There are moments in time where we go from being one thing to something completely else. A demarcation in identity so to speak — the day we’re spit of out the university, diploma in hand; the moment we become parents; the moment we lose our own parents — an instance where one’s self-identity changes irrevocably.
I call mine my “re-birthday.” In one instant I was just like you, in the next I was a person with a disability and the way the world interacted with me was forever changed. That fateful night my heart stopped beating for a time and was restarted. Hence, I was “reborn” in a very literal sense.
Six years ago today I was shot in the back in a still-unsolved random attack. I learned I’m not afraid of death per se but dying hurts like hell. Especially when you’re slowing drowning in your own blood. Dying and being resuscitated is a long road of pain; physical and emotional. I was paralyzed by a spinal cord injury that night and became a full-time wheel chair user.
The anniversary date of my injury is a time of deep reflection on who I was, who I am and who I still want to be. I’ve accomplished much in the intervening years but there’s much more to do. I’ve gotten back to work in a brand new venture that gives me purpose and pays my bills. I’ve found athletic outlets and completed a few half marathons. I live independently in my own home where I love to cook and entertain.
I’ve gained some insights about life in a wheelchair that they didn’t tell me about in rehab. Here is a small glimpse into my world as a free-range wheeler
- Harry Potter’s got nothing on me. He has that cloak, sure, but my wheelchair imbues me with the power of invisibility – in elevators, at restaurants, in all manner of public spaces. No small talk in elevators and I rarely have to interact with wait staff in restaurants as they only see my dining companions. I can zip up and down the mall completely unseen. This spares me the attack of the kiosk people who jump out to braid your hair or thread your eyebrows or upgrade your cell plan. I do not get spritzed with perfume or splooged with lotion by random cosmetic counter workers.
- People in wheelchairs cannot hear or process language. People often talk really loud and really slow for my benefit or use baby talk. This also works with people who do not speak your language. When volume and impeccable enunciation don’t work, you can pantomime.
- People in wheel chairs are good luck charms and make GREAT mascots. I was completely unprepared for this phenomenon. People pet me; usually on the head. At 5’12” pre-injury, very few people could reach the top of my head, now I’m getting a shiny spot on the very top like one of those brass sculptures rubbed for luck at the museum. Nothing warms my cockles like being touched by random strangers.
- Everything I do is AWESOME! Because few people understand that wheelers live ordinary lives like everyone else, all I have to do is show up to be an inspiration. Standard conversation at cocktail parties: “Wow! You drive? Incredible! I’m so proud to know you!” Whether it’s working, driving, participating in sports, my community or my family, I am inspirational. Laundry day and cleaning the bathroom takes on whole new reverent meaning that way. It kinda negates the real things I do that might garner an “attagirl.” Stay tuned and I promise to dissuade you of the notion that I am more specialer than the average bear.
- I am a magnet for charity. When I sit too long in one place, people give me their spare change. Honest. It’s happened more than once. Apparently wheelers and panhandlers are indistinguishable. It’s incentive to make sure that I comb my hair before I go out and always wear matching socks. I used to be insulted by the implication. Now I have a kid in college and I need every dime.
Shortly after my injury, I spent time with an old friend who tearfully confessed they no longer knew how to interact with me. Over beers, I explained that I am still exactly the same person I was before my injury; equal parts of magnificence and snark with a proper sprinkling of downright annoy-ability to round me out; I just do things a little differently. I made that person pick up the tab just to illustrate the point.
And, I reminded them, I am the perfect Thanksgiving guest. I always bring a chair.