Things Fall Together

When I had awakened in the hospital in late May of 2015, I had been unable to walk, talk, or move my left arm. My life had changed forever, but I was determined to regain as much muscle function as possible. I had wondered if I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. How long would it be before I could speak? Would I ever lift weights again? I tried to remain positive, but I was in an unexpressed state of fright almost every second I was awake.

As bleak as those early days had been, I was speaking within two weeks. In just under three months I had begun walking. Neither of these was anywhere near normal function – I’m still fumbling toward normality now – but once I had established rudimentary ability, I felt like all I had to do was keep working at it. Lifting weights was no different. I had walked into a gym thirteen months ago, barely able to walk without falling and hardly able to perform one exercise. Now, not only had I regained the ability to perform many exercises, but I could see how the gains in strength affected my movements and balance in everyday life.

I was walking longer distances and seldom needed to stop for a break. I was able to lift my foot off the ground as opposed to dragging it with each step. My speech was becoming more intelligible, so I wasn’t having to constantly repeat myself. Instead of limply hanging there, my left arm was incorporated into many of my daily tasks. However the thing that contributed most to my feeling of ease was that my left leg had become significantly stronger. A year ago, stumbling would often lead to a fall. Now it was simply a matter of stopping and regaining my balance. If I went to the ground these days, it was voluntary.

While in the hospital, I had often had vivid dreams of living a normal life. One recurring dream was of having dinner with my father and brothers. On other nights I would envision myself playing sports again. Still other images would appear to me of me walking around on vacation in various locales. With all of the mobility I had regained, I felt I needed to start spending a lot more time trying to live life outside the gym.

It was now mid-June. The FIFA World Cup would be starting soon. Being back in Minneapolis for the 2018 World Cup was something I had dreamt about for years. I had been in Mississippi for the 2014 World Cup, and the experience had only failed to disappoint because I had very low expectations. I knew that I was not in a very diverse environment and that soccer would be very low on the list of things that people were even aware of. Moreover, few people in Mississippi still go out socially when they are over the age of 25. The population is much smaller as well. There are fewer people in the state of Mississippi than there are in the Twin Cities metro area.

I was used to going into pubs that were packed with spectators from every nation in the tournament. Between shifts we referees would go to nearby restaurants to watch matches. People would walk around triumphantly waving national flags and wearing their team colors. Everyone in Minneapolis-St. Paul wasn’t a soccer enthusiast, but there was a critical mass of them because the population was so large. During my days in Mississippi, I vowed that I would be back in Minneapolis for the next World Cup. After the stroke, it became a mission.

On the morning of the opening match, I took Metro Mobility to Brit’s Pub. They have a large grassy area on their rooftop that is normally used for lawn bowling. For one month every four years, it is devoted to the World Cup. Crowds of people sit on the grass and watch matches on a large screen against an urban backdrop of skyscrapers. I wanted to make sure that this was the way my World Cup began.

Since the match was at 10:00am, my ride was at 9:38. I was so anxious that morning, I barely slept and I rushed through breakfast. I went down twenty minutes early to wait for the bus. It didn’t arrive until about 9:45. When it pulled up, I scrambled into a seat and fastened the seatbelt. My heart raced as we rolled downtown. I couldn’t believe that I was finally here! It had been a three-year ordeal. I had returned from the brink of death to be here.

When I entered the pub, I told the hostess that I wanted to be seated on the rooftop. She led me through a back hallway to the elevator. From there I went outside and grabbed a table next to the lawn. The weather was partly cloudy. The buildings surrounded the pub just as I remembered. Three years ago, I had languished in a coma for ten days. I had been forced to learn to speak again, to walk again, to control my bladder again. Then I had fought through a year of rehab, just so I could return to Minnesota to endure another year of rehab. I had put in a year of learning to lift weights with my compromised body. These two hours were a sliver of the life I was fighting so hard to reclaim.

One goal I had been pursing in the gym for over a year was squats. I had been performing squats by holding the bar with my left hand. Although this method did allow me to strengthen my left leg – as was the purpose of doing squats – it was potentially unsafe. It created a situation where there was too great a risk of back injury. I needed to find a way to hold the bar with both hands, even if my left shoulder made it difficult.

Shortly after my last round of Botox injections, I started walking up to the bar from behind, ducking underneath it, and lifting from there. This method was exhausting at first, but it soon became easy. After two weeks of performing squats with proper alignment, I had stopped sweating profusely. At first I was alarmed, because I worried that it meant that I was burning calories too efficiently. Then I noticed how effortlessly I was walking. I realized that I had accomplished what I had aimed to do in my first phase of working out. It was time to take off for a few weeks and just enjoy life.

Later in the month I received a text message from my friend Sandra asking if I would like to go to an art exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. After Saint Paul school employee Philando Castile was killed by a Saint Anthony police officer who was acquitted, Castile’s mother began receiving all sorts of artwork in the mail. The pieces had been collected and housed in an exhibit. There would also be a speaker at the institute that Friday who would be discussing progressive community building in these times. I told Sandra that I would be delighted to go.

When Sandra picked me up, I told her that I had resolved to walk through the museum without a wheelchair. I warned that I might be slow and require frequent rest breaks. This would be fine because we were only there to see the one exhibit. I wouldn’t be worn out by going through the entire museum.

It was a very moving exhibit. Castile was a beloved employee of the school where he worked. He was not committing any crime when he was killed. In fact, he even announced to the officer searching his car that he had a legal firearm in the vehicle. This courtesy was the excuse the officer took as a reason to preemptively shoot Castile. The act was senseless and went unpunished. These facts prompted an outpouring of sympathy. The pieces all expressed the hope and melancholy of the affair. It was a beautiful expression of outrage. Yet one never took away the feeling that the artists had given up fighting for a more humane world.

One of the things I noticed immediately was that I did not have much trouble reading the cards next to the artwork. For the last year I had been plagued by double vision. This often made reading with both eyes impossible. My eyes refused to work together. So I generally found myself closing one eye to read my phone or computer. When it came to reading printed text like the descriptions of museum pieces, I would often have other people read to me. This had been remarkably humbling. So when I found my eyes focusing on the text on these cards, I delightedly tried to read everything on the walls.

This was my fifth visit to a museum since the stroke, but it was the first time I had walked exclusively. I was so excited about this milestone that once I got started walking, I didn’t want to slow down. Although I had expected to grow tired, I didn’t need much rest. The exhibit was in a small space. After we had finished it, we had to climb a flight of stairs to get to the auditorium. I felt like challenging myself again. So rather than step up on each step with my right foot first, I would advance my left foot to the step above the one where my right foot had just landed.

This was the first truly strenuous activity of the afternoon. Although this was the normal way to climb stairs prior to the stroke, now my weaker leg was supporting my weight as my right leg was stepping up. I also was maneuvering a leg that I had difficulty bending up and over steps before trying to bring it down in front of me. The mechanics of this had to be worked out in real time. By the time I made it to the top of the stairs, I was physically and mentally spent. Yet I was unbelievably proud.

Sandra and I now made our way over to the auditorium, past a large window that gave a stunning view of downtown. I stopped to admire it, reflecting on the journey that had brought me back to the city. Many people had thought it would be impossible to have come so far. Yet I had believed in myself. Without focusing on the immensity of the task at hand, I would always look down at the road and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.

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