What’s YOUR chair?
THERE WAS A SUBTLE KNOCK ON MY DOOR. It was supposed to be a routine Saturday morning, so that random tapping set off alarms in my ever-anxious and growing teenage cerebrum. But this was no typical Saturday nor setting.
“Want to go to the mall?” asked Adam, both breathy and nonchalant, through the newly ajar door. Adam was almost twenty, and that fact alone made him an attractive target for my barely ready-for-the-world sixteen-year-old self. How he clearly didn’t care about anyone or anything else was also a significant draw. Not to mention the fact that he was constantly pushing boundaries further and further than he was supposed to. Especially in a place like this.
“What? Now? I don’t think we’re allowed to go anywhere.” The words glided off of my tongue through the stark-white room that matched my stark-white existence. My mind had already decided that I was going to go.
“It’s Saturday. You know nothing ever happens here on Saturdays,” Adam said. “No one will even know that we are gone. We’ll be back before your parents come, for sure.”
Adam was right. Nothing ever happened on Saturdays. Even though there was an urgency to wake us up at six a.m. and get us showered, dressed, and “appropriate” for the day. Nothing else was going to happen.
During the week, they inundated us with appointments and learn-to-be-a-wheelchair-person classes (or perhaps that’s just what I called them?) and doctors alike that kept time moving in its obvious forward fashion. However, the weekends were quite different. There were no doctors, no appointments, and nothing to distract me from the fact that I was living in a hospital.
Although well-thought-out in nature, my apartment-like hospital room was nothing more than that—a patient room with a mini-fridge and a pullout couch that was never comfortable enough for anyone to sleep on. A fancy lampshade that reminded me of some sort of Oz character, bold yet begging for any visitor not to see the truth behind the curtain. What is that common saying? Something about a curtain or cloak over your eyes? I imagine that it is meant as a reference to hide the truth and somehow soften the reality of the person behind those eyes. That saying is what I think of when I look at the lampshade.
I had made this room my home for about a week or so, but I could say with complete confidence that it was an enormous upgrade from my previous hospital digs. They had promoted me to what the staff referred to as the “East Side” because my body was healing enough to reveal some sort of light at the end of a long and underground tunnel that any claustrophobic person would absolutely refuse to drive through.
The “West Side” was the side of the hospital that you lived in when you first got there. You were hooked up to machines like a puppet that had completely lost its way. Over there, you shared a room with another patient that you shamefully hoped was worse off than you and had little family to bother you. Okay, you don’t really wish anyone was worse off, but it’s so hard not to compare your injuries and malfunctions with those so closely confined with you. There was a standard blue-colored worn, cotton curtain that attempted to divide your life from that of the person laying two feet away from you. It rarely worked at all.
Lucky for me, my lungs had healed, and I was gaining more strength, so I had found my way to the more sophisticated and progressive portion of the hospital. Sophisticated because there were actually things, like the lampshade, to make it feel like home. Home, really? They were still waking me up at six a.m. on a Saturday morning to help me get ready for my day of—what?
But now was my chance. Adam had asked me to get out of there, and I was going to accept his request, just not too enthusiastically. I didn’t want him to think that I was a dork or anything. But before I had the chance to even overthink it, we were out the door.
My room was next to the elevator, across the floor from the nurse’s station. Hearing the nurses gabbing in the distance, I knew we were safe to board. As the elevator door drew its ever-delayed close, I thought of all of those things one shouldn’t be thinking when trying to be daring. What were we going to do when we got outside? How were we going to get to the mall? Should I tell Adam that I’ve never been able to push up that hill next to the hospital in class yet? Were people at the mall going to stare at us?
People at the mall were going to stare at us.
Having only been promoted to the East Side a week ago, I still toted a rather conspicuous back brace made of thick, almost-fluorescent white plastic. In many attempts to hide the back brace, I had camouflaged my brace with stickers sent from friends and family who knew my desire to be more fashionable with my hardware. I hoped everyone thought that I wanted the stickers to make the brace friendlier and more eye-catching. But in reality, I wanted the exact opposite. I wanted the iconic Mickey, and Goofy, and Garfield & Friends to distract onlookers from what stood behind—a girl with a broken back and a body that no longer responded to her conscious will.
This same back brace, years later, would find its way to many apartments and mortgaged homes of mine, seeking solace amongst piles in garages and storage spaces. Looking back, I will never quite understand why I would hang on to it for all those years.
However, it did do its job. It held my spine in place when I sat. They instructed me to wear the brace at all times when I wasn’t in bed. The thick plastic was less than forgiving and left blanching marks in front of my armpits and sweat stains. The brace was a precise mold of my torso, constructed for me a few months prior, a time when I was barely breathing and lacking life. Sometimes referred to as a tortoiseshell, the brace was created in two parts—the front half and the back half, which could be completely secured by three hinges of thick, white Velcro.
As the months wore on and I spent less and less time getting to be a typical teenager, the Velcro needed to be tightened more and more. My tortoiseshell became bigger and bigger, and equally less useful. Yet that tortoiseshell remained a great hiding place for my broken body. Every tortoise can relate, I’m sure.
But I am not really a tortoise. Not only was this back brace a complete eyesore for venues like the mall, it was also hard to navigate in. I had learned in class just the last week that in order to really maneuver a wheelchair in intended solid and forward motion, one would have to simultaneously grasp each wheel from as far behind as your arms could reach. Then you would have to lean forward to allow your arms to continue around the circumference of your wheel. The goal was to take your hands around as much of the wheel as you could in order to keep you from expending too much energy, taking little pushes, and of course, looking like a flailing idiot.
This was definitely a different life. Being sixteen, I was extremely keen as to what would or would not make me look like an idiot.
When you are a kid, it’s fairly simple. You watch what every- one else is doing, and you think you only have two choices. Either you 1) do it because it’s cool or 2) don’t do it because it’s not cool. Or at least that’s what everyone else made it look like.
It would take some fumbles and years later for me to realize that there are far more than two choices, and that being cool isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Little did I know, I was learning so much about how self-confidence and a true sense of self is really the key to being “cool” right then and there. My insecurities and vulnerabilities were electric. But deep down, I was learning how to be the real kind of cool for myself.
But right then, at that moment, sitting there in that quintessential borrowed blueish wheelchair that my physical therapist says fits me very well, I wonder and question its “cool factor.” Come on. I was sixteen, after all, living an existence that I neither wanted nor chose. And these things mattered more than my PT knew.
From where I sat, I couldn’t be sure about much. Look around you, for the most part, and your friends will help you decide what is cool or not—chances are, without even saying a word. But, right then, I had very little to compare to, seeing as all of my friends didn’t have even an ounce of understanding for this. From where I sat, it was pretty lonely.
Looking over at Adam in the elevator, it was obvious that he was cool. He exuded cool from his freckly pores. The fact that he was a pasty redhead didn’t even deter his coolness—which means that he is actually extremely cool. He was about to be discharged from the hospital, and because of that had already purchased and was currently sitting in his own wheelchair. It was cool. He and his physical therapist had chosen a fairly high-tech, sleek model chair that allowed Adam to be nearly as free as he had been before his own accident. And it was white. White and shiny and bold, if you ask me. Being an avid skateboarder and snowboarder in his other, non-wheeling life, his new chair was almost like a fun ride to him. Within a matter of weeks, Adam had learned to jump curbs, and hop on one wheel, and turn wheelies like he was involved in an interpretive dance competition for transportation vehicles. He was extremely coordinated, but he was also gaining a lot of function back. I was extremely uncoordinated and extremely jealous.
We weren’t the only two teenagers in the hospital at that time. In fact, many staff members whispered often about the fact that the hospital was nearly being overrun by teens. There was Heather, the cheerleader that fell from the top of the pyramid. Ashley, my old immature roommate who, with a similar accident story to mine, seemed to co-mingle much better with my thirteen-year-old sister. And then there was Greg. Greg dove the wrong way off of a cliff in Maui but refused to talk about it to anyone.
One thing for certain, I kept tabs on all of their progress, and it felt as though I was losing a race that I never signed up for. Each of these supposed companions of mine were making progress, exceeding my own. Heather was walking, Ashley and Greg were kicking their legs, and as for Adam, he had stood up in the pool. What about me? When was it going to be my turn?
The elevator made one final, definitive ding to let us know we were where we were supposed to be, or more precisely, exactly where we weren’t supposed to be. We had made it to the first-floor exit with no staff in sight to stop us. This escape could have had more of a dramatic flair for Adam, I suspect. I imagine he fantasized about outrunning Judy, the overweight and under-exercised head nurse, as we pushed toward the doors of our freedom. However, that wasn’t the case. In fact, the detection of the automatic motion sensors courteously held the door for us as we took our last final push to the outside world.
We were free.
The sun was shining in a brilliant reminder that I was still alive. It was now the middle of spring, and for the first time in my life, I took a real moment. I took my own moment to breathe in the infant blossoms. The fresh dew that had a scent all its own in combination with the soil and grasses of the strategically planned courtyard in front of the hospital. For the first time, I realized how much time I had lost being inside the hospital. The last time I could remember being outside unsupervised, it was winter, and its icy chill was something that in the past I had hid from. Now I just wanted to be reintroduced, like an old lover trying to make sure that I was making the right decision to move on. The sun warmed my face and forearms in a manner that nearly brought tears to my eyes. I had never felt this way before. It was like being alive for the first time. Everything was moving slowly and with great purpose. And all for me to experience.
I was trying to not to get caught up in the moment of acknowledging that no sixteen-year-old should feel this way about anything. Or should they? I shook it off and followed Adam down the cemented path. Thank goodness, I had been down this sidewalk before in class and knew where to watch for bumps, and humps, and cracks. Those deformities in my walkway could make me regret my retreat with Adam if I fell.
Adam was already whizzing down the hill in his shiny white-painted, stealth bomber of a wheelchair in full wheelie position. Flying by rocks and cracks and mislaid gravel, he had no apparent fear.
I always was afraid, even before my accident, and didn’t need a new wheelchair or rocky collision course to create more for me. I swallowed hard and shouted at myself to stop being such a sissy. Traveling down that sidewalk was going to be the least of my concerns. Adam had already wheelied ahead to the traffic light and pressed the crosswalk button to wait for his turn. As I approached, he found uncertainty in my eyes.
“You okay?” Of course, I was okay, but I couldn’t help shake what happened that night. This was my first taste of freedom since that night. I was okay, but I wanted that sunken feeling to fall off of me.
“I’m fine. I’m okay. I’m g--,” The word good couldn’t quite make it out. I was never very proficient in lying. I shook my arms, thinking that would help. Adam just raised an eyebrow and pressed the button again, eager more than ever to cross the street.
Too often, I tried hard to remember that seemingly innocuous, peeping moonlit night that guided my body as I flew. Crashing and flying through that tempered glass car window, I knew I could survive much less. However, the dramatic slow-motion version of that fateful night, I flew so much that all that was left was shattered glass, horns alarming, and blood pooling. But no memory whatsoever. Although barely breathing, I was told that I was lucky to even be alive. So, yes, of course, I was okay just crossing the stupid street.
On the other side, we met a city bus with smiles. We had no money, and our only shot at making it to the mall was to appear as pathetic as the bus driver wanted us to be. This was a far simpler task for me than it was for Adam. Look at me—a sticker-laden back brace, mounds of metal all around, and the remaining scabs from events that only one could imagine. I donned a fresh pinkish-purplish scar attempting to be hidden by my golden locks that lay softly around my right temple. Moving my hair from my eyes, the defeat of days past shone through them. My blue eyes had dimmed since that night, and I feared I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I nervously smiled to the driver, my unintentional gapped-teeth, and child-like smile. Somehow, Adam knew I would be our ticket on that bus. And so I was, scars and metal and all.
The driver of the bus was now an accessory to the crime as he loaded us on the mechanical lift that made me even more self-conscious than the Mickey Mouse stickers waving at all the spectators in the aisles. Our chairs were firmly strapped into the floor of the bus with worn and intentional, yet lazily, planned seat belts that were stowed beneath the passenger seats. We were on our way.
The mall was about a twenty-minute ride, although it felt like much more. Adam and I traveled in silence, which led me to believe that he was, too, a little anxious for our adventure. As the bus whirled by familiar buildings with familiar smells and sounds, everything felt strangely different. It was as if I was seeing my hometown for the first time, or as through entirely different eyes. Is this how an archeologist would feel as coming upon a new discovery in long-abandoned sand? I could only guess.
We passed playgrounds where children played and laughed. How I ached to be in their shoes. We passed by banks, businesses, gas stations, and markets. I wished to be a customer or employee working dead-end jobs, or really any of them out in the “real world.” As I passed by this world that was neither contained in a hospital nor confined by a wheelchair, I felt desperate to be anyone but me. Living life in a hospital, you rarely get to feel or witness anything remotely close to real life. And now I realize why they keep it that way.
Screeching sounds of neglected-to-be-oiled wheels brought my thoughts back to the present. Adam and I were unshackled from the bus floorboards and sent on our way.