She and her husband seemed to always have been poor. But they managed on what they had to live within their means and without missing much. I remember many times at their home, one of the few places of rest that I had as a boy. When her husband died, Evelyn, mourned him without reservation but also without devastation. It was just one more thing she no longer had. She adapted, coped and then picked up her walker and moved on.
I noticed her wedding ring only because my mother once cruelly joked about the 'bit of glass' on her finger. When I saw it I suddenly felt sorry for her, for them. It was clearly a ring of no value. A chunk of dull glass was held in place on a ring that was not gold. Once I saw her looking at her ring and I knew she was remembering him. I asked her to tell me about the day he proposed. I love those kind of stories. She smiled at me and said that she'd rather tell me about the ring.
When her husband proposed to her he gave her a ring that sparkled with vibrant fire. She knew it wasn't real, he didn't pretend. It was glass painted to sparkle. He promised her that one day he would buy her a real ring with a real stone. Over the years the sparkle wore off the ring but she loved it nonetheless. When his mother died she left him a tiny sum of money. He told her that he wanted to use the money on something frivilous, he wanted to replace the ring.
She told him that she didn't want another ring. That this ring, the one he gave her, made her think of their marriage. After the shine wore of it became real, what it was underneath. She didn't want something else, something new. She wanted to keep what was real. And so she did.
For some reason her story made me cry. In my world there was no such love, no such tenderness. She got up and stood, using her walker for balance. She shuffled over to me and sat beside me on the couch. "I want to give you some advice," she said, "hold on to what is real. Always face what's real. Don't pretend. Don't flinch. Don't look away. Face what real and you will always be ok."
Her advice has stayed with me throughout my life. I know what's real. I try not to live in the world other than it is. I remember her on her walker, slowing shuffling through a life without her husband, without many things, but being uncompromising with who she was and what she saw.
The day we moved from town, I went to say goodbye to her. I thanked her for caring for me, occasionally even loving me, and again, I cried. She hugged me and said, "You're real. Remember that no matter what ever anyone ever says about you, no matter where ever you go. You're real."
Today, I thought about her, I have just written a little note to a woman who is getting married. I wanted to tell her about Evelyn's ring. But Evelyn is much more to me that the story of her ring. She would become in my mind the model for what it was to have a disability. To exist and be 'real' in a world that would avert it's eyes from her, would pretend her non-existance and insist on her non-importance.
She was real. Her walker was real. Her heart was real.
Her advice to me would get me through much of my life, and give me a compass to lead me our of personal hell and help me navigate a world of prejudice. No matter how or why people tried to diminish me, I always knew that I was real, that I existed beyond their idea of who I was and who I could be.
Every day reality changes. One day I walked, now I roll. My wheelchair is real. But I am no less real because I sit in it.
When Evelyn died I went to her funeral. I was a stranger to the small group that gathered there. I was surprised when listening to her eulogy that she had attended university and was one of the first women in the province to be granted a degree, in philosophy. I was surprised to learn that she had been disabled for her whole life and that her husband had met and married her against huge opposition from his family. I was surprised to see a young woman wearing Evelyn's ring.
I talked with her after the cerimony and discovered that she was Evelyn's neice. I asked about the ring.
She said, "Do you know the story about this ring?" I told her that I did.
"I've kept it to remind myself about what is real." She said.
I told her I understood.
And I still do.