I saw Marcus* out of the corner of my eye, stopped at the crossroads, obviously waiting for us.
Kaitlyn and I were headed over to the cafeteria for lunch.** It’s a bit of a long haul for me, since there’s a steep incline on both ends of long, meandering sidewalk. I haven’t been able to do it yet without needing a friendly push.
I’m getting better at it; each time I make the trip I go just a leeeeeetle bit farther up that hill. One day I’ll make it, but in the meantime, it’s a good to have friends with strong backs.
My goal today had been to get all the way up to the cafeteria patio on my own. But Marcus stood there, watching me.
“May I give you a push?” he asked, shyly.
Marcus is a sweet guy who delivers mail and does odd errands around the office. He speaks slowly, shaping his words with effort, and his motor skills are maybe not the best. He may not get there as fast as the next guy, but it’s a happy, determined journey.
“Well, sure, that would be very very nice of you! How thoughtful!” I exclaimed. His mouth turned up at the corners in a smile that never reached his eyes. Without saying a word, he grabbed the handles of my wheelchair and started to push.
Kaitlyn and I made desultory chat about the weather, the vagaries of wheelchairs, how grateful I was for thoughtful wheelchair pushers.
Marcus kept silent as he pushed me along the sidewalk, beside a pondful of geese, past the gazebo, up the steep part of the walk that I never can make all by myself.
We got to the cafeteria door, and I took over–there’s an inch-high threshold that’s tricky to maneuver if you don’t hit it just right. I hit it wrong once and shot out of that chair like I’d been stung, ending up perched on the good leg like a Russian dancing the trepak.
I thanked Marcus profusely, wished there was something I could do to return his kindness.
Wheelchairs are funny things. At my crankiest, stark naked with a flamethrower, I couldn’t clear a room as fast as I can in my wheelchair. Leg fully extended in the brace, I have the turning radius of a Prius. When I start doing 360s and sweeping that leg around, people get out of the way, fast.
Hmmmm. Wheelchair as weapon, maybe.
Just about everyone’s taller when you’re in a wheelchair, which bothers a few of my fellow “bone clinic” attendees who come to have their wounds checked, their bones x-rayed. “I hate looking up to people I always looked down on,” grumbled one.
Doesn’t bother me. I wasn’t all that tall to begin with, so I guess I don’t have as much to lose.
So maybe…wheelchair as equalizer? In this wheelchair, I always have the best seat in the house, and people scramble to hold doors open. Someone’s always there to give me a push if I need it; a stranger doesn’t stay that way for long.
Take Marcus. I’ve greeted him near-daily for six years without so much as a grunt. Yet today, he sees me. Or maybe sees the wheelchair.
Wheelchair as conversation piece: Wherever I go, someone wants the story of my wheelchair and The Leg. It’s quite an icebreaker.
“I worked as an orthopedic nurse for 8 years,” said my driver this morning, “and yours is the second worst leg injury I’ve seen. I’m amazed you have such a positive attitude.”
“Only the second?” I said dryly, “What happened to the first?”
“Amputation,” he said gaily, “But he got right back on his surfboard and he’s doing just fine. You will, too.”
Gee, thanks. I think.
Wheelchair as perspective-changer: Suddenly, I understand the importance of accessibility. The terrifying presence of a one-inch threshold. The near-insult of the well-meaning. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who automatically raise their voices and slow their speech when when they speak to me in this chair.
Uhm, dudes? Broke leg, not head. I speak English and…everything.
Wheelchair as guilt trip: The delivery guy brings a big, heavy box to my mom’s house, drops it in the driveway, tries to drive off. Mom stops him, but he refuses to bring it the rest of the way into the house. Not his job, he says.
I wheel slowly into his view. “My mom’s XX years old,***” I say, quietly, “And as you can see, I’m not exactly running marathons. Are you sure you can’t bring that box into the house?”
He brought the box into the house.
Don’t get me wrong: I want OUT of this chair in the worst way. I dream of walking, of impulsively dashing across the street just to see what’s on the other side. Taking the stairs two at a time. Being normal.
I’ve stopped putting my life on hold, waiting for Elmo and The Leg to kiss and make up. I’m making plans: I’m headed to BeCON in June, a cloisonne class in October, and nothing–especially NOT a wheelchair–is gonna stop me.
But does that mean I can’t appreciate the gifts bestowed by four wheels and an upholstered seat?
Marcus gave me a small wave and walked off to his own lunch, my thanks echoing behind him.
* Not his real name
**And yes, I started back to work while I was still in hospital with my busted leg. My employer (very kindly) lets me work from home (well, Mom’s house) most of the time. Lately, though, I’ve been getting Lyfts and going into the office about once a week. It’s not a trivial exercise, since the total commute time is 2-3.5 hours and costs about $150 and a fair amount of exhaustion…but I love it.
***In reality, my mom does the work of ten strong men in a third of the time, but he didn’t need to know that.