I walked to our mailbox and back yesterday twice (two tenths of a mile per trip) – once with my rollator (a walker with wheels) and once with a quad cane (a cane with four prongs). Other than being tired from exercise and the prior trip with my quad cane, the rollator trip was no big deal as I have been using it for the purpose every nice day for the last two months. The quad cane attempt was a big deal, however, since it was a first. While I’d already traveled the terrain I was about to attempt with the cane before and after the stroke which felled me last December, it was the first time I’d tried to do it with minimal support. Each new implement of support comes equipped with its own challenges such that once familiar terrains become new worlds whenever it is employed, new worlds replete with unknown perils unique to the implement’s design and capabilities.
On the day before I made the trip, I’d promised Alicia, my physical therapist, that I would not make the attempt for a while longer because I am still considered as being at high risk for falling despite my progress since my stroke. I confess to feeling guilty about violating my promise to her. But I had damned good reason to ignore it. I’ve found that there is a state of mental readiness about these things that, once achieved, cannot and should not be ignored. I had gone outside meaning to do nothing more than practice walking with only the cane on the well-known uneven surfaces of the asphalt near the house, only to find myself perched at the top of the hill Alicia was concerned about and staring down its length while listening to an inner voice saying: “It’s no big deal; go for it.”
So I did and it wasn’t.
But the trip was very hard work. I had to overcome my own concerns about going down the hill (down is always the hard part; up is easy by comparison), so every hillside step was harder than those taken on flat ground due to the inherent difficulty of the slope and my accompanying mental caution about traversing it. But the moment to attempt it had come and I was helpless to resist; I was perched at the top of the hill like a fledgling in his nest considering his first flight. It was high time to begin the process of casting aside the comfort of the rollator in favor of increasingly minimal support. It was now or never – or so it seemed at the time.
The knowledge that my attempt would be difficult played no role in it other than to slow my usual pace and produce some mental molasses. For anyone who, like me, has lost their sense of balance, each movement has to be made by hand (so to speak) until learned as an entire sequence by a new sector of the brain. Make no mistake: this process is hard work. Any notion that one ought to avoid hard work is foreign to our state of being. If we wish to regain full freedom of movement (and by that I mean going where we want when we want on our own by means of only our own effort), we have no choice but to work extremely hard as that is our sole means of moving forward. Each and every movement requires conscious mental effort and conscious mental sequencing of the involved muscles. Each unknown bump or flaw in the surface upon which we intend to walk is a logistical challenge that we must solve at the risk of serious injury; a problem requiring our full concentration even though other, more menacing perils may lurk nearby. Until we accumulate enough repetitions of any movement (whether it be sitting, standing, walking, rolling over, etc.) sufficient for it to become controlled without conscious thought by a new part of our brain not previously tasked with the job of balancing us and coordinating our muscles, we must intentionally cause every single involved muscle to fire in its proper sequence at our command. And as hard as that is to imagine, it is much, much harder to accomplish.
I don’t believe that as an adult I’ve ever worked so hard for so little or for so much. Each movement I struggle to accomplish is insignificant from a healthy person’s viewpoint. But I am working for freedom – mine and Helen’s. I need to know that eventually (1) I will be able to go where I want on my own whenever I choose to make the trip, and (2) Helen will be free from the obligation to take me there. All freedoms come with a high price, and the freedom from my particular disability only comes from conquering constant, grinding pain through the use of immense quantities of willpower and the taking of daily risks that healthy people cannot possibly appreciate. And all of this effort is for the achievement of tiny, incremental gains that can never be seen and appreciated for their own individual importance, but only for their collective importance as part of an entire work product seen weeks after their occurrence.
I have a new appreciation for toddlers since relearning to walk is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Retaking the bar exam would be a cakewalk by comparison. Every attaboy I’ve earned for making an inch of accomplishment in this process is sincerely appreciated, and I return the favor of each one by moving forward yet another inch. Every congratulation over an achievement I make is special since it means yet one more milestone on the road to full independence has been surpassed. While toddlers are exhilarated by their first taste of freedom, I have known and lost its sweetness. I have experienced its fullness as well as the consequences of its loss.
So each hurrah I earn is critical to my success. While learning to walk is the toddler’s defining trait, those who once knew how to do it but no longer can have a much harder road to travel due to brittle bones and the weariness accumulated over the years. But we savor our remembrance of freedom’s intoxicating sweetness and travel on. While toddlers are conscious of possibility, we understand the immensity of loss. But toddlers and former walkers alike need the encouragement of others to succeed in the present; encouragement is our only visible measure of immediate success. Otherwise, we must resort to rear view mirrors at future times to see how far we’ve gotten since the last time we checked.
So when I published a short piece on Facebook about yesterday’s success with the quad cane, I was overwhelmed, amazed, and gratified by a surfeit of heartfelt responses. I’d hit the post button for my piece with some reluctance for fear that I might be seen as boasting about nothing very much in the wide, wide world. But those that commented and liked the post realized its importance and appreciated my need to do a little shuffle since real dancing is still beyond my capabilities. I thank them for their understanding and their encouragement, and I hope this post will give them a greater understanding of what their support really means to me.
While, of necessity, I travel my side road alone but for the therapists who guide my overall progress and my soul mate who watches over every single minute of each one of the twenty-four hours of every day, the encouragement I receive from my guardians and other friends and family is the stuff that will surely fuel my return to the main highway. Please be advised that I fully intend to merge onto that main highway sooner rather than later, and watch out for me when I do. I’ll be the old guy coming up the on-ramp unaided by any piece of equipment who will do an Irish jig on the highway’s tarmac as soon as he reaches it for the sheer joy of having gotten there. He will be drunk on the sweet liquor of freedom once lost but now regained, and he won’t give a fig for anyone who objects.
I won’t be able to help myself, so please don’t hit me.*
*A special thanks to La Fonte Nesbitt for the title to this piece