I was now going to therapy three times per week and going on road trips every other weekend. My body was still obviously compromised, but I was getting back out into the world and seriously challenging myself. Furthermore, I was traveling all over the state to meet members of my online group. They had followed my story very closely, and many had begun to reach out to me. The event and the subsequent tour unified us through various face-to-face meet ups. This was the kind of camaraderie I had wanted for us during the past year, but it apparently took me almost dying to make that vision a reality.
With every tour stop, there seemed to be more enthusiast about group get-togethers. This cohesion built to a logical outcome by the end of the year: we had a holiday party in Jackson. A group member named Lori offered up her house in a nicer area of town, and we organized a potluck for the affair on Saturday, December 19th.
I remember having to get out of the car and maneuvering up several steps, then a long walkway, followed by a few more steps leading to the porch. Once I got on the porch, there was another large step to get up to the front door. By the time I knocked on the front door, I was out of breath. Lori answered the door and giggled “You know it would’ve been easier if you had just come in the side door!”
After I got indoors, I decided not to use my cane. Walking was difficult and took a lot of my energy. Still I mingled and took many pictures. There were people I had never met and people I hadn’t seen since before my stroke. People had come from all over the state, and a few came from out of state. We were finally under one roof, and the feeling of love was almost tangible.
Because I still couldn’t lift weights yet, I wasn’t aware of how much exercise I was getting. Instead, I laughed and talked, only periodically sitting down to rest. The food and the company were great, and the energy in the house was undeniable. I was soaring emotionally, and I often had to sit down and rest. We ended the night by playing two separate games of Cards Against Humanity. That culminated with my friend Robert playing a card that said “Something white folks do.” The whole party exploded in laughter. We slowly dissipated after that, but that line has become a recurring joke in the group since.
My friend Meagan was home for the holidays. We met up at the party, then drove to Meridian, Mississippi the next day for the East Mississippi stop of the F*** College World Tour. Several people had initially said that they were coming. However, once we arrived at the restaurant where the meet up was to be held, we saw that it was closed, and only a member named Gerald was there. So we all went to an Outback Steakhouse along the interstate instead.
Gerald is a political firebrand whose flame has only grown brighter with age. He has long, silvery hair, and he never seems to stop moving. Whenever I feel that change is hopelessly slow in my home state, all I have to do is spend time with someone such as this, and my faith is restored. After dinner, he took us up on a hill overlooking the city. There he told us about the history and politics of Lauderdale County. As the sun set behind the hills in the distance, I thought of how lucky I was to be given a chance to experience scenes like this again.
The next day was December 21st. The New Orleans Saints were playing Detroit on Monday Night Football. Knowing that Meagan was a diehard Saints fan, I had bought tickets. We drove down to New Orleans in a downpour. It let up briefly right before game time, allowing us the chance to park the car and walk to the Superdome in a light drizzle. Once we got inside the stadium, the staff saw that I was walking with a cane. They sent someone to get a wheelchair for me and pushed me to handicapped seating.
The handicapped section was on the lower level. So just like when I had attended the play in Memphis, we were upgraded to better seats. The game was not a good one. The Saints played so poorly that it was effectively over after the third quarter. Nonetheless, I hadn’t been to a Saints game since before my stroke. I cannot describe how wonderful it felt to sit there eating seafood nachos in the Superdome after months of lying in a hospital bed while being fed through a feeding tube.
When the staff wheeled me out of the stadium that night, we realized that we had no idea where the car was. Rather than have me tire myself out, Meagan left me at the door and went looking for the car. After a lengthy period of time, she came back and told me that she couldn’t find it. She called a friend to make arrangements to stay at her place if we couldn’t find the car. Meagan was able to locate the car at last, and we left New Orleans slightly before midnight.
I spent Christmas on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with my friend Howard. I also got together with the Gulf Coast members of our group. Having gone to several new and distant places, I now concentrated on meeting the members in Hattiesburg and on the coast each month. Of course, I still went to happy hour in Jackson every Thursday. This did much to dispel the loneliness, because I was probably going out more socially than the average person. Therapy was going well too. I was still going about three times per week. My gains, while modest, were steady.
The only thing that was not progressing anywhere near quickly enough was shoulder pain. When I had first emerged from my coma, my entire left arm had been full of pain. Every time you touched any part of it, it hurt. Over the last few months, the pain had subsided. First, the fingertips stopped hurting. Then the pain left my entire hand. After that, I stopped experiencing pain below my elbow. Ultimately, it receded to my shoulder, where it caused a lot of mobility problems and didn’t seem to be going away.
I couldn’t raise or rotate my arm.I couldn’t not roll onto it at night, because the pain would be excruciating. Instead, I spent every night trying to fall asleep on my back or right side. Since I was accustomed to sleeping on my stomach, this meant that I did not sleep very well. So, between near constant pain during the day, and lying awake at night, I was never rested. The need for constant vigilance about the position of my arm was turning me into a nervous wreck. So I went the clinic to get a shot for the pain.
When I got the cortisone shot in my shoulder, they told me that it would take three or four days for me to feel the effects. I was excited, because I assumed that it would lead to me regaining the full use of my shoulder. However, after a week, I still felt the same level of pain. Now I grew despondent. I complained about the problem at Quest. They had me to get a referral to the physical therapy department.
On the day I went to physical therapy for my arm, they set me up with several exercises. First, they set me up on a pulley contraption. They put my left fist through a trapeze and I was instructed to use my right hand to pull down, lifting my left arm to shoulder height. It really hurt, but I knew stretching my shoulder was vital to getting it where I wanted it to be. Next, I was set up on a hand bike. The therapist strapped my left arm onto one pedal, then asked me to turn the opposite pedal with my right hand. I began pedaling. As my left arm extended forward, it really hurt, then the pain would stop as my arm retracted. This cycle repeated itself over and over. After five minutes of this twenty-five minute exercise, the pain started to go away. When it was done, I was excited.
For the final part of my session, the therapist had me lie on my back. She placed electrodes on my shoulder. She turned on the machine, and I felt the muscles in my shoulder began to jump. Now she turned up the power and told me to tell her to stop when the pain of the shock became too great. Once I told her the level was high enough, she helped me to stretch my arm behind my head. I told her when it became intolerable. So she cushioned it with a towel and let the machine send current through my shoulder.
This machine worked on my shoulder for about ten minutes, and I could feel it loosening up. When the machine cycled off, the therapist came over and held my wrist and elbow, gently guiding it back down to my side. Since my shoulder felt slightly better after this session, I made an appointment for later that week. The second session loosened my shoulder a bit more. I began going to physical therapy twice a week. In addition to helping with my arm pain, the sessions filled up even more of my idle time during the week. Thus, between therapy, happy hour, and road trips, my weeks were becoming quite full.
The F*** College World Tour came to an end in late May. We had an outing in Hattiesburg on Saturday, the 21st, at a restaurant with an outdoor dining area. We sat on the patio under large oak trees that stretched overhead, giving the feel of being in a sheltered room. We ate and had drinks. It had been a year and three days since I had passed out from a stroke. I tried to take it all in: the feel of the warm air, the taste of the fish, the sweetness of my drink, the soft chatter and laughter reverberating against the walls. I felt truly alive, and I just wanted to bask in it.
The tour officially came to an end on the 28th. We had another potluck at Lori’s house. This time, it was composed mostly of people from Jackson. It had been five months since the holiday party, so I was much more mobile and energetic. I laughed and hobbled around the room almost without care. The night came to an end in Lori’s backyard. I had to take a large step downward to get outside. At first, I was uneasy, but I did not have any trouble with my balance.
It had been a perilous journey. There had been times when it seemed that I wouldn’t make it, or, if I did survive, that I would never walk again. Many people would remark over my strength of will during my ordeal, but in truth, I could never have made it through without my group. From the day I fell into a coma, they had mobilized to support me. They had posted on Facebook, and they had shown up at get-togethers. I have never felt so loved by any community. Their affection and their constant presence whenever I needed them was how I have made facing this unimaginable catastrophe look easy.