Saturday the 10th was my first day spent with a wheelchair. I tried to imagine the day beforehand, to anticipate the drawbacks and plan for every single troubleshooting scenario. I’m surprised I nailed most of them, but it was still a learning experience full of ups and downs. The day could have been much more painful and full of recriminations, had I not been blessed with a very patient, very grateful passenger.
One of the highlights each year for my wife’s grandmother is when the three of us spend a November Saturday together at the Indianapolis Christmas Gift and Hobby Show, a cavalcade of Christmas arts, Christmas crafts, Christmas edibles, and non-Christmas small businesses and hucksters held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in one of their cavernous pavilions. It usually takes us a few hours to traverse the length of the pavilion several times to see all the booths, marvel at the decorations, overspend on a few choice items, and — always number one on Mamaw’s to-do list — have her watch batteries replaced at a specific jeweler’s booth. No one in all Creation is allowed to change her watch batteries except that one jeweler. Everyone else ever born will do it wrong.
Last summer, this once-hyperkinetic eightysomething dynamo took a nasty spill that left her wounded for a good while and reset her normal energy levels at a much lower bar. She’s having much more trouble getting around than she used to, and takes a little longer to perform her chores the way she wants them. Though she weighs under one hundred pounds, she still doesn’t have quite the endurance for supporting that frame around extensive distances. Excessive walking now leaves her winded and ready to call it a day. As her beloved Christmas Gift and Hobby Show drew near, she seriously doubted she could manage the day-long stroll that would entail, and had resigned herself to skipping the show, despite how many she’s attended, despite how much she looks forward to it every year. She feared attempting such a feat now would be the death of her.
Enter: the wheelchair.
The idea was so brilliant in its simplicity, I’m sure it was my wife’s. Had it been up to me, I would have chosen a more sitcom-based plan — e.g., carrying a camcorder around the pavilion while she watches us walk around the show from a monitor in her living room; buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of Christmas decor and holding our own Christmas Gift and Hobby Show in her kitchen; or toting her around the show in an enormous baby backpack. The wheelchair was much less complicated. Wheelchair authorities who examined the photo closely will also note that it was less expensive than any of my hare-brained Acme-quality concepts. My wife located a viable purchase online and obtained the tool that would save the day and the Show for her grandmother.
I foresaw only one problem with this plan: as the male, I would be honor-bound to drive. I wasn’t worried about the walk or the effort itself. I was worried about whether or not I would have the patience needed to navigate this vehicle through the Show’s dense throngs. Behind the wheel of a car, patient driving is not my strong suit. It’s been years since the last time a policeman pulled me over, mostly because I’ve spent years precisely calculating exactly how much of a maniac I can drive like and still stay within the bounds of enforced law. Give me two to four interstate lanes, a five-MPH plus/minus margin on the speed limit (never a problem with the executive branch of the American government in my decades of experience), and a field of competitors with turtle-proportionate reflexes or massively distracting cell phones glued to their heads, and I can stunt-drive my way anywhere in record time. Jam me in motionless gridlock, and my head won’t stop exploding on the inside every thirty seconds until I’m free and clear once again. Going into the big day, I wasn’t convinced I could be any different with the wheelchair.
Somehow I managed it. I credit no small amount of prayer, coupled with the conscious acknowledgment of the exhortation in James 1:27 about caring for widows, to say nothing of how I ought to be applying the last part of that verse toward my own driving attitude. Also, y’know, there’s something to be said love of family and such as all the motivation I should’ve needed. This extremely sweet lady deserved no less from us, after everything she’s done for my wife and for so many others all through her life, a lengthy list unto itself. The least I could do was shut up and drive.
During my first time at the helm of a wheelchair, I had to learn many simple rules of the road:
* Swerve around potholes or large cracks; don’t try speeding over them.
* The footrests make poor cowcatchers.
* Mind your own feet and stop kicking the rear tires while you walk.
* Billowy tablecloths are the enemy. Snagging them will result in slapstick comedy.
* Pay attention when your passenger wants to stop and peruse something; zooming past everything is not so fun for them.
* While the womenfolk are browsing boring things, don’t play with the latches absentmindedly and accidentally collapse a strut.
* Driving with the brakes off is much easier.
* In the presence of walkers, strollers, or other wheelchairs, remember this is not a race. If absolutely necessary, convince yourself the race is under permanent yellow flag and the penalties for careening around the other vehicles are severe.
* Thinking “HONK HONK HOOOOOONK!” at someone really hard will not remove them from your path unless you’re Jean Grey.
We did have one period of awkward hardship. Upon reaching the far end of the final aisle, we realized that we’d completely missed the Show’s official Santa Claus and his wishlist chair. Last year Mamaw had posed with Santa for a photo, and my wife had hoped for an encore this year. Somehow in the tumult, we’d overlooked him completely. He was on the complete opposite end of the pavilion, and it was only a few minutes until his scheduled lunch break. We bravely attempted to plow through the crowd in his direction and see if we could beat the clock.
Alas, ’twas a fool’s errand. With shoppers crammed in wall-to-wall, none of the aisles was built for speed. I angled us Claus-ward as best I could, but I had to be realistic about it even as I refused to give up. I couldn’t very well ramrod others with the chair. I couldn’t part the human seas by coughing politely at everyone. I couldn’t heft her and the chair over my head while running between bodies to the tune of the Chariots of Fire theme. Nor could I lift the chair atop the booths and drive her on two wheels across the walls tightrope-style. Sadly, we were too late to catch Santa, and not really wanting to wait an extra hour for his return. The masses showed no signs of abating, and we had other errands to run with her.
Regardless, Mamaw had herself a grand old time. The chair provided just the right comfort level and allowed her to see the entire show with virtually no undue exertion at all. Even with that old man crossed off our itinerary, we had no shortage of visuals and activities.
Thankfully the Spirit provided me patience in spades for this occasion. Even more thankfully, my passenger was no less patient with me. She didn’t mind how long each aisle took us to wind through the Show. She didn’t mind my frequent course corrections, my valiant struggles to squeeze her politely through narrow gaps in the crowd, or any discomfort I may have unwittingly caused her. We three also greatly appreciated how courteous everyone was about letting us through, how forgiving when we presented a temporary obstacle in their path, or how apologetic when they trumped us on intersection right-of-way.
She spends so many normal days at home alone that she had dreaded the prospect of missing the Show, one of her few regularly scheduled outings besides weekly church or grocery. She was inordinately grateful that we’d found a way to make it happen despite the onset of new infirmities. Personally, I attribute the day’s success to my letting someone else drive for a change.