Cruel to be Kind: The World is an Unfriendly Place for the Mobility-Impaired

Post-Surgery Week 17, at Vandy Baseball!

I’ve survived, and 18 weeks out from foot reconstruction surgery on December 23, I can begin to believe that I’m actually thriving. Minimal foot pain…really only mild discomfort at this point after certain activities or if I overdo it. Big toe and center of my foot are still ‘tingly’ and numb, but the Doc says those nerves will regenerate, with time, and the numbness will lessen. I’ve been walking in the indoor pool at the Y wearing my fashionable neoprene fly-fishing sock for extra confidence, and I’m amazed at the miracle of modern medicine to rebuild my broken, dysfunctional foot not only good as new, but truly better than it ever was from birth! I have an arch now, which is weird, but it’s all good, except for the unknown when I actually wear real shoes, and try to walk with one arched foot and my other foot that’s been flat-as-a-pancake since birth.  This prolonged period of inactivity has enabled me to rest, read many books, watch a bunch of great movies, reconnect with long-lost friends, and appreciate how to accept help from people. I’ve reflected a great deal about my life and my final steps on the path toward ELCA ordination, and I’m ready to get back ‘on my feet’ literally and resume normal activities. This will include 9 weeks of summer school at ELCA seminary, then a full-time pastoral internship beginning in September…my new foot will soon be called into service, and I pray it will serve me well.

So I’m thriving now, versus simply surviving isolation and immobility, but along this journey I’ve noticed many things surrounding my restricted circumstances that made me aware of this Ol’ World’s harsh attitude for people who face daily mobility challenges. I have a completely new respect for those in wheelchairs, those dependent upon canes and walkers, knee scooters and those who can never regain the skills necessary to walk unaided, let alone walk at all.

Before my surgery, I remember (in horror) complaining about “all those empty handicapped parking spots” in various places where I shopped, etc. It seemed to me, (oh, what an idiot I was) that there existed a disproportionate amount of disabled parking spots, compared to the number of people who actually needed them. I heartily apologize to the mobility-impaired world for ever thinking that I had a clue about this issue: during the past 3-1/2 months, the reality for me was that often, when I sought to use my temporary disability parking tag, all the spots were full. I reflect, after many visits to the doctor, that our aging population of Baby Boomers justifies the number of disabled parking spots, and in truth, could use more! It’s virtually impossible to open your car door wide enough to stick out your cast-enclosed foot and set up a walker in a regular parking space: I will never complain about disabled parking spots again, and a pox on all those people who park in them for convenience when they have zero mobility issues!

I’ve also observed that the world is not very flat, even in supposed flat spaces: ramps for disabled parking spaces, as well as many ADA ramps into buildings are often so steep that they pose a challenge, if not a serious risk to those in wheelchairs, using walkers or canes. I know those little rubber bumps on ramps are intended for safety, but they wreak havoc with walkers and canes: I’ve nearly tripped on these colorful bumps, trying to maneuver my mobility device du jour in my struggle to be independent.

I have a very good friend, a former Tennessee State Senator, who is elderly and wheelchair-bound, but whose wisdom and positive outlook on life exceeds that of anyone else I know. I’ve often joked with him that we could race: him in his wheelchair, me on my knee scooter or using my walker, but I know he’d whip me soundly. He would always laugh at my challenges and say, “I’d love to race, we just have to do it when my wife’s not watching.”

In serious conversations with this friend, I  commented that it was fascinating to me to see who would come to my rescue, holding doors open for me, or helping me carry shopping bags to my car or returning my shopping cart to the store, or simply smiling at me with comments like, “Gee, I hope the other guy looks worse!” or “Wow, what’d you have done?” On the extreme flip side were those people whom totally ignored me, perhaps in some preoccupation with their own difficulties. One man, impatient as I struggled to hold open a heavy door while trying to navigate my walker through it, huffed and puffed and then slipped past me through the door without saying a word, leaving the door to slam on my walker! That took some ginormous cajones…I also became quite annoyed on many occasions with handicapped toilet facilities: hello, why do they build them at the far end of the bathroom?

My friend John listened patiently to all these observations about my dealings with mobility impairment, and then he looked me in the eye and said, “Did you know that when you’re in a wheelchair, no one speaks to you? It’s as if you don’t exist. You’re not at eye-level, and you become invisible.” I was stunned at his words, and I was once again humbled at the realization that my temporary mobility issues were neither permanent, nor that severe. I resolve to speak, smile and look into the eyes of those in wheelchairs: to avoid acknowledging another human being is to deny that person his or her esteem as one of God’s beloved creatures.

Most of my post-surgery experiences in public, especially in the past 5 weeks when I could resume driving, walker in tow, have proven to me that this world, while perhaps physically unkind despite its few structural aids for the disabled, is still a place of empathy and compassion. I was amazed at how my hard casts, with their multi-colored fiberglass shells, or my air cast, could prompt sharing conversations with total strangers: many people suffer from arthritis or other medical issues which required foot surgery similar to mine. Most all of the people who made conversation with me while holding open a door  compared their own injuries and experiences to mine, and were among those who offered me the greatest assistance.  I also resolve to pay it forward, as I was helped along my path to healing.

Two other key lessons I learned during this recovery period: I learned to have patience, which has never been a trait that anyone would accuse me of possessing. We rush around too much and too often in a frenzy, and what we all need to do is to stop, rest, listen to our bodies and realize that some things on our proverbial To-Do List can wait until tomorrow. Learning patience is about maintaining boundaries, with our bodies and our endless busy-ness. For recovering Taskmasters like me, this means acceptance of my new physical limitations, as well as patience with myself and others. The world won’t end if I can’t accomplish everything on that list right now, or if I have to wait until Friday to venture out for some must-have gadget or grocery item.

The second lesson I learned is that I have to come to terms with the reality of aging. I may feel 18 inside, but I’m a mid-50-something woman with severe arthritis and a host of other age-related stuff, and this body is probably not going to get any better. But I’m better for realizing this fact and openly admitting it, because when we admit our limitations, we deal with them in a positive way, which makes us wiser.

I have learned to stop being so critical of myself and others, and to embrace where I am in each moment. I am who I am, and that is how God made me.  Some days, I’m in a sweat pants/ratty tee shirt moment, and some days I slap on decent clothes and makeup. But I’ve stopped beating myself up about appearances for fear of being judged by others, because my behavior reflects the Light of Christ into this dark world, not my clothing choices or personal grooming skills, Life in the Spirit is how we treat one another, and in my recent experience, a smile and a kind word go a lot farther than the latest fashion and hairstyle trends. It’s about connecting to other people in relationships, even if they only last five minutes in a grocery store parking lot.

I have been considerably blessed by this opportunity to heal and rejuvenate, to reflect and ponder my actions and behaviors past and future. I have also been blessed by a team of skilled, excellent physicians who took my concerns seriously and challenged me to ‘suck it up’ and do what had to be done. Bless all the people in this world who face mobility challenges each day, and bless all of us as we try to come to their aid, that we may look them in the eye, offer a smile and a kind word, hold open a door, and make a friend.

Peace until next time!

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