The Road Back

My two week vacation to Minneapolis had rejuvenated me. After almost a year of the most dire existence I could fathom, I had gotten a chance to experience the life I had been dreaming of returning to. But the two weeks had not been merely about getting away; they were meant to gauge how realistic the idea was that I could safely circumnavigate the big city. I did not suffer any falls, and I never found myself in danger of any sort. So I returned home with the confidence that I would shortly be ready to move back to Minnesota.

Originally my plan had been to move back in January of 2018. Now it didn’t seem necessary to wait that long. People might assume that I was restless to move back because of boredom with life in Mississippi. While this was a motivating factor, it doesn’t take into account the obvious: Mississippi is ranked last among US states in public health. I worried that every month I spent in rehabilitation there was a month I was possibly missing out on better health services, thereby diminishing my chances at recovery. I was also set to lose my job on May 20th. That would mean losing my health insurance in a state that does not make it easy for poor people to find alternative options. The way I saw it, trying to move forward with rehabilitation in Mississippi was no longer an option.

Now I resolved to move back in the summer. I began focusing on walking exercises at Quest Rehabilitation. My physical therapist was happy to get aggressive, having me try out new and different equipment. At the outpatient therapy facility, I performed single leg press every day. I started with a set of 60 pounds. I would do twelve to fifteen reps. Then I would go up by ten more pounds for the next set. I would do two more sets, increasing each by another ten pounds. Every week or two, I would increase my initial set by ten pounds, thus going up on the subsequent sets. My ultimate goal was to be able to lift 150 pounds on my affected thigh by the time I returned to Minneapolis.

My left leg had barely been able to sustain half of my weight for months, Now it was slowly growing strong enough to support me without help from my right leg. I would still have to use my arm to steady myself, but this amount of leg strength had been unimaginable until recently. I didn’t have command of all of my leg muscles, but I would work to make the ones at my command as strong as possible. I was still working with my left arm, which didn’t seem to be responding nearly as quickly.

I decided to set my move date to the first weekend in August, one year since my discharge date. I told the staff at Quest my plans. They decided to discharge me in June. The physical therapist made a German chocolate cake for me, and the staff had a brief ceremony for me. My relationship with them had been rocky after they had made me use the safety chair, but I had not used it in over a month and I had since returned to being pleasant and talkative.

For the rest of June, I just went to outpatient therapy, to stretch my shoulder and strength my thigh. When I started, I had not even been able to raise my arm to shoulder height. By the end of June, I was able to tuck my hand behind my head. When I lay down in this position, my elbow would drift upward because I was still incapable of achieving a full stretch. It was still an amazing amount of progress, considering that I hadn’t been able to elevate my shoulder at all a year before. By the time I finished therapy, I was able to press 130 pounds with my left leg. I had originally been unable to move my leg at all. With this increased amount of physical ability, I felt it was time to return to Minneapolis.

My disability payment always arrived at the end of the month, so I reasoned that I could move with my July check. I made arrangements to live at the same place where I had stayed during my April vacation. My friend Amanda agreed to fly down and help me drive my car.

Having to make so many plans gave me a lot of external details to focus on. Inside, I was a ball of apprehension. Sure, I had worked out a rental agreement, but could I really afford food, medical care, and transportation? My friend Allene assured me that everything would work out. I wasn’t sure how it could, but I had spent the last fourteen months having to rely on the actions and judgment of others, so I tried not to panic. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t being reckless so long as I was moving somewhere where I would pay rent and keep pursuing physical rehabilitation.

The night Amanda arrived in Mississippi felt like something out of a dream. I had been back for half a decade, but none of my Minnesota friends had come to visit me. It didn’t feel real having someone from that world here in Jackson.

We started out of Jackson at 10:00 AM on Saturday, August 6th. It was already a hot day, so Amanda and I kept the windows closed and the air conditioning on high. Amanda told me about some of her adventures traveling around the world. Places like Irish pubs in Istanbul sounded truly enchanting. One day, after I was able again, I wanted to travel the world. I had never had a list of things I wanted to do before I died, but living in the hospital for months had given me a wanderlust and a thirst for life that was heretofore unimaginable. Just feeling the car lap up the miles of road made me feel as though I was putting distance between living and dying

At 2:00 PM, we settled onto the patio outside of B. B. King’s blues restaurant on Beale Street. It had always been my fantasy to drive the length of the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Minneapolis. There is something almost enchanting about the river, and I wanted to share Southern port cities with someone who had never been this far south.

Then Amanda looked up and asked, “Wait, isn’t that your Dad?” I looked over, and sure enough, he was walking over to the restaurant.

“Yeah, that’s him!”

In her sarcastic way of joking about the obvious, she announced, “I just met that guy. Didn’t we just leave his house a few hours ago?”

It turned out that Dad was meeting my brother Ivory and his fiancee in Memphis. It was an incredible coincidence. They pulled up chairs next to us, and I shared one more afternoon with family in the eternal Southern sun.

We spent the night at a hotel outside of St. Louis, and the following morning I woke up first. Since it had been a hot day the day before, I wanted to get a shower. However, neither my dad nor the shower chair was there. I didn’t want to be naked in front of Amanda, so I couldn’t ask her for help either. I sat down on the rim of the tub and gingerly turned, sliding my legs in. Knowing that I couldn’t ask for help if I slipped, I showered with much care. After I finished, I dried off and dressed in the bathroom. I was so proud of myself, because it was the first time I had bathed independently.

That final day of driving went slowly. We left the interstate and drove mostly through Iowa, stopping to take pictures whenever we passed through a new state. Thant evening, we arrived in south Minneapolis. We unloaded one of my suitcases, and I settled on my friend Allene’s couch, where I would be staying for the rest of August. It had been a 36-hour trip, and I had traveled over a thousand miles from the place where I was born and raised. But I had come home.

* * *

The first year back in Minnesota was full of challenges and triumphs. In August of 2017, I visited home. It gave me the opportunity to travel to Jackson, the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans. In the months immediately following the stroke, traveling around the region had been extremely difficult. It had meant using wheelchairs, needing assistance to climb into trucks, requiring frequent rest breaks, and always making sure that I was near a restroom. Now, I was stronger and in greater control of my body. Thus, my time back was relaxing.

After a month back in Mississippi, it was time to return to Minneapolis. My first year’s lease had ended on August 1st, so I had left Minnesota temporarily, because I had nowhere to go, as I did not have the money or courage to move out on my own yet. The case worker called me during my third week in Mississippi. “Can you meet with me next week?”

“No. I will be out of state until the end of the month.”

“We cannot keep you on a CADI waiver if you are out of the state for more than thirty days.”

“The only reason I had to leave the state for a month is because I’ve been begging you to help me find housing for three months. It was either, the streets or leaving Minnesota for a month.”

“We can’t keep you on the CADI waiver if you’re out of state for more than thirty days.”

“But you’re the reason I had to leave Minnesota for the month! This isn’t my fault!”

“I can meet you the day you get back, so we can reopen it.”

“Okay, I can meet you on Friday, the 1st.”

I talked to Amanda about my situation. She told me that her apartment was completely furnished and no one was living in it. She had just gotten married and was moving in with her husband. So when I stepped off of the plane, I had somewhere safe to stay that would allow me a base of operations from which I could work out and look for a place of my own.

I arrived late on Thursday night. Amanda gave me a warm hug and helped me up the steps. There was a long walkway to the front door. Once I was inside, she helped me up to the second floor. Her apartment was down the hall and around the corner. By the time I got to the apartment, I felt winded. The buzzer to the building’s secured entrancewas routed to Amanda’s cellphone, so I would have to walk down to the front door in order to let anyone in. If I ordered food, I would have to go down to get it. Then I would have to carry it back up in my affected hand. Things like pizza were completely out of the question, and anything else would have to be in a bag with handles. It was all ntimidating to think about.

Amanda went out to grab me some juice and a pizza from a local market. I turned on the TV and tried not to worry about the distances to the various rooms around the apartment or down to the front door. It would take a lot of concentration and time not to fall. Being behind a locked door would mean that there would be no one who could help me to get up if I did fall.

Nonetheless, I told myself that it was going to be okay. The odds had been high against me coming out of my coma or ever walking again – and moving back to Minnesota a year after being discharged from the hospital was not something my caretakers had even fathomed. Yet, with friends like Allene and Amanda, here I was. I got up and looked out the living room window. It was time to face my future.

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