It’s been five weeks since I fell and a crafty surgeon implanted a titanium plate and six screws into my ankle to hold it together. The incident happened on the first day of my vacation visiting relatives in California. Not being in my home has been a huge discomfort, but the shocking, pain-riddled event coupled with my dire daily needs has forced a previously hidden landscape into my view–one that can only be seen by living in a wheelchair.
The following thoughts are some of my observations and lessons learned about this experience of living in a wheelchair. Especially this: I will never look at people in wheelchairs the same, nor will I forget the sights, sounds, impressions, or smells from the perspective of being in a wheelchair.
For one, the smells from the ground are closer to my nose, and in downtown Los Angeles this is no small problem. Thousands of homeless live in the crevices and underpasses of this urban downtown, and with the economic crunch taking big chunks out of the city’s budget, public toilets are most likely last on the mayor’s to-do list. Most homeless are camped out on the ground, so I get an eye level view of their pitiful state.
Things could be worse. At least I have a roof over my head.
Cupboards, closets, bookcases—especially the top shelves—are all out of reach, and since this wheelchair business was sudden and unexpected, I don’t have gadgets like Billy May’s Grabber. Frustrating to need the filter for the coffee pot or ice pack or pill bottle, just a couple more inches…
Plan ahead. For example: if I’m washing my hair, I need to grab the shampoo AND the towel before heading to the sink to avoid dripping water all over myself and the wheelchair and the floor…and stairs are my sworn enemy. All forays into the outside world must include ramps and handicapped bathrooms. Thanks Teddy!
Watch out for corners. If corner protectors are not applied, the paint will get chipped: guaranteed. It’s not so much a matter of aim, but knowing which way my wheels are pointed at all times, and in some tight turnarounds, the wheels are not pointing the way I’m going and voilá—wheels crash into a corner. Also, judging the distance of a narrow hallway is tricky in the rush of a 3am run to the loo.
And why am I invisible? If only that were true in its entirety, I could have a lot of fun, like Harry Potter does with his invisible blanket. But it’s not so much that my ensemble of body and rolling chair are invisible, it’s just that people don’t look me in the eye right away, like I’m used to. They look at the person I’m with first and then look around me when I speak.
Maybe it has something to do with not wanting to acknowledge a person with an injury because of an irrational fear that by gazing into the eyes of this injured person (me) in a wheelchair, somehow bad luck may jump into them? Could it be people are embarrassed? For me, or for themselves for having to look at me? I haven’t a clue. All I know is that I have to speak several times before I’m noticed.
I try not to focus on the reason for being in a wheelchair. At first, I drove myself crazy going over the “incident” in my head. If only I’d paid more attention, if only I’d walked another way, if only I’d worn different shoes, if only that step hadn’t been there, if only la la la la la. I can only imagine the ongoing misery of reliving an event that has permanent repercussions, such as the millions dealing with the loss of limb or worse.
Little things can brighten my mood, like my daughter bringing me a pinkberry and another daughter grabbing that towel I forgot and helping me rinse the soap out of my hair and cooking vegetables, and everyone (family and friends) making sure I have the right stuff to heal: food, homeopath, surgeon, acupuncturist, and currently at the top of the list: PAIN PILLS.
Sometimes the view from a wheelchair reveals the sweet mystery of epiphanic moments. Like the epic relief of an ocean breeze on my cheek after being cooped up in an airless room—thankful for my husband pushing me along the beach walkway—a gift from him because I know he’s tired from fighting L.A. traffic.
And the pigeons…who help me connect with the animal world I miss (specifically my two dogs, my ancient cat, and the wild birds I feed at home). Pigeons somehow found my little chips thrown out into an urban jumble lined with barbwire, concrete, and steel. As any urban sojourner knows, pigeons can survive anywhere on scrappy food and sheer will; this thought keeps me going when I can’t reach the instant Pad Thai food box.
Through it all, I am reminded of Plato’s Cave. Not so much for the idea of keeping an open mind, but for how different my view of the world is from that of a walking person and how futile these few words may be in describing that endeavor, especially to people who have never had the empathetic opportunity of experiencing the view from a wheelchair.
At least my toes look pretty–hey ho.