As I’ve said before, I had become very lonely during this period. I was isolated by necessity while I was in the hospital. Once I returned home, I was reminded of how few people I still knew in Jackson. However, several people from the Jackson a statewide Facebook group had heard about my stroke and had organized a brunch for me at a local restaurant.
On the day of the brunch, I had Dad give me a bath. It was always a perilous affair, but I wanted to be clean for my first time in public. I climbed into the tub and let the warm water rise around me. I took a long bath, because I wanted to be exceedingly clean that day. When I was done, Dad helped me out of the tub and back to the wheelchair.
He helped me put on a polo shirt, khaki pants, and loafers. I was so excited because I had spent the last three months wearing hospital gowns, t-shirts, and shorts. Now I didn’t feel like I was merely a patient; I was going out dressed better. We loaded me in the car and Dad drove me to Highland Village shopping center.
On the way there, my excitement grew exponentially. First, I had been on a feeding tube. Next, I had been on a pureed diet. After that, I had been allowed a regular hospital diet. Now, I was eating restaurant food again, and it was like returning from the dead.
It was afternoon on a Mississippi Sunday, so the restaurant was packed. My party was at a table in a dining room off to the side. When I got there, I could not believe how full the room was. In addition to them having to pull tables together, the staff still could not fit everyone at the newly formed table. I was overwhelmed at how many people had shown up. There were well over twenty people, and I had never met most of them in real life. It felt wonderful being there. I had never felt so loved.
My Facebook group had an inside joke about people who are convinced that they can be professionals without the requisite education. We call it “F*** College.” Since I had taken to this most enthusiastically, people had begun identifying me with the catchphrase. So I decided to embark on white I coined the “F*** College World Tour.” I would travel regularly to different parts of the state in order to meet with members from the various parts of the state. This would give me the opportunity to have my bi-weekly travel, and it would allow me to practice speaking. I would complete the tour in late May to coincide with the first anniversary of my stroke.
I had already dined with members of the Gulf Coast and Hattiesburg groups a month before I started the road trips; now I began going to many places I hadn’t been. The first stop was Starkville, the home of Mississippi State University. Starkville was smaller and more rustic in appearance than I had imagined. The restaurant we ate at was small, but it had a wooden ramp at the front door, so Dad was able to wheel me up directly to the hostess stand.
I had dinner with three other people in a room that felt like little more than a porch with glass windows. Speaking still took a lot of effort, but I tried, because I was so happy to be out in the world and experiencing life. There seemed to be a curious lack of air conditioning, because it felt almost no different inside than it had been outside. There were rain drizzles that were just enough to make it a steamy late August day. It was a tad uncomfortable, but I was just so happy to be alive.
I told them about the stroke – the event, how I survived, and the aftermath. My meal was delicious; I’m sure that I ordered some form of Southern fried fish. We shared many laughs, and after we were done, I asked them to go to Davis-Wade, the home stadium of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. I had to be wheeled up the walk, but after I got there, I took several photos. It was hard for me to believe that the stadium belonged here, because it seemed too large and modern to be in the middle of nowhere. Soon the light rain started again, so we said our good-byes. Dad drove back home through the rainfall, but I passed out in the passenger’s seat and didn’t wake up until we were pulling into the garage.
A month later, I had to go to north Mississippi again. This time I was going to Tupelo and Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi. When I woke up, I noticed that it was pouring rain. Dad asked me if I still wanted to venture out. While I wished the weather were better, I didn’t want to miss my road trip. These trips had become like oxygen to me, because it felt like all I did all week was go to physical therapy or rest alone in my room. In fact, I pushed myself as hard as I could in order to have the strength and energy to enjoy my weekends.
It was still raining when we got to Tupelo. We met the group members at a coffee shop. My friend Megan made me a gift of a board she had split during one of her Tae-kwon-do demos. She carved a Green Lantern insignia on it because Green Lantern was known by everyone in the group to be my favorite superhero. And because a Green Lantern’s superpower is based on imagination, willpower, and overcoming great fear, she also wrote an inspirational message:
Overcome your fears
Harness your will
Imagine the possibilities
The gift was simple and inexpensive, but it was a sterling testament to the strength and willpower each of us had needed to mine in order to overcome the challenges we had each lived through. I made sure to wrap it carefully in plastic, because there was no way I was going to let it get warped by the rain outside.
Next, it was time to go to Oxford. I was worried about having a low turnout since the rain had barely let up. By this time, I had been working so diligently in therapy that I told Dad we could leave the wheelchair in the trunk, because it would be too much trouble trying to use it in the rain. We parked right in front of the restaurant. The curb was very low, so I didn’t have any trouble walking up to the front door. When I got there, a dreadlocked gentleman exclaimed, “F*** College!” I was overjoyed, as he was the one person I had desperately wanted to meet.
Merv is a professor at Ole Miss (UM), and we had always enjoyed one another’s posts in the group. I love talking with such erudite black men whenever I’m in Mississippi because they never fail to leave me with a sense of awe and hope. The only two people with me were Merv and Dad, but they were both college professors, so it was all of the conversation I needed. I felt a little guilty because I had never lived up to my potential in the classroom. I was the only one at the table without a Ph. D., and I knew it was solely due to my own laziness. Nonetheless, Merv and Dad are as down to earth as they are brilliant, so I felt easily at home in the conversation.
We talked about the difficult challenges facing Mississippi educators, but they also talked about many of the triumphs they had witnessed in the classroom. Merv is from the Bronx and grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. Dad lived on the West Coast during the Sixties for his entire postgraduate student career. I had gone to college in Wisconsin and had lived in the Midwest most of my adult life. We compared notes about the state of affairs of black life and race relations across the nation and through the decades. The exchange of ideas was so engrossing that I was almost sad when it was time to go.
In addition to the road trips, I devised another way to get out even more regularly. Several of the members of the group and I concocted the idea of having a weekly happy hour. We decided on The Bulldog, which was within easy driving distance for most of us because we tended to live in Rankin and Madison counties or near State Street in Jackson. I had known that the largest concentration of our Facebook group lived in central Mississippi, but I had never had the opportunity to fellowship with them. Having to live in Jackson again gave me the chance to get to know them quite well.
Every Thursday I grew nervous around 5:00, because I was obsessed with the fear that I might be late. The first Thursday we went, I tried to take a nap from 2:00 to 4:00, the time Dad normally takes his daily nap. However, I was too excited to sleep. By 3:30, I still had not slept a wink, so to save Dad the trouble, I tried to get dressed by myself. I thought it would be difficult to put on casual clothes by myself, but it wasn’t. I was able to put on everything without help but may belt and left shoe. After Dad woke up, he helped me put on these final two items.
When we went to The Bulldog, we parked in the handicapped space. Dad got the wheelchair out of the trunk and pushed me along the large stones of the sidewalk. Once inside, several members met us. We got a table near the game room. At first, I experienced the kind of nervousness one does on the first day of school. Everyone was friendly and funny, so the mood quickly dissipated. The evening and those following it feltso natural that I eventually started to see the Jackson chapter of the group as my home chapter. I left The Bulldog that evening knowing that I had found the weekly social outlet that I would need in order to practice my speech and eye contact the way my speech therapist had advised me.
The next stop along the FCWT was in Hattiesburg. My friend Christine rented out a pavilion at a local park for us to have a statewide meet-up. It was early November, and the weather was still warm. I caught a ride down with my friend Michael. We referred to each other affectionately as “Other Black Michael,” because we had never met each other in person until the Sunday brunch.
Michael had been in the group longer than I had, so when we got to Hattiesburg, he introduced me to several people. Once I got to a picnic table, I sat down to rest. There were several people I had not seen in months, and others I was meeting for the first time. One person I was meeting for the first time was my Facebook friend, Brittany. I had promised to buy her a t-shirt when I went to Tiger Stadium, and it happened to be identical to the one she was wearing that day, only with the colors reversed.
I had a wonderful time. I talked with many people and took several pictures. The food was heavenly – which sounds like a redundancy when you mention that you’re at a cookout in the South. I enjoyed myself so thoroughly that I was barely conscious of the fact that it wasn’t easy to talk. I lost myself in the joy of the afternoon. When Michael and I left several hours later, we spent the entire trip back talking about life and what a great time the day had been.