out of my coma, I had been unable to speak. Then I had acquired a very robotic voice when the doctor’s fitted me with a speaking device. I had been overjoyed simply to have a voice. But the work started immediately. My lips felt heavy, rubbery as I began doing exercises to strengthen them. My breath was so shallow that I couldn’t even finish speaking a phrase before gasping for breath. I would read aloud, trying to will my voice to stay audible until I reached a comma or a period.

After I moved back to Minnesota, I went through two more rounds of speech therapy. My enunciation improved. But what helped more than anything was having to breathe correctly to perform leg exercises. I was able to improve the capacity and timing of my breaths. Before long, I noticed that I could control the speed and volume of my voice. Trying to keep enough breath to complete phrases and sentences became an afterthought. Customer service representatives understood me clearly over the phone, and friends remarked how much better my voice was every time I saw them. While I was quite proud of my progress, I worried that it was coming to a halt. I wanted people to hear my voice and not be able to tell I had suffered a stroke.

I began talking at a faster rate when I was on the phone. I also exaggerated every time I enunciated, hoping the extra effort would help my mouth to form the sounds better. When I incorporated these techniques, I could tell that my voice improved. I began taking short videos of myself speaking. I would recite poems, speeches, rap lyrics – anything that would force me to speak loudly, rapidly, and distinctly. Rather than being happy with the advancements, I was still inclined to hear the shortcomings.

Then one day I was listening to how shallow my voice was. I also noticed that it had been higher in pitch since the stroke. It suddenly occurred to me that I should practice speaking in a lower tone. Somehow that might improve my breath support. I tried speaking in a deeper voice. As I did so, I imagined my larynx expanding downward, taking in more air. I would take in larger gulps of air at the start of each sentence and slowly release them. Speaking like this was tiring and left me gasping for breath after a few minutes.

Over the next several days and weeks, I would try to speak in this tone every time I had a phone call. The point wasn’t to dramatically alter my phone voice; it was to stop sounding and feeling so breathless. It had the desired effect. Just like with lifting weights, the brief intervals of intense effort increased my overall performance. As long as the successes never stopped, it was never impossible to stay on the road back to the original me.

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