(Canada Writes entry)
It’s a surprisingly comfortable place to sit. I’d eyed it for about fifteen minutes before deciding to make my way over from the hospital bed where I’d been resting. Like the electric chair, this chair is loathed – “I’d rather be dead than in a wheelchair!” But it sat there, benignly, having been left by a nurse who brought it in, a signal that this was my new reality. She’d left us alone together. It is exactly the wheelchair that people imagine; black back and seat, metal arms, footrests that look cold and hard. My father would have called it a contraption. It looked more medieval than medical. But, it also looked like an escape. Perhaps a way out of the room and maybe even the intensive care ward. I envisioned the coffee shop downstairs that I saw when they wheeled me, on a stretcher, up to this room.
I waited eagerly for Joe to come visit. My illness had been hard on him too. It had come on quickly, it was much worse than we thought it was. The pronouncement from the doctor that I might not survive the surgery that was needed to save my life, was a shock. I slept through the surgery. Joe didn’t. He looked tired as he came through the door as he had every day for the previous week. I pointed to the chair and said, “How about I take you for a cup of tea?” In the forty years we’d been together, I never enjoyed taking him out more.
I rang for the nurse, and told her I wanted to use the chair. I was assisted in. I watched to see how the foot petals folded, how the leg rests swung away, where to press to unfold the seat. I didn’t want to be assisted a second time. I sat there and the first thought that crossed my mind? “Death would be worse.”
My first few forays were tentative. There were many skills I needed to learn about manoeuvring myself about. But, after a very short while, I noticed something: It’s a surprisingly comfortable place to sit. As I learned how to use it my range of movement slowly increased. My world got bigger, push by push and roll by roll. It was hard to explain this to people who’d heard about my transition to being a wheelchair user. They talked about me being confined to my wheelchair. I was now ‘wheelchair bound’ and I was spoken of with pity, and often in the past tense.
A phone call had to be made. I was home again. Before I got sick, I’d had a lecture tour booked, four weeks in the United Kingdom. 20 lectures on 20 working days in 18 cities. I’d been lecturing for a long time and doing stints like this, though daunting, were well within my abilities. But I’m sitting down now. I’m only learning how to use the chair. What about the airports? What about the airplanes? What about traveling from city to city, venue to venue, hotel to hotel. The number of times the chair would need to be folded and put in to be taken out again a few miles later would be punishing on Joe. Was that fair to him? These questions swirled around the doctor’s office, he advised, to our shock – go.
Sitting at the base of the ramp, at the door, ready to transfer to the airplane, I had a bout of panic. Once on, once the door closed, I couldn’t turn back. My head echoed with the voices of so many people – “you’re in a wheelchair, you need to accept it and adapt to a new and different life.” I made my way down the aisle to my seat, holding the headrests on either side to keep me upright. I found my seat. I sat down. I watched Joe put our luggage in the overhead bin. Outside the small window I watched for my chair to be loaded to the plane. We took off without me knowing if it would be there waiting for me when we landed.
I got in.
After being on the plane, it was a surprisingly comfortable place to sit.
Every day over the next week, I felt stronger. I was scrupulous with taking my antibiotics. I was rigourous with getting rest. I followed the doctor’s orders as if they had been given by a drill sergeant. And it was working. I was getting better. I knew that “better” still meant that I’d be using the wheelchair. But that didn’t matter – “better” meant stronger, “better” meant simply, more.
Then in Carlyle, I finished work and went back to the hotel. I was vibrating with excitement. We were halfway through the trip and I knew with certainty that I was going to make it all the way through. But more importantly, it was a Friday night and I’d finished my antibiotics. I could drink again. Just across the street from the hotel was a pub. Joe had checked it out the night before and found that it was fully accessible. Just after dark, we headed over for a beer.
It tasted good.
We drank and we laughed. It was the most normal time we’d had since I’d fallen ill. We didn’t talk about the hospital, the operations, the infections or the wheelchair. We talked about the trip, the funny things that had happened, the old elevator in the hotel and the farting noise it made as it hauled us up to our room. But we talked about something else, something that had not been part of our conversation for a very long time. We talked about the future.
Joe hit the washroom before we left the pub, the accessible loo was difficult to get to as the staff had to move beer cases every time I wanted to go. They did it, willingly if not eagerly. The pub was very busy now, I didn’t want to bother them. The hotel was just across the street. I’d wait. We waited on the sidewalk for the signal to change and then we started across. Joe pushing, me assisting. In seconds bumping over the cobblestones increased the need to pee to almost unbearable proportions.
I started to laugh. Loudly. Drunkenly. I screamed, “I gatta pee!” and the two of us rushed the hotel, struggled through the doors and we howled at every burp and fart the elevator made as it made it tortuously slow accent. Moments later, in the room, relieved and back in the chair. We simply laughed.
For the first time, but not the last, I patted my chair as I transferred from it to my bed. A relationship had begun. What had been new was now normal. That moment changed my life.
Back home in Toronto, pushing myself towards the luggage carousel, a successful trip behind me, a strong chair below me, a good man beside me and my future in front of me – life was OK. And it was going to be OK.
Only recently someone accidentally said to me, about a friend who had broken a leg and was using a wheelchair, “I don’t know how he does it, I’d rather be dead than in a wheelchair.” Then she looked at me, “Oh, my God, I forgot.”
I pointed at my chair and said, “This is better. Trust me, much better. And, you’ll be surprised, it’s a surprisingly comfortable place to sit.”