Sometimes you have to walk in another man’s shoes to understand what his blisters feel like.
A week in a wheelchair was that walk for me. It literally brought me to my knees.
“Completely non-weight-bearing for six weeks,” he said, and I laughed. “How is that even possible? I teach yoga.” Being completely non-weight-bearing liberated me from the agony of walking on two broken tibial plateaus, which I had been doing for a week.
It came at a price, however, since that was my autonomy. I would be sidelined for six weeks, which is a relatively short sentence compared to most confined to a wheelchair. It is often a life sentence. My time served would feel less harsh knowing I would walk away.
“Completely non-weight-bearing” played over in my head as if on a loop. In total disbelief, I asked my doctor, “How in the world I would accomplish that?” He gave it to me straight. “There is the perfect world, and there is the real world. In the perfect world, you would sit in a wheelchair for the next six weeks, but you live in the real world. So you’re just going to do the best you can and make it work.”
My world was feeling far from perfect. It didn’t even feel perfectly imperfect. Every single moment I spent being wheeled around, I became painfully aware of what it would be like to spend my entire life being pushed around by others, literally.
I was equally grateful for a short-term experience and burdened, knowing that many did not have my good fortune. I was at the receiving end of whatever anyone else could offer, and so my own free will became secondary to convenience.
I could feel myself letting it go because it was just getting in the way. I wasn’t entirely comfortable wheeling myself in the beginning, so I was a dependent as they say in the tax world.
Alan and I arrived home on the red-eye Sunday morning from our eight-day family trip to San Francisco, where both of my children would be living. The purpose was to deliver my daughter Eliza to her summer internship and to peek in on Dylan’s life as a post college hot shot.
The trip had been on our calendar for months in permanent ink, far in advance of this completely unexpected injury. If I stayed home, I would require someone to assist me with the simplest tasks from feeding myself to using the bathroom.
Day one of non-weight-bearing is a rude awakening, and I could not do it alone. In addition, if I stayed home, I would miss a family trip I’d been counting down the days to take. Less than 24 hours before we were to take off, I made the conscious choice to travel, knowing it would not be ideal, but rather quite the ordeal.
At the very least, I’d be in good company. If you think God doesn’t have a sense of humor, ask her why we were flying to a city where the hills take your breath away, literally. Navigating that city on crutches became intolerable on day one, so I went online and rented a wheelchair.
To the countless people who looked away as Alan pushed me through a crowd, I believe it might have made you uncomfortable to think about why I was in that chair and what put me there—with my straight legs hanging off of the foot rests.
I could not bend my legs, so they just hung like two pencils, which made my bottom slide off the seat and forced me to slouch. A large part of me felt helpless, but the other part of me felt grateful to have a husband who, after a really rough start, stepped up on his own two totally functioning feet and took care of me—for better or worse.
I challenge every able bodied person to dispense a dose of kindness to anyone sitting in a wheelchair. That’s a tall order. Most people offer a glance of sympathy, which requires you to look down on them, to feel sorry for them. Empathy allows you to come to their level so that you can look into their eyes and tell them you see their courage.
Let’s forget for a moment that they have had to adjust to a life in a chair and may require assistance to be clean and healthy. Dignity may be optional. Pragmatism takes priority. Remember that before they got the chair, they faced a traumatic injury. Many times this involves family fallout and staggering loss of life conditions they considered normal. Not everyone is equipped to handle a huge life change, and sadly, the person dealing with the consequences in their own body often picks up the slack for others.
It is easy to feel invisible when you aren’t standing with others—to feel isolated or disconnected. To the little kids who stared and looked afraid, it’s only a chair. It’s okay not to understand what happened, to be afraid, and say hi. Parents, what a gift it would be to teach this to your little ones. And to the people who ran to hold a door, or waved at me in the crosswalk, or asked how I managed to pull off such an injury, you will never know how your kindness was a lifeboat during a time when I felt like I was being swallowed up whole by a crashing wave, or worse yet, drowning.
If you have never had to depend completely on others to go to the restroom, get dressed, or function day to day, it is an extraordinary surrender of what makes most of us feel whole. I would have to ask someone to take me to the bathroom in the middle of a meal, rather than just slip away from the table.
The view from a wheelchair is not eye level. It can feel as if the whole world is looking down at you and sadly, on you, because they actually are. Conversations take place around you as you sit, and they don’t even realize you are down there. You are several feet below the sound of voices that can be recognized.
Alan would point things out to me that I couldn’t see. I would say something and my voice would project forward, not upward, and certainly not next to him, so he couldn’t hear me. When he wheeled me into my favorite bakery, I couldn’t see the baked goods on the shelves. I couldn’t walk into many of my “go-to” stores because they were so jam-packed with all the things I love that we couldn’t find a path, so I would sit outside and look in the window.
Window-shopping was often our best and only option, which made Alan’s wallet quite happy. It made me feel like I was peeking in on a glimpse of life from the outside. I was surprised by how many stores weren’t handicap accessible. So many of our favorite activities were off-limits because they just weren’t wheelchair friendly—too crowded, stairs, narrow walkways.
I had no idea how unfriendly the world is for those confined to a wheelchair, but then again, how would I? I am now in awe of those who manage to walk tall from a wheelchair. I humbly bow to them, which brings me to eye level with them.
On the flip side, the Hotel Drisco in Pacific Heights was the most perfect handicapped home away from home. There was a luggage lift beside the front stairs. Alan would wheel me into the freight elevator and up I’d go. They offered us the room right beside the front desk and every staff member fell over him or herself to offer support and levity. They were lighthearted and empathetic.
Imagine having to do your homework on special accommodations whenever you travelled. Is there a handicap bathroom? How will you access the main entrance? Is there a ramp? Do they offer wheelchairs or do you need to bring one? Can someone carry you if stairs are the only option?
The reality is that no matter how much people love you, you become their job. The act of getting from the parking spot to the hotel room took us four stops. Alan didn’t have a playmate on this trip, and while we found our stride, it took some time. He was in charge of parking me in a spot somewhere, and then finding a parking spot. He had to help me in and out of the chair, check us in on flights, wheel me partially into the women’s room so I could go to the bathroom and take care of every teeny tiny or great big detail as I sat wishing I could do any or all of them for myself.
Our marriage has thrived for 30 years because we know our roles. I am strong and independent and will be again soon. This experience has shaken me. I am the one who makes things happen. I ask for the manager and Alan steps back while I “manage.” But when he was at the counter at JetBlue, I was in a parked sea of wheelchairs. They wheel you over and lock you down, sometimes like you’re a piece of luggage. It wasn’t even an option for me to handle our check-in process.
The path of least resistance was to sit back and let him handle it, which he did. This doesn’t qualify as a big deal, but it was a completely different deal. I realize that if my time in a wheelchair was a life sentence, I would have to make peace with it somehow.
There were silver linings. I didn’t have to make decisions for a week and there was something easy about that. I chose to say hello to people and share a smile in hopes it would disarm them. I was a person in a chair. I did notice however that the more I felt I needed to be taken care of, the less playful I felt. The more I felt I was a burden, the more of a burden I became.
All of the roles in our relationship temporarily shifted. It felt nearly impossible for there not to be a “disconnect” from the connection we normally share with such ease. I leaned on my children who were rock-solid for me. We laughed and I cried when I needed to. They listened when I needed to vent. My son even took me for a joy ride down a big hill. I knew he had me, so it was absolutely delightful. We yelled “weeeeeee” on the way down, and I belly-laughed as he huffed and puffed his way back up the hill.
We managed to enjoy San Francisco. It’s a fabulous city. We created day trips that allowed us to enjoy the gorgeous weather and made the most of our time, but it required effort every step of the way. We asked questions that we never asked before. Is that venue too hilly? Is it mostly outdoors on grass? Is there a paved path there?
But we asked, answered, and executed a game plan each day that worked. We saw old friends and made new ones. Alan pushed me around a city that is famous for its hills, and I had to dig deep to find a new spirit of adventure. We ate, drank, and were merry, in spite of obvious limitations. But throughout, we each felt the heavy burden of our journey; his was more physical, mine more emotional. I am not accustomed to spending 24/7 in a state of surrender, but it taught me a few things I needed to learn.
I share this with candor because it is my truth. This injury has challenged me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It has made me feel vulnerable and raw. I have been teaching yoga propped up on a chair like a stuffed animal, and it has made me a stronger teacher. When the only tool in your toolbox is your words, you get skilled at choosing the perfect ones to convey your ideas.
My hope is that the next time you see someone in a wheelchair, you make a concerted effort to share a kind word or a warm smile, in the same way you would for someone standing next to you. Sympathy tastes like poison, even if you mean it to be sweet. One simple interaction can melt away the darkest thoughts and switch the course of an entire day for someone.
Acknowledging someone makes them feel seen.
Looking away makes them feel like a monster. You may not even realize you are doing it, so pay attention. I hope you will try to connect with that person and know how enormous the impact of a simple gesture will be.
I don’t know anyone who aspires to be in a wheelchair. It is usually the result of something tragic or difficult. I have to assume that, at some point, in some way, people who spend their lives in a chair come to terms with it. Let me say that again. I imagine (and I have no idea how) that people who spend their lives come to terms with their destiny, but that doesn’t make living in it any easier. I now recognize them as truly heroic.
I have graduated from a wheelchair to crutches. I’m not sure it’s an actual upgrade. Crutches hurt, they’re awkward, and they suck. I wrapped them in faux shearling, and they still hurt me. All of my side body aches, and my underarms feel broken.
I am still supposed to be non-weight-bearing but think for a moment about how that would happen. While the wheelchair was less challenging physically, the crutches help me to stand tall again. I am head to head with my family again. Crutches don’t create the same fear in people that wheelchairs do, so people are much more apt to ask how I injured myself. Perhaps the better word is upright.
Take a moment to be grateful for being able to stand up on your own two feet and be thankful that you can function independently. Make your difference in a way that feels authentic.
Recognize the courage of another and join me in a campaign of compassion. I hope by sharing my story I have opened a window that sheds some light on a subject that needs more…more…more.
That was my intention in sharing and the hope that you react differently the next time you see someone in a wheelchair.
Make them feel tall.