The View From the Wheelchair

I only knew my father-in-law as a paraplegic. 

It was a freak accident.  The boat (which he built) was no longer responding to the controls.  The boat crashed into the lake dock; if it wasn’t for his helmet, he would have died on impact.  He was airlifted to the local hospital and informed that his legs would never work again.  

Life became a completely different dance filled with complications and challenges.  Getting dressed every morning took double if not triple the amount of time once required.  Operating a car required cognitive reconditioning as he now operated the gas and brake with hand controls.  He was very limited with the choice of vehicle due to the difficulty of transferring from wheelchair to driver’s seat and back again.  Air travel was cumbersome due to the limited aisles. Simple household handyman projects were no longer simple; some were inaccessible and required hiring out (much to his dismay.)

He woke up every morning, aware of his disability, aware of his dependence on others (though he remained as fiercely independent as possible), and aware that his body was destined to decline quicker than the average human as organ function and bed sores are the two banes of our paralyzed population.

He knew what he couldn’t do.

In preparation for my job as the Bereavement Manager for a hospice in Southern California, I attended a local and open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to observe group dynamics and group discussion.  The disease of alcoholism knows no specific demographic.  Young (included high school or young college) and Old, Male and Female, White, Hispanic, Black, etc were all in attendance to be vulnerable, authentic and fiercely honest. Vulnerability and confession open each meeting.   I found it humbling and moving to sit amongst others who chose a courageous move and showed up amidst this support group.

They knew what they couldn’t do.  

Not on their own.  

We idolize and celebrates the strong, self-made individual who needs nothing and no one.  “I am a rock, I am an island” is the contemporary hymn from which we declare our secret and happiness to life.  Control is our favored companion, and with enough education, resolve and grit, we can accomplish anything we want to make a better self.  

But what if it’s not true?  What if following this belief or value is connected to our cultural epidemic of depression, anxiety and ultimately, loneliness?  

What if true, pure strength was not being able to internally muster and conquer something, but rather admit when we can’t accomplish something on our own?  

We can subscribe (yes, me included!) to a lot of contemporary and blindly adopted wisdom that is not forced through the gauntlet due to the speed of society and our personal hopes.  And maybe our participation (whether conscious or not) in a rapid society of bulging schedules does not provide space or time to ask deeper, scarier questions.  What has the self-made life really achieved?  

Lately, I’ve contemplated who the heroes are in my life.  That list has not only changed but also shortened as I approach middle-aged.  One (of many) common themes that I have recognized is that my heroes carry a profound sense of humility, listen well, and give generously to others.  This has not been developed by a laundry list of their own strengths.  Rather, some incident(s) in their life has taught them the harder but deeper truth that they needed others to be strength in their times and places of weakness.  That they couldn’t do life on their own.  And this has made them a kinder, humbler, more generous person.  

That’s the life I desire, though I remain far from my true home.  It’s certainly not a life I can achieve by running on my own strength. 

It invites me to sit in the wheelchair of my own weaknesses.  

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Comments

  1. This is the lesson cancer taught my husband and me: “What if true, pure strength was not being able to internally muster and conquer something, but rather admit when we can’t accomplish something on our own?” As caregiver, I wore my super hero cape entirely too long … until it was tattered and dragging in the mud. Good writing, Jason.

    1. Marlys, yes, these are the things that truly shape our dependence on others. I’m sure you have lived into this much more than I have. It still remains hard to depend on others…until you probably have to…

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