Something Akin to Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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