Stepping Up

The last day Allene and Izzy were in town was an overcast day. When we took the dogs out, there was a chilly morning breeze. It reminded me of those days when winter starts whooshing in. We got the dogs back inside quickly so we could be comfortable again. Shortly after I had taken off my jacket, a neighbor at the door three-pack of beef jerky he’d promised to bring by for Mary. I thanked him sincerely. It never fails to amaze me how generous people are with Mary. At least once a week, someone stops by with a toy or treats for her

That afternoon, Allene and I went out for an early dinner at a popular Venezuelan restaurant . The place has a heated patio, and I wanted to sit there for the novelty of pretending to sit outdoors in Minnesota on a fall day. We ordered drinks and yucca fries for an appetizer. After we finished those, we ordered arepas for entrees. Allene wondered if we had ordered enough food. But I advised her that the arepas were deceptively filling.

We both enjoyed the understated kick of spicy pulled pork and black beans, surrounded by the turquoise light of the thin tent. The autumn air seemed dangerously close to the cozy dining area. Allene told me about what she was going to do with her next two paychecks. I told her about my plans to get and stay ahead of my expenses by the end of 2020. We had each faced unique challenges over the last decade, but on this early autumn afternoon, everything seemed possible.

The morning of Allene and Izzy’s depareture was sunny. It was so pleasant that I wanted to take Mary to the upper patio. This time, I tried to step up with proper form. It wasn’t difficult, but the farther I went, the more of a challenge it was. Nonetheless, I was determined to get all the way to the top one step at a time, always with the left leg first. The idea was to strengthen my hip with each step. Soon I arrived at the top of the steps. I was proud that I wasn’t even winded.

Mary was thrilled to be up there again. I went over and sat down at a table so she could explore. She ran all over, sniffing and trotting along. Allene had her digital camera, so she busied herself by taking pictures of the dogs and the skyline. Eventually it was time for Allene to get on the road back to Milwaukee. Going over to the steps, I turned to walk back down in reverse. With each step, I swung my leg backward and felt the step beneath me with my toes. Walking backwards was so much easier now I was regularly doing lunges. After we got to the bottom, Allene handed me my cane so we could go up to the apartment and bring down her things.

As we said goodbye, I felt much better about my rehabilitation. I told Allene that I would be physically healthy enough and financially able to come visit her next spring. If I was able to move my leg in every direction and control my foot better now, with four months of hard work, who knows what I could accomplish? I was dedicated to having an active fall and winter.

After suffering the stroke, one of the hardest things to get back was the feeling of control. I had to rely on other people to drive me everywhere. In addition to that, I also felt more vulnerable in public, because my eyes and body didn’t work as well as they needed to if I ever had to defend myself. To top that all off, I was never financially secure. So one of the biggest things about my recovery was regaining spatial awareness and just becoming comfortable with moving around in the world by myself.

Just as retraining the body to complete certain simple tasks requires exercising individual muscle groups before they can work together as a whole, I’d had to work on different aspects of moving and control before I truly felt comfortable handling myself in public. Obviously, exercise was a big thing. I focused primarily on building a strong left leg. Even with less control, if the muscles in the upper leg were strong, they would help me to balance. While I really wanted my arm to recover as well, I felt it was more important to establish the legs. If I was no longer worried about falling, I would feel more confident moving around the city.

Getting myself accustomed to going out and handling money was also a major part of my recovery. Before I started trying to go out regularly, I worried constantly about mishandling money and having things stolen from me. To counter these fears, I began going shopping at least once a week. For the first few months, I used my debit card for every purchase to avoid dropping my change. After a while, I began getting cash back from registers. I would save money to use in the laundry machines and use the rest to make smaller purchases. This allowed me to practice making cash transactions, but it also helped me to practice budgeting.

After over a year of purposeful work and managing my own shopping trips, I started to feel like I was mastering things. I would text message a shopping list to myself. When I got to the store, I would use a push cart so I could practice walking. When I was done, I would pay for and bag my own items. My left arm was even strong enough to hold the plastic bags, so I didn’t worry about losing what I’d bought. After a while, going out and doing things alone was just something I no longer gave a second thought.

I was getting stronger from all of the exercise. I was losing body fat on my sides as well; this meant that I was becoming more flexible. It occurred to me that I could improve my balance by walking around while carrying various objects on different parts of my body. Since the independent living department routinely did laundry and cooking me for me, I tried to bring food, laundry, and detergent back to my apartment in one trip.

I slung the laundry bag across my body, so the clothes were on my left hip. This would force my body to adjust to uneven weight. Next I put the laundry detergent in my left hand, forcing my hand to simultaneously open wider and still grip. Finally I grabbed my bag of food in my right hand. This effectively eliminated the use of my guide hand. I walked out of the assisted living office feeling tall and confident. As long as I walked steadily and with correct posture, I wouldn’t trip. This was one more way that my body would learn to right itself.

Now that I was becoming more comfortable moving around the city independently again, I wanted to be of service to other people. For years I had felt like the new person in town in the Midwest. It happened initially when I had begun college in northeastern Wisconsin in 1994. It continued when I moved to the Kansas City metro area in 2000. I moved to western Wisconsin in 2001 without knowing a soul. Then I finally found a place I liked enough to stay when I arrived in Minneapolis in 2002.

In all of these scenarios, I was walking into a social situation where I didn’t know more than a single person. These people typically didn’t go out as much as I liked to. If they had comparable social needs to mine, they were all largely being met. They had their social lives, and I didn’t want to feel like a parasite. I had also been looking for a job most times I landed in a new area. My hosts would already be working, so I had to map out job searches and learn about job markets by myself. Socially and professionally, I felt as though I was building everything from the ground up. Having been through that several times, I vowed that I would always try to be an indispensable resource when others were new in town.

My first opportunity actually took place over a period of about three years. I met Lacey and her family the year after my stroke. We originally met on Facebook, then in person a few months later. Lacey and her husband had a toddler. It was actually their plan to move to Minnesota by the time she started grade school. They already had relatives in the area, so I didn’t think they would need any help from me to get started. Nonetheless, I told them that we should get together after they moved up.

I moved back in 2016. By 2018, I was teasing Lacey about how she was never moving out of Mississippi. The one afternoon in September of 2019, I saw where she mentioned having moved to Saint Paul. Although I was on vacation at the time, I told her that we should get together after I got back. We all met at the top rated Indian restaurant in the metro area. Lacey brought several family members, including one who has lived here for decades. Everyone there was originally from Mississippi. We reminisced about home, but we were all happy to be gone. It was such a good time that we talked about getting a Mississippi group together for Christmas or New Year’s.

My next opportunity came with Nick, someone I also knew from Mississippi Facebook groups. He and his significant other, Kricket, moved to south Minneapolis, less than two miles from me. Because of their location, I had them meet me at my favorite tacquerɨa. When we met, they told me all about how they loved living in Minnesota.

I began telling them of all the places they could get to by taking the 21 bus – to Workforce, to get a state ID, to get to Uptown for jobs in the hospitality industry. Running perpendicular to it was the light rail. It could take you all the way to Mall of America, if you were looking to work retail. If Nick wanted to meet me on a weekday, I could show him where to bank or apply for state health benefits.

We had a great conversation and even better Mexican food. The more time I spent teaching them how to get certain services in the area, the more I heard myself in the third person. I was listening to someone who no longer worried about transportation, security, or independence.

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