14 Nov The view from the wheelchair
Her name was Maron. I met her in the Frankfurt airport while in transit from LA to Athens.
There was something about her that was inviting and open. So, as she was going to be my companion for a couple of hours pushing my wheelchair through the airport maze, I asked her. Maron, I learned, was from Senegal. She was living in Frankfurt for 20 years, married to a German. Her house was very close to the airport, so she could easily commute to work. But now, her kids all grown, they bought a house further away, and she was going to have a 40-minute train ride to get to work, a prospect that troubled her somewhat.
All of which was painting a good core picture of Maron’s life for me. But what was most pleasant about listening to her story was her voice. It was a full, yet soft and sweet set of tones, that exuded aliveness, joy. Maron was sharing her life with me, responding easily to my curiosity. And every so often, she would bring my wheelchair to a rather sudden stop with a twist, and turn to a passerby with a loud greeting – “hey, Armand, what’s up? How are you doing?” The two would stand in the middle of the corridor, locked in an intense back-and-forth in French for a few minutes, updating each other on comings and goings, asking or promising favors, their faces closer to each other than you’d expect. Few minutes later, it would be another, and another. “Wow, you have a lot of friends here, Maron”. “You know”, she says, “the airport is like a family. We depend on each other, and I love it that way”.
And as I sat there, my fate in Maron’s capable hands, my heart full of her world’s richness, I realized again: I depended on her, and it was a shockingly wonderful, uplifting feeling.
It was back home at LAX when it first hit me. I had decided to take the risk and travel. It had been an agonizing decision. I needed to travel, to get out of my four walls, my same, tired routine, after months of very painful illness and isolation. I was losing my grip on life. I was giving up and I needed to get out, to shake things up. But traveling, I knew, would be a challenge. Easily tiring, weak, unable to walk any distance of time or space, I was terrified of failing to make it through to the other end. Until someone whispered it to me: Wheelchairs! Get a wheelchair through the airports. Get help. What a novel idea!
So here I am at the LAX gate in this wheelchair, in the strong hands of David, this man standing behind me. He placed me first in line to the plane and I am staring at the wide-open gate and the jetway to the plane in front of me, while people are crowding around. My head is bobbing up and down as I am trying to beat overwhelming fatigue. It eventually falls to my chest, and I close my eyes sleepily.
It was then, my head resting on my chest, my body slumped in the wheelchair, that I first felt it: this huge wave of relief, of calm come over me, a physical sighing out of all the tension, the debilitating fear about this trip – about my life, really. A huge surprise – that I could be feeling this weak, and still it was possible to be here. I could rely on the hands of this man to be wheeling me around, dependably.
It was happening: an earthquake in my relationship to the world. It was conceivable to count on someone when my path forward would be impossible without their help.
It was a world turned upside down for me. I have spent my life with people – and me – depending on just me. My own dependence on others has never been an option – things just did not work out like that in my life.
And now, that is no longer possible. I needed David, and Maron, and others like them. To wheel me through the long hallways, and past security, and passport control, always joyful, respectful, giving me strength and hope.
I made it to Athens. My sister buried her head in in my remaining hair and burst into tears. I didn’t ask if it was the sight of me in the wheelchair, or the relief of me finally making it there. She took over my care, like the guardian angel she’s been to me– while managing a village of family and friends. Food, medicines, rest, company, I depended on her for making it through the day.
And just like that, what used to be almost shameful to me, became a strange new delight. A sense to letting go for the first time, and feeling all right doing it. Not a bitter surrender, but more like laying into a warm embrace by a humanity that I didn’t know was willing to hold me. But they were. They are.
I said so many “thank you”s to so many people this period. For their gifts of support and encouragement, for pushing me to not give up, to keep on fighting – though I’ve always had the hardest time receiving gifts. There had always been strings attached in the past, can I trust this?
Don’t thank me. Love me.
I didn’t really get the message until I heard this from my most wise guardian angel in response to yet another heartfelt “thank you”: “Don’t thank me. Love me”, she said. Love me back. And that broke the dam for me. I understood how I was loved, finally. It got into my veins. I felt that I had been lacking a language, a vocabulary to receive and express this love and now I got it. I saw that “thank you” was such a poor, inadequate set of words to connect with. That a look of love from me, and the recognition that I finally saw their love too, was what we all needed.
Sometimes it takes an earthquake in your life to crack you open.
I departed in another wheelchair. Dimitri, my helper this time, was also friendly and talkative. An accountant by training, he was now working at the Athens airport while going to graduate school. “What are you studying”, I asked? “Sociology and political science”, he said. Wow, I was impressed. “Why this?”, I wanted to know. “I am fascinated by the field, and someone’s got to fix the mess we got”, he said. Congratulations, Dimitri, you give me hope for the future, and I am honored to be dependent on you.
The view from the wheelchair
The view from the wheelchair, it turns out, is not one of disability. It is one of new abilities. I realized, that as I was trying to fortify my new self-identity, to strengthen myself for the circumstances, the answer was the opposite: to shed the fortifications, to let the love flow both ways. To let your body expand to embrace other bodies. To let their legs to become your legs as they wheel you around.
Your powers multiply, as you now turn your focus onto your other skills. Your soul opens wider still. You grow.
The view from the wheelchair is rich with goodness and growth.
Don’t thank me. Love me.