One of the hardest challenges one faces when recovering from a massive stroke is the conundrum of inactivity. On the one hand, you know that not exercising on the days when you don’t have physical therapy works against the speed of recovery. On the other, you constantly feel tired all the time anyway. So while you don’t want to slow the rehabilitation process by not using your muscles enough, it can be difficult to discern how much you need to rest because your body feels legitimately worn out.
I was all too fearful of falling into that category of people who never quite pushed themselves hard enough and ended up severely disabled for life. So after the trip to Baton Rouge, I decided that the best thing to keep my body actively recovering was to go on a road trip every other weekend. This would be a way to get a moderate amount of exercise during long breaks between sessions, but I could always take time to recuperate if I really needed rest.
The first thing I wanted to do was return to the coast. There were many people whose last image of me was seeing my unresponsive body lying in a hospital bed. I wanted to show as many people as possible that I was alive and fighting for a normal life. So I told friends and coworkers that I would be coming down to Gulfport.
At the end of the month, I climbed in my car and went down to the coast. First I was going to stop by the barbershop to get a haircut. Then we started the drive down Highway 49. I still was building up control of my urinary system, so I had to stop to urinate twice on a trip that was just under three hours. When we finally arrived at Applebee’s in Gulfport, it almost felt magical. I had so lost control of independent travel that I had been constantly worried that something would cause a problem on the way down: I would miss my hair appointment, I would wet my pants, or we would experience car trouble. With the loss of bodily autonomy, I had developed an external locus of control. This would cause mild anxiety each time I traveled.
When I was wheeled into the restaurant, most of my friends were already there. We exchanged hugs and many kind words, then got a table. I still had very diminished lung capacity, so speaking was a challenge. My voice was monotone, because I was still forcing out my words. I would also lose my breath after a few words, so I kept having to pause during phrases. This created an extreme choppiness in my speech, and I was very self-conscious about it. Nonetheless, I laughed and joked, and a wonderful time. This was my first normal social experience in months.
When we were nearing the end of dinner, I divided everyone into two groups. First, I took a picture of myself standing with my coworkers. Next, I took one with my friends from Facebook. After the past several months, it felt a bit surreal to be sitting there. But it made all of the painful rehabilitation work seem worth it, and it strengthened my resolve to keep battling. When we paid the bill and left, I was exhausted but beaming with joy.
My next road trip was to New Orleans. I wanted to go to the zoo and to see my cousin, Rosalind. To lessen the stress of trying to adhere to a schedule, I go my haircut on Friday. It also would not matter much when we left, since there was no set time when we had to be there. Still, because of the external locus of control, the journey felt just as otherworldly as the one before it. I wanted to take pictures of everything that day, because I wanted to convey the feeling of enchantment: the trees stretching out over the bayous, the isolation of the houses on stilts, the miles and miles of the causeway above the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. These things had all made my head swoon when I was a child, and the desire to write about them always rose anew whenever I returned to New Orleans.
I could only remember visiting Audubon Zoo one time, so I wondered how much of my memories of the place were real. It obviously dwarfed the Jackson Zoo. There were palm trees and live oaks everywhere, giving it a steamy, exotic feel, like mixing a Tennessee Williams play or a novel about the tropics. The habitats didn’t seem cramped, like the ones in Jackson. The animals genuinely seemed healthier. After we had ventured through all of the other continental zones, we entered the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. This has my favorite part of the entire zoo, because pedestrians had to walk on a wooden walkway above the green waters of the manmade swamp. I snapped several pictures, but the best was a log sticking out of the water. It was speckled with turtles that were sunning themselves beneath branches that were heavy with perched aquatic birds.
I didn’t do any walking, but the miles I logged tired me out all the same. I stopped by the gift shop and made a few purchases, then we piled back into the car to meet cousin Rosalind for dinner.
The place where we had dinner was one of those quintessential New Orleans eateries. The sidewalk was cracked and warped from large oak roots that had pushed their way to the surface. The restaurant felt like it had been a massive, wooden house that had been converted to a restaurant. Rosalind and her husband arrived shortly after we did. I ordered the most creole dish I could find on the menu, then we caught up on the twenty years it had been since we had seen each other.
Rosalind, always a voracious reader, told me that she belonged to a writing circle. I volunteered that I had always wanted to be a writer, but that I was exceedingly lazy when it came to the actual work of writing. Writing is a job. Most of it is lonesome and thankless. You have to want to do it, and travail for years. I told her that the stroke had finally given me time, income, and something to write about. I wasn’t ready to start setting my story down yet, but I knew that she would be a good sounding board. We said our goodbyes, and we drove back to Jackson. I spent half the trip uploading pictures to Facebook and adding narration.
Once we were home, I peed in the urinal and went to bed. Dad emptied it and rinsed it out. I fell asleep. I awoke around 4:00 or 5:00, having to urinate again. I sat up on the edge of the bed and saw that my urinal was on the opposite side of the room. I still needed help transferring to the bed to the wheelchair, so I started to panic. Not knowing what else to do, I began loudly stomping my foot. I was having a hard time holding back the urine, and Dad didn’t seem to be stirring, so I stomped harder. Eventually, I heard Brandi go across the hall and knock on the door.
“Grandaddy, I think Uncle Michael needs something.”
I paused for a second, but the urge to urinate didn’t subside. I was becoming dangerously close to having an accident, so I pounded on the floor again. Dad finally came to the door, and I alerted him to the fact that the urinal was on the other side of the room. He went over to pick it up, and I pulled my underwear down. But before he could get it to me, jets of yellow liquid began shooting across the room. Dad clamped the urinal over my penis, but not before most of the urine was on the floor. I watched him with embarrassment, as he went to get something to mop up the urine of a grown man.
Our next road trip was to the town of Clarksdale, a Mississippi Delta town famous for its Blues music. It is also the location of Immaculate Conception, the school where my father had his first teaching job. We were going there to see the Delta Blues Museum and visit my father’s teacher friend, Earl Gooden.
We started out that morning and headed north. After about fifty minutes, we started passing the cotton fields that are characteristic of the Delta. It took about two and a half hours to get there. Clarksdale sits at the crossroads of highways 41 and 69. This is one of the spots where legendary Blues guitarist, Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for peerless musical talent. We stopped at the road marker and had a Dutch couple take our picture.
After that, we went to the Blues museum where I picked up a few things. The museum itself had nice memorabilia and write-ups about the things on display, but it was a lot smaller than I had expected. It only took an hour to get through the entire museum, because it is effectively one very large room.
We next journeyed to the house of Earl Gooden. I had been to his house several times, but never again after I was about twelve years old. It was nice finally interacting with him as another adult. We talked briefly with him before getting in the car and driving to the Immaculate Conception campus. I had Mr. Gooden and Dad pose for a few photos, and I asked them questions about teaching during the Civil Rights Era.
Soon it was time for lunch, so we went to Ground Zero Blues Club, the restaurant owned by Hollywood actor, Morgan Freeman. It is strategically positioned right across the street from the museum. It is a worn-looking brick building that looks like something from a bygone era. Inside, all of the surfaces – tables, bar, walls, cabinets – are littered with graffiti. The menu behind the bar is a chalkboard and the lighting is quite subdued. The ambiance of the place suggests a juke joint from the early part of the early Twentieth Century.
I ordered catfish and told Mr. Gooden about my half-year odyssey to this point. He told me that I looked good, and I thanked him. However, as often as people told me how good I looked, I was still using the wheelchair as my primary source of circumambulation. Now that I could stand and walk for very short intervals, I reasoned that I should be able t work towards walking for greater periods of time. In theory, my left leg should be able to gain enough strength that I wouldn’t require a wheelchair at all.
That night, I set the goal on my phone’s fitness app to one mile. This meant that I would have to walk about 2100 steps each day. The next morning, I started using my quad cane to pace around the room. When I got to 200 steps, I became too tired to continue. So I took a break and lay down in bed. After about an hour of rest, I got up and walked another 200 steps. I continued this cycle of 200 steps followed by an hour of rest throughout the day, and by around 10:00 pm, I had finally finished one mile.
I walked a mile around the room each day for around one week. The next week, I set my goal at two miles. After I was able to maintain that consistently for a week, I decided to stop using my wheelchair in public. So, one Monday I decided to tell my physical therapist.
“The only time still use this chair is when I come to therapy.”
“Really? You don’t use it around the house or in public?”
“I stopped using it around the house at the beginning of the month, and now I don’t even use it when I go out.”
“Then I guess you don’t need it.”
I used the wheelchair for the rest of my therapy session, because I already had it with me. That evening, I took it home and placed it in the corner of my room. It was November, six months since the stroke, and I had finally given up using wheelchairs.