Deb and I have a habit of watching the evening news. It’s a way for us to reconnect after long days spent in separate spaces and realms. Recently, the story that captured my imagination was one focused on the town of Clintonville, WI. Seems the residents of that small town were awakened several nights in a row by what they described as loud “booms,” some of which shook their houses and all of which made them pretty damn nervous—as they would any of us, I am sure. The national news on the network I watch “covered” the story twice during the week, once in a short “person on the street” segment featuring folks describing the way their houses or the ground beneath them shook and wondering aloud what might explain the phenomenon. The second story was more explanatory than descriptive: Diane Sawyer told her rapt audience (okay, so maybe I was the only person in her audience who was actually rapt) that Clintonville had fallen victim to an earthquake that measured 1.5 on the Richter scale. In the online version of USA Today one seismologist described what happened in Clintonville as a “swarm of microquakes” (earthquakes measuring less than 2.0 on the Richter scale).
That phrase – “swarm of microquakes” – captured my imagination, for it seems to me the perfect phrase to describe the way so many of our lives play out. Every time I am confronted by the surprising ways people read my wheelchair I feel like I have experienced my own little microquake, a kind of boom that’s so fleeting and so surreal that I need confirmation from someone else that it actually happened. Let me offer some examples.
One day Shovanna (the woman who stays with me during the day and I went out to lunch. Even though we’ve learned to choose chain restaurants because of their handicap accessibility, eating out is a rather fraught experience for me. I can no longer use a knife to cut my own food and it’s difficult for me to use public restrooms by myself because bathroom doors are impossibly heavy and nearly unmanageable for a person in a chair whose arms are as weak as her legs. The result is that I feel needy and visible when I’m in public situations that involve eating. On the day I am describing, I was seated facing a woman of about my age who seemed particularly cognizant when I passed my plate to my partner and asked her to cut my vegetables. This stranger looked at me with what I interpreted as sympathy and shook her head ever so slightly. When I picked up the salt and pepper shakers and realized that they both had those twist tops that have become so popular but are impossible for me to use I again passed my plate to my partner and asked for her assistance. This stranger in my line of vision looked at me sympathetically and shook her head. I tried to avert my gaze and focus on my meal, but I kept wondering what that woman was thinking. Finally, as she passed me on her way out of the restaurant she touched my shoulder and said, “Bless you.” To her mind, my need for assistance was equivalent to need for sympathy.
Not long ago, I was in the grocery store. It was the middle of the day, so things were pretty quiet. As I drove my chair into the produce section I had the rare presence of mind to remember the one item I had actually intended to purchase—bananas. I noticed, though, that the bananas all looked a bit overripe and I found myself staring, not quite sure whether to buy or not. (I’ve discovered that one benefit of being retired is that I have time to ponder these deep and consequential questions.) In an attempt to snap myself out of my reverie, I said aloud to a woman standing next to me, “The bananas are a little brown today.” With a look that I interpreted as surprise, she snapped her head in my direction and exclaimed, “I thought you were deaf!” I asked what would make her think I was deaf and she motioned toward my chair. To her mind, I reside in an incomprehensible world where the long reach from a wheelchair to the produce counter is equivalent to the use of ASL. One evening my partner and I went to a concert. During the intermission a woman who has been acquainted with my partner and me for years approached us for what I thought was going to be a three-way conversation. What transpired instead was a conversation over my head – literally over my head. No matter how many times my partner attempted to include me in the conversation and no matter how many times I attempted to interject myself our acquaintance never looked down at me. She simply chattered on as if I were not there. To her mind, the fact that it’s considered impolite to stare at people in wheelchairs, means that it’s impolite to acknowledge us. In the days before my left hand completely gave up the ghost I loved to engage in those crafty pastimes that result in countless unused scarves, bags, and hats. One day as I waited in line at a craft store a woman leaned forward, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear, “I am so glad to see that you still have the courage to be out by yourself.” To her mind, people in wheelchairs would be complete recluses without the encouragement of their able-bodied peers.
Clearly, this post arises from a crotchetiness to which I am perhaps not entitled. What’s more, I really have no idea what was on the minds of the people whose stories I have appropriated. After all, I have been known (perhaps even more than once) to put my foot squarely in my own mouth at just the moment when I am trying to reach out, to make connection. Nonetheless, like the people from Clintonville who seemed enthusiastic about relating to news crews their experiences with the swarm of microquakes, I find myself as grateful for a repository of stories as I am disconcerted by the blows to my sense of self.