“Can I ask you something?”
The question came from a man sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a stack of children’s books at our local library. We’d acknowledged each other just moments before as I’d tried to squeeze by, asking if I could sneak behind him and then admitting that I hardly “sneak.” “You can see me coming a mile off,” I added playfully.
Even so, I didn’t at first realize he was talking to me when he posed his question. He never looked up from the books on the bottom shelf.
“Sure,” I said, when I finally figured it out.
“How long are you supposed to be in that chair?”
I was a little taken aback. Despite my very public sharing of my life, I don’t generally appreciate personal questions about my disability from total strangers, especially when those questions are among the very first things someone says to me. And it always surprises me a little. Being immersed in my big life, I forget that strangers often reduce me to what is most visible.
But I wasn’t inclined to shut him down summarily. Instead, I said something somewhat cryptic like, “That’s a good question.”
To which he replied, “I’m asking because next week, I’m having this leg amputated. I got bit by a black widow and the infection goes all the way up to here,” he said, indicating just below his knee. “And they asked me if I want to be in a wheelchair or if I want a prosthetic leg.”
Boy, I didn’t see that coming. Nor did I remember that I had, at that moment on my lap, a book about black widows. Aidan is obsessed with poisonous creatures right now.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a big deal.”
“Yeah,” he said wistfully. “So I was just wondering…. I mean, I thought people would look at me differently in a wheelchair… Do people look at you differently?”
Apparently, there wasn’t enough bitterness in me to point out how he was looking at me. My only impulse was to tell him the truth.
“They’re going to look at you differently either way.”
“How do you deal with that?”
I quickly remembered being in a very crowded outdoor mall with a friend about a year after I was injured and her asking, quite out of the blue, “How do you stand the looks?”
What looks, I thought? I hadn’t noticed I was being “looked at.”
Now that was in part because I’m used to being looked at. For one reason or another, I’ve always turned heads. But it’s also because I wasn’t looking for people looking.
“You know,” I told the man, “That’s an inside job. If you’re not at peace with yourself, one look can floor you. If you are, even a hundred won’t matter.”
“What happened to you?” he asked, now looking right at me.
“I fell,” I said. “Climbing.”
It seemed only to slowly sink in, but when it did, he looked so sad for me. It was heartbreaking, really.
“It’s ok,” I said. “It’s impossible to imagine but it actually made my life better. I’m really happy.”
He looked stunned, and glad, and then back to lost.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They said it’ll take three months to learn how to walk again…. I mean, if you had a choice, what would you do?”
That was an easy one. “I’d take the leg. No question.”
“Absolutely. There are so many barriers when you’re in a chair. I mean, they’re everywhere. “
Suddenly I felt near desperate to convey this fact. Though it’s true my life is better in every meaningful way, there is not one single day that goes by that doesn’t present at least one barrier. The obstacles are relentless and their impact on my life is significant.
Of course, in that moment, I could hardly think of a single example.
I stammered something about the shortcomings of the ADA and limited public access. Neither seemed to register on the man’s face. But then I remembered something that had caught me totally off guard when I got home from rehab.
“Your friends’ houses,” I said pointedly.
“Right,” he said dramatically. “You’d need ramps everywhere.”
For the rest of the day after we’d parted, a parade of meaningful examples passed through my mind – the play structure in your daughter’s park; the houses where her friends have birthday parties…. But that one example was going to have to do.
We talked a bit more — about his pain, about the challenge of explaining to his six year-old, of whom he had custody, what was about to happen – and then he and his daughter left while Aidan and I kept looking for books. But the encounter stayed with me for a long time.
What courage it must have taken for him to reach out to me. No wonder he didn’t look up from the books. And what must it be like to know that something so severe, permanent, and altering is about to happen? As shocking as my loss was, I didn’t have to deal with anticipation.
Amazingly, it didn’t occur to me to tell him I help people experiencing profound life changes. That’s one worth questioning, for sure.
But our meeting did really stoke the fire of my passion.
I believe so deeply that these kinds of challenges – the big divorce, the medical dramas, the financial crises – can be the most extraordinary opportunities. No matter what a person believes about the “why,” whether or not they resonate with a sense of “soul purpose” or any other spiritual perspective (or none at all), there is such extraordinary potential in these circumstances, specifically in the situations that bring us to our knees.
And at the end of the day, my heart just aches for anyone without access to that potential. If a person must feel the bitter pain of such events, s/he should also be allowed every last gift it has to offer.
I felt that so powerfully for myself when I was newly injured. If I had to live everyday with the crushing losses, then I better get something REALLY terrific out of the deal. And I did. And I still do.
I don’t know what potential lives at the heart of this man’s amputation; I only know that it’s there, waiting to be discovered; and I want that for him with every bone in my body. I want his loss to be the bearer of great gifts, in the same way paralysis has been for me. In truth, I want that for everyone.
I pray this man has the support he needs to make the journey with grace. And I pledge to keep preaching the Shero’s Way and making myself available. I would love to be a ramp for someone looking for a little access.