I was making personal connections. My vision was clearing up enough to read Facebook stories, and I saw many stories about me. However, the communication was one-way, because I could not see well enough to type yet. I still felt isolated from everyone but family, hospital workers, and a few select friends. My eyes were not working properly; I still could not walk; I had no use of my left arm. I had no way of knowing what my life would look like in the next few weeks, or after I was discharged from the hospital. It scared the hell out of me. With all of this swirling around in my brain, I had to tell others. It was time to start reconnecting with more people.
The Mississippi atheist Facebook group of which I was a member had made a special effort to be there for me. They had come to visit me in disproportionate numbers. My friend Meagan – though in graduate school in Arizona – had explicitly called on group members to visit me. Several members from the Jackson branch began trickling in to see me after I awoke. And of course they had sent me a plethora of cards and letters.
I know many people have awful opinions about atheists. There are assertions that atheists have no morals, are all bitter and spiteful, or are otherwise heartless. I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Like many stereotypes, these are mostly unfounded. The members of this community are mostly moral and empathetic. These are human beings who are just like any other human beings, except that they have one belief that differs from religious people. And when you disregard all of the trappings of theology, it’s fundamentally no greater difference than that between a Hindu and a Muslim or a Buddhist and a Christian. It’s simply someone’s declaration that they believe that the universe was created differently than the way you do. No one did more as a group to make me feel more loved and connected.
So, on July 12h, I decided that my first Facebook post would be to this group. My eyesight, while it had cleared up significantly, was not perfect. The motor skills of my right hand were coming back as well. However, when I tried to combine the two, my hand-eye coordination was terrible. I kept hitting the wrong keys. When that wasn’t happening, my double vision would cause me to misspell words, because I could not tell when there was a letter in the wrong place. It was a maddeningly laborious affair, and I wanted to give up several times because I had to type and retype almost every word over and over and over again. But I stuck with it, and after about fifteen minutes, I had succeeded in posting “I am officially alive!”
There was nothing fun about typing that post. And while it was satisfying after I had finished it, I did not relish the thought of having to do something like that again. As painful and exhausting as they could be, occupational therapy and physical therapy were less tedious than trying to muster the coordination it took to type one sentence on a phone screen. The only reason why I could stand sticking with the effort was the realization that after more weeks, it would become easier and easier.
The comments quickly began coming in. There were responses about how all of the goat sacrifices had worked or that the place had gone to hell without me– all of the sarcasm was just what I needed to feel more normal, as I had been living with the nagging feeling that I might suffer another stroke, and this time it would prove fatal. I cannot say why I had this feeling, but it probably had to do with not understanding what my body would do at any given time, and not feeling like the catastrophe could really be over. The majority of comments were well wishes and warm expressions of joy that I was back.
Everything that the Mississippi atheists did made me feel like a loved member of a caring community. In the coming weeks, even more of them would stop by to introduce themselves and spend time with me. Because it was a statewide group, and I had lived on the coast, I had only met a handful of the members from the Jackson chapter.
Once I was eventually released from the hospital, we would even have happy hour each Thursday. And that would have the effect of continuing to make my life feel normal. My recovery would not have progressed nearly as quickly without the unending amount of compassion shown by the Mississippi atheist community.
Concurrent with my more fully re-engaging life, I started experiencing vivid dreams of walking again. One recurring dream I had was one where I was walking around New Orleans. I would begin by walking around the French Quarter with a small tourist group. We would arrive in a chartered bus to the front door of a two-story art museum. We would walk through this museum for an hour or two. Afterwards, we would leave the museum and explore the various restaurants and shops around the section of the city. When we had finished, we would go down to the Riverwalk. There, I would pose for a photograph in front of the Crescent City Connection bridge, with my hands held up, pretending that I was holding up the span. Each time I woke from this dream, I would discover that I still could not walk. I would keep it to myself, but I fantasized about the day when I could actually walk in New Orleans. I planned to go to the Riverwalk on my own legs and have a picture taken of myself with that iconic bridge in the background.
Another recurring dream I had was of playing indoor soccer in my adult league at the University of Minnesota. I would arrive at Bierman Hall with friends. They would take off their warmup pants and start changing into their equipment. Suddenly, I would notice that I had also brought along my lipstick-purple Lotto soccer bag. I would also realize that I was able to stand and move my left arm at will. So I would sub in for my friends’ goalkeeper during the second half, and play the remainder of the match. Afterward, I would be able to finish rehabbing my muscles myself, and my life could return to normal. Inevitably, I would wake up with excitement, only to discover that the left side of my body was still not responding to the commands I fed it.
I would be thoroughly dejected each time I woke up. But just as when I projected ahead to the day when I would be able type easily on Facebook again, I would press forward during my therapy sessions, as I now had concrete goals.
* * *
I traveled back home during the month of August this year, 2017. It was the second anniversary of my finally being discharged from hospitals and the first anniversary of my moving back to Minnesota. This would present my first opportunity to try walking around the familiar territory of the South after a year of rehabilitation in Minnesota. To compound the excitement, my sister-in-law, Candice was pregnant with her and Jonathan’s first child, and she was due to deliver the week I arrived.
She delivered twenty-three hours before my plane touched down in Dallas. The next day, my father picked me up from DFW airport, and we stayed at Candice’s and Jonathan’s place overnight. The following day we would go to Baylor Medical Center where we would visit the couple and their baby. I had been Best Man at their wedding eight years prior. So I always felt as though I was linked to their happiness and success as a couple.
When we got to the maternity ward, Jonathan greeted us and told us that there were some minor complications with the baby. Candice was still exhausted from labor. She was holding my new niece, so I asked if I could take pictures with her the baby and Jonathan. Candice gave the baby to Jonathan. He and I sat down on the bed and faced the window, so the light source would be to the rear of my cellphone. To my surprise, Candice climbed out of bed and took the picture for us. (I had really expected my father to take it for us.)
She snapped a few pictures of Jonathan lovingly holding his daughter. She is lying in the crook of his right arm, looking tiny and helpless. He is pointing to the head covering she is wearing. The print is a fleur-de-lis pattern in purple and yellow, because they are die hard LSU fans. In fact, when Parker goes home, she will sleep in a room that is purple and gold. I am on Jonathan’s right side. My stroke affected left arm is mostly hidden from view. I am looking down at Parker with a curious expression on my face.
Our visit ended abruptly after this, when a group of specialists entered the room to perform a procedure on the baby. We were asked to go down the hall to a waiting room for the sake of privacy. There were no complications, but what they had to do still ended up taking longer than we had anticipated. At that point, we had to leave altogether. Dad did not want to get home too late, being that he was the only driver. I was disappointed, but I had planned to come back and spend three days in Dallas before I flew back to Minneapolis anyway. We said our goodbyes and Dad and I got on the road.
The trip from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex would be a six-hour straight shot along I-20. It wasn’t dotted with any particular tourist attractions, so I spend the time listening to YouTube broadcasts. However, it happened to also be a poor Sprint coverage area. So I eventually fell asleep about an hour outside Dallas and I didn’t wake up until we crossed the Mississippi River into Vicksburg. Vicksburg was about forty-five minutes from north Jackson. By the time we left the dark from one metro area, it seemed like we entered the light of another. So it seemed as though I was getting back home, and entering my room in no time.
This was the same room I had come home to when I had left the hospital a year earlier. I had come home in a wheelchair with legs so weak that I would only risk transferring between the bed and the wheelchair if they were right next to one another. This was the room where I had taken my first steps without the help of the cane or the wheelchair, and where I had practiced taking thousands of steps to add up to one or more daily miles.
I sat down on the bed and thought about how far I had come – in recovery and in miles – over the last twelve months. Getting up from this bed and going to the refrigerator had once felt like a long and perilous journey. Now it was almost a casual stroll. Going down the hall to the bathroom had once required the use of the wheelchair. Now it was as simple as getting up and walking. I had worried that I would never walk or use my left arm again for the rest of my life. Now, I was back working out in the gym, and I was even lifting weights with that very same arm.
I would be in the South for the entire month of August and would visit many people in Jackson, on the Gulf Coast, and in New Orleans. That night, I lay down listening to the buzz of the voices on the television. My mind would barely let me sleep for thinking about all of the family and friends I would see in the coming weeks. How I so looked forward to basking in the glow of their love. I couldn’t wait to show them how far I had come!