The Heavy Lifting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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