January 20, 2013
Images from my time in the rehab center continue to play vividly in my mind. As you read perhaps something of my experience will tug at your sense of the value of life, and challenge you to think as well.
One woman spent a large portion of her time each day sitting stoically in her wheelchair at the busy intersection of the dining room entrance and the hall that led to the therapy room. She appeared withdrawn and disassociated from life around her. Her face was flat and expressionless, her eyes focused inwardly on some far-away place beyond the commotion of communal life that flowed around her.
She had only one leg. The prosthetic limb that she wore extended with stark reality beyond the hems of the skirts in which she habitually dressed, and, with brutal irony, ended in a large-sized Nike athletic shoe attached to her prosthetic foot.
She maintained a fierce wall of isolation that effectively alienated her from the noisy social interaction of the common life. Few fellow residents risked a casual “Good morning,” or a comment on the weather.
My walker met her wheelchair abruptly one morning at the intersection. I had veered left sharply in order to make space for the woman approaching with a cart of clean laundry, and hooked the front right wheel of my walker on the foot support of her wheel chair, the one carrying her prosthetic foot in its Nike athletic shoe.
I was appalled at my awkwardness. “Oh, sorry,” I stammered. “Just a moment and I’ll get us untangled.” I did so, but as I started to move my walker past her I felt a sudden impulse to reiterate my apology, to insure that I had reached through the wall of silence that surrounded her.
I stopped, reached out and touched the arm of her chair, then said directly into her passive face, “Hey, I’m sorry, really sorry. Life is tough enough without being run over on the way to breakfast.” To my surprise, it seemed as though for a moment she smiled, then the moment passed and we moved on.
In the following days I would say, “Hello” each time we met in the hall; sometimes I would reach out to touch the arm of her wheelchair as we passed. Her response became steadily more visible—she did smile—and more audible. The morning that I heard her clearly say “Hello” seemed a time of high achievement for us both.
Anticipating my Thursday discharge, on Monday I was assigned responsibility to dress myself without assistance, and get myself to breakfast using cane only—no more walker. Managing myself and the trip to the dining room took longer than I had anticipated, however.
As I approached the door I could see that most of the regular breakfast people were already seated in their customary places. I stopped for a moment to decide where I would sit. Having chosen a spot, I started across the room using my shiny black cane self-consciously and cautiously.
As I slowly made my way, a soft brief scatter of applause arose from the table where my Nike friend was sitting. When I glanced up, I saw her smile.
I will always believe that it was she who initiated that moment of applause. But it was what she showed me of her inner world rather than the applause that touched my heart.
Thinking with you about the courage it takes to celebrate the ability to walk when you observe it from the vantage point of the wheelchair that is likely to be your life-long companion.
See you next week.