“You seem extremely adept at handling that wheelchair,” a stranger remarks from the train platform in Grand Rapids.
“Thank you,” I say.
It's a crisp winter night. My husband and I have been traveling all day. I'm tired, inarticulate — not my usual public self. The stranger, a woman slightly older than me, is sitting in a shiny red lightweight wheelchair grasping a walker. Her husband, luggage in hand, heads to their SUV.
“I have Parkinson's. I just graduated from a walker to a wheelchair. Do you have any tips?” she asks.
Surprised by her question; I almost snicker. How do I summarize four decades of experience? What information does she want from me that she can't get online? Does she genuinely believe in “universal tips” though wheelchairs and their users are unique? I wonder.
I've just read "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging" by Sebastian Junger. He explores our biological need to belong to and sacrifice for the sake of our social groups. Tonight, whether I like it or not, it's my task to continue to initiate the stranger into our sisterhood. Forty-one years ago, on a different day, I was her.
“Perception is key. I'm freed by my wheelchair. It's a tool, not something negative. My tips aren't about the actual wheelchair, ” I reply.
“Oh, I've got the mental perspective handled,” she says quickly.
I offer the stranger a soft smile. She's staring at me, searching my face for “The Top 10 Practical Things You Need To Know About Using A Wheelchair.”
“Well, don't ever, ever, forget to lock your wheelchair brakes,” I say.
Then we both laugh.
Since then, I've often thought of the stranger. Like the parents of a graduating high school senior, I fought the urge to share everything I know with her. Such as:
It's not only important to know how to ask for physical help, but who to ask. Assistance from someone who listens and takes direction is far more valuable than brute strength. Also, asking for help can demonstrate a need others probably have, too. To not ask prohibits change.
Similar to a bank account, spend physical and mental energy wisely. Don't waste energy needlessly proving anything to anyone else. Having to anticipate everything, from knowing where snow has been removed to which restrooms are accessible, can be exhausting. And knowing how to anticipate is a tremendously helpful skill that can translate into other areas of one's life.
Comparing one's current life to one's former life, one's health to someone else's or saying aloud, “It can't get any worse than this,” is a trap with no way out. Sadly, it can get worse. It can also get better. Learn what can be controlled and what can't.
There is no one voice, no disability guru. I'm always open to new teachers. Recently, I found Kelly Davio's column "The Waiting Room” at changesevenmag.com. Like the woman I met in Grand Rapids, Kelly's disability has changed over time. She's continually adjusting. My disability has been static. Additionally, I'm on the lookout for wisdom from those who like me are aging well with a longtime disability.
Perhaps surprising to some, I don't always see myself as adept. Like most of us, I'm learning and practicing everyday.
Susan Odgers is a 30-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 41 years. She is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. Contact her at email@example.com
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Back to News