Working Hard, Doing Fine

After I had been back in Minnesota for six months, life was finally settling into a predictable pattern. When I had started my job, I had worried about things like double vision and not being able to use my left hand. I had dropped files, made some filing errors, and failed to meet goals. It had caused me to wonder if I was cut out for the job. It would have been a crushing blow to grow from having always worked overtime to not being fit for part-time work.

One day, Sarah moved my desk to a back office. This had the unintended benefit of cutting down on distractions. I was also out of the public eye, meaning that I was able to spread my work out over a larger amount of space. Now I could organize things much better. I could also use headphones to help drown out the conversations taking place around me. Also, because Metro Mobility seldom arrived when they said they would, I could do things like work through my allotted breaks and still sit in the break room for a half hour after I was off the clock. By January, I was easily reaching my goals each day.

Physical therapy was going well, but the pace was extremely slow. I was going two days a week, during which I worked on my gait a lot. We would start with exercises on a mat. Then we would do a few standing activities between the parallel bars. After that, we would walk around the room a few times, before finishing up with some light weighted exercises. While it was too languid for what I wanted, I was not ready to go to a normal gym yet, and it was more exercise than a lot of people my age got, even if they hadn’t suffered a stroke.

Now that it no longer felt like I was tackling one urgent issue after another, I started thinking about visiting home. It would be a good way to take stock of how well I was progressing. Plus, even though the house was normally kept below 68 degrees, we had been having furnace problems. This meant that I often slept in sweatshirts and seldom took showers. The idea of being comfortable for a couple of weeks was too enticing. I booked a $130 flight to visit Jonathan and Candice in the Dallas metroplex from February 24th through March 10th.

Dallas was so warm that I was finally able to relax and wear shorts and a t-shirt. This lowered my level of stress, so my blood pressure fell and I was able to walk more easily. Candice, Jonathan, Dad, and I spent the next day together. I was able to show them all of the gains I had made. The large step to get into the back door had been an obstacle I would not attempt on my own the previous year. Now I did it without consideration.

Dad and I left for Mississippi after one full day in Dallas. Returning home again gave me another opportunity to see how much better I was able to move in a familiar space. Things didn’t seem as far out of reach as they had previously. I was still dragging my left foot when I walked, which led to issues of exhaustion and imbalance, but constant physical therapy was going a long way to address this. During my two-week vacation, I would begin walking one to three miles around the house.

Whenever I visit Mississippi, I go several places around the region. I decided to visit Birmingham, Alabama on the 28th. I had reconnected with a classmate I had not seen since elementary school. We had only known each other in passing, but I noticed his name on a mutual friend’s Facebook thread. It turned out that he had a restaurant in Birmingham called Delta Blues & Hot Tamales. I had promised to eat there the next time I was in Alabama. The other reason why I wanted to go to Birmingham was to visit the Civil Rights Institute. I’d been there when I was a teenager, and I had been impressed, but I did not have any concrete memories of the place.

We arrived at the Civil Rights Institute a little before noon. Because the front door was so far away, Dad had to go get a wheelchair for me. Once we got inside, I kept the chair. I would use it to move through the museum, standing and walking on occasion, but always keeping the wheelchair in case I needed to sit down and rest.

The museum started with the history of Birmingham. It was a newer city, founded in the postbellum South around the minerals industry. I had grown up hearing the city referred to as the “Pittsburgh of the South,” but that’s really all I knew about it. I did not know that the metropolitan area contained over a million residents. Its labor force arrived after the end of slavery, so there wasn’t the same shifting of slaves moving from unpaid to paid status. The exhibits also included scenes like recreated classrooms that showed the disparity between the black and white communities.

From the history, the museum moved on to Birmingham’s notorious role in the struggle for civil rights. There were things like a KKK robe and the map of the route taken by the Freedom Rides– the types of things you find at most civil rights museum. One thing it had that was unique was the infamous white tank that was used by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, to break up civil rights protests.

The majority of the compelling things to see in the Birmingham Civil Rights District are across the street from the institute’s building. Directly facing it is Kelly Ingram Park, which was used as a rallying area for protesters during the Sixties. Now it has paths that wind through sculpted images of civil rights scenes. There are images of jail cells, police dogs attacking protesters, and schoolchildren looking toward the future.

On a different block sits 16th Street Baptist Church. Its domes are an icon of the civil rights struggle. Although it was the central meeting place of the local black community, it will always be known for a few moments on Sunday, September 15, 1963 – the day four girls were killed in a bombing by a white supremacist. One could simply visit the free parts of the Civil Rights District and have a breathtaking experience, but to truly have the most inspiring day, the various parts should be taken in totality.

One fact I was not aware of was that Birmingham is known for its emerging restaurant scene, where my friend Adam’s restaurant, Delta Blues & Hot Tamales, fits right in. It is a counterintuitive idea for most outsiders, but Mississippi does have a tradition of tamales prepared in distinct ways that just have to be experienced. Adam and his wife, Fawn are progressive Tiger fans and tireless workers who have brought that culinary anomaly to Alabama. Adam and I caught up on old times in a dining space that was festooned with music memorabilia.

I could have stayed there all night swapping childhood stories with Adam. Even the ceiling of the room we were in reminded me of Ms. Keller’s music room. It made me want to join Adam in singing a round of the school song, “Working hard, doing fine …” Ultimately, Dad and I had to get on the road before nightfall. Fawn, who had never stopped moving since we got there, came in to say farewell. I promised Adam that I would be back.

The next Saturday, I attended a rally to unionize the Nissan manufacturing plant in Canton. Mississippi has lax labor laws, and without a union contract, I might not have had the access to health care that made it possible to mitigate my dire situation. I am deeply thankful to all of the medical professionals who worked so diligently to bring me back from the brink of death and to rehabilitate my body. However, I cannot imagine how I would have been under their care if my own union had not negotiated such excellent medical benefits. For the contract they negotiated and for their fundraising efforts after my accident, I feel that so much of my quality of life is attributable to Communication Workers of America. I cannot thank the organization enough.

My former roommate, Howard, had come up from the coast for the rally. On the next day, he drove me back down to Gulfport. On Monday evening, I met with friends I knew from outside of work. Secretly, I still worried about incontinence, so I made sure to go to the restroom several times. Our friend Meagan was in town from Arizona State’s graduate school program. So what would have normally just been a wonderful night out seemed like an amazing alignment of the planets.

The next night, Howard, Val and I got together for dinner. Val was the coworker who had visited me in Jackson, and bought me Lego sets. She had since moved back to the coast. We went to a new oyster bar, where we sat on a deck and reminisced. Right across the street, the sun was setting over the Gulf of Mexico. I enjoyed being able to wear short sleeves in early March. But more than that, I loved the intoxicating feeling of being alive.

* * *

Help often comes in forms we don’t anticipate. One such person was a new friend I made named Willa. Willa was a schoolteacher I met via the internet. When I moved back to Minnesota in early August of 2016, many of the people I had known for years were at work or away on vacation. Willa had a couple of weeks until school started for the year, so although I was too broke to go many places, we could always go for a walk along the Stone Arch Bridge. The Stone Arch Bridge was once a trestle that spanned the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. It was converted into a pedestrian bridge and is now a popular park property.

Years ago, I would often leave my office at the Star-Tribune and walk down Portland Avenue to the bridge. I would stroll casually across the bridge, take photographs, or wander the paths and smaller bridges on the opposite bank. After a couple of hours gazing at the river and the wildlife, all of the stress that had built up over the work week would dissipate.

After I met Willa, she would drive me to the Stone Arch Bridge. There, I could practice walking. Not only was it a marvelous form of physical therapy, but the faint spray coming off the falls beneath, and the rejuvenating rays from the sun above made all of the months of painful struggle worth the effort. Willa would walk with me as long as I wanted to. Each pass of the bridge was just under a half-mile. I would hold onto the handrail and walk until I was panting and beads of sweat were running down my head and torso.

One day, I confided that I was considering living part of each year in Mississippi because it seemed like it might be too expensive to live in Minneapolis. She told me that she wanted to help me find a way to stay in Minneapolis, if that was what I wanted. I stayed through the winter, and when school let out for the summer, Willa began helping to socialize Mary at restaurants and taking her for walks along the Stone Arch Bridge. Mary absolutely grew to adore Willa, and she was natural choice when I needed to temporarily give Mary to someone while I was living in medical facilities. Willa helped to keep the dream of Minneapolis alive for Mary and me.

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