My first year back in Minnesota had been a successful one. I had kept a job, gotten a lot of therapy, successfully used public transportation, and managed the housing situation for Mary and me. The biggest problem was that I never had enough money at the end of the month. While my rent had been low when I was living with friends and had a part-time job, I was now looking at the prospect of paying twice the amount for my own place. How on earth was I going to manage that?
I decided to spend November of 2017 at home in Mississippi. Since Dad wasn’t going to charge me rent, I could pay down debts, and at least be in the black by the end of the month. This would not by an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination, but it would allow me enough money to breath. It would also give me a chance to see what it would really be like to try to stretch out my insurance money on a monthly basis. It was still terrifying to think about, but at least I wouldn’t be coming into the month having to pay anyone for a small loan.
I left Mary with Karine in Sleepy Eye on November 5th. I would spend two nights at Dave’s in Saint Paul before flying out. During that time, he built the links to each post to make my blog site more user friendly. He also had to do some troubleshooting so that images could be loaded onto it. Then I could spend all of November uploading pictures and videos to a site that had been text only. I had only been writing the blog for two months, and it still felt like a chore to write it every week. I looked forward to having a lot of time to work on it.
I arrived in Jackson at 4:30 in the morning, after spending almost twenty hours between buses and planes. When I got to the house, I went straight to bed. At midday, I got up to eat, then lay back down to watch TV. On Thursday, my first full day back in Mississippi, I went to Planet Fitness. During my time in Sleepy Eye, I had begun using my left hand even more in the weight room. While I had started using the row machines purely as a means to stretch my shoulder, I was now gaining mobility in my hand and forearm. This would be an opportunity to use it on different machines.
Additionally, I had gained a lot of leg strength from six days a week of therapy and working out. I had also been using a foot orthotic since my hospital stay in September. Consequently, I noticed that I was clearing my left foot much easier in the gym. In August, when I had joined Planet Fitness – Jackson, I had worried about falling or having restroom emergencies. Now I was a lot more comfortable in the gym. I could simply focus on getting stronger.
I had started walking on a treadmill when I was in Sleepy Eye. Since I could not move my lower leg, I had developed the habit of kicking my leg out as I walked. As my leg strength increased, this habit became much less necessary. I had to retrain my body to walk correctly. I could still remember the days of having to be strapped in in order to use a treadmill, so using it without aid felt liberating.
Whenever I go home to Mississippi, I always visit the Gulf Coast early in the trip. It is usually the busiest and most expensive part of my vacation, since sustaining my social life there was more expansive than it was for all of the time I was in Jackson. I took the Greyhound bus down to Biloxi that Sunday afternoon, and I smiled as the lighthouse and the subtropical beaches came into view in the waning light of the sunset. All the stresses of my complicated life seemed to disappear. The next week would not be one of constantly running back-and-forth between appointments and the gym.
My friend Howard and his wife, Bridgett, picked me up from the bus station. The walk from the waiting area to his truck was no longer an exhausting one, because I wasn’t expending energy by dragging my left foot. Howard offered to get the door for me, and I told him to simply get in the driver’s seat. Not only did I not need help with the door, I was able to climb into his truck, maneuver my foot inside, and buckle the seatbelt without assistance. It had only been three months since my last trip to the coast, and this made me realize that what I thought was a fitness plateau was really just a byproduct of my having higher expectations.
Howard, Bridgett, and I went to a seafood restaurant. They asked if I wanted to be let out at the front door. I told them that walking across a parking lot was no longer prohibitively tiring for me. They remarked at how much better I was moving around. I recalled how they had visited me in the hospital, and how I couldn’t even walk at the time. I told Howard to tell his daddy that it wouldn’t be long before I would be coming back to the farm to help with the cattle. The fried seafood basket was too hot to eat when it arrived, but that gave me more time to talk. I loved talking, because it had been such a chore until very recently. With increased weightlifting, I was developing the sort of breath control that made breathing in time with speech an afterthought.
After we got back to Howard’s house, I sat down and worked on my blog for that week. It had really felt like a chore in August, when I had typed it out on my cellphone using Microsoft Word. Between eye strain and having difficulty organizing the text on the miniscule screen, it had taken five arduous days to produce my first post. Each time I had sat down to write, it was with a since of dread at how much effort was involved.
In the intervening months, I had started writing on a laptop. This had made reading, editing, and moving text so much simpler. Furthermore, just the momentum of having to write every week made producing 2,000 words no more challenging than any other project that had to be planned and undertaken over a day or two. It was a matter of creating an outline, then writing 500 words at a time. No matter how long each session was, the entire task no longer took more than two days. After I completed a rough draft, I would send it out to my editors. They would send back the corrections in a Word document. I would finalize it in about an hour. So the whole process would only take a maximum of four days. The only variable that affected whether it would take longer would be how much time I might take between initial brainstorming and when I start writing.
For years, I had wanted to do more writing, but I had always had other priorities. Whether I was in school or working, sports and socializing had always come before writing . Now I was receiving money without having to go to work. So in addition to rehabilitation, I started to treat writing like my job. Every week, I would try to get exercise or go to physical therapy at least four days, and I would try to write at least three days. I found my stride in October, and I spent all of November just maintaining that commitment and pushing myself harder each session.
Community activism is always part of my trips back to Mississippi. Mississippi is a place where change and volunteerism are always needed. While I’m not able to do a lot physically, I can participate in meetings and rallies. One person who made sure that I was able to attend as many gatherings as I wanted was TNathan, a person I had met only three months before. He was very active on the coast, and he had told me to text him when I was coming down.
On Monday, there was a strategy meeting in Ocean Springs for citizens who want to change the controversial state flag. Mississippi is the last state in America flying any vestige of the Confederate battle flag. For moral and economic reasons, many people I know are part of this movement, and there were several of them in attendance that night. Most of them spoke eloquently and passionately, giving great suggestions on how to make their voices felt. I was proud to be a friend and ally. Afterward, we all met at a pizzeria I had driven past every day I worked on the coast.
On Thursday, TNathan also took me to the University of Southern Mississippi for a dialogue on race. Because parking on campus is difficult to find, he dropped me off at the front door of the hall and went to park. I immediately began feeling the need to use the restroom. I asked the first student where the restrooms were. He indicated that I would have to pass through two hallways. This wouldn’t have been an issue before the stroke. Now I wasn’t sure if I could make it.
With every step, I felt myself needing to go more and more. I quickened my pace to the point where my cane was barely hitting the floor. If I could have run, I would’ve, but I was afraid that I would trip and fall. Then I would certainly lose control of my bladder. It would be the height of humiliation to have to sit through a workshop and ride back to Gulfport covered in piss. Moving more quickly than I imagined I could, I made it into the restroom, threw open the door, dropped my cane, and flew over to the urinal.
After I left the restroom, I had to find the second floor conference room where the discussion was being held. A student pointed up a long flight of stairs. I thought there had to be an elevator nearby, but I didn’t want to waste the time trying to find it. So, I resigned myself and started climbing. In order to not fall backwards, I leaned forward, putting my weight on the rail. I stepped up with my left leg, then pulled my left leg up. I repeated this method time and again, until I reached the landing halfway to the top.
When I reached the landing, I stopped to rest. I could not believe how tired I was. My heart was in my throat. I could feel sweat pouring down my face. I wanted to stop at this spot, but I had only made it halfway up to the second floor. Visions of me falling over the railing or tumbling backwards down the stairs ran through my head. Before I could think of too many negative thoughts, I started upward again.
When I got about three steps from the top, a couple of students appeared and asked if I needed help.
I joked that I could have used help about ten minutes earlier.
Then one of them exclaimed, “There’s an elevator right here.
I looked to my right, and sure enough, there was an elevator door right there. Had I bothered to ask around, I would have been informed that there was an easier way to get where I was going. I turned to look back at the stairs behind me. They made such a formidable obstacle. I was proud to have had the courage and the strength to drag myself up the hard way – without hesitation.