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Bashing into Life: Using My Wheelchair as a Tank

After the medical transport team carried me up our back stairs and deposited me in my favorite armchair, I battled to get around the house on my hands and knees. The doctor had ordered, “Don’t take off the boots, (no not even at night). No baths. No more crawling. Crawling could be dangerous!" But at 5 pm Friday, it was already too late for anyone to buy or rent a wheelchair. My friend MK [] who had kindly accompanied me to that first doctor’s visit, had to go and my husband Patrick wasn’t home yet. So what could I do but lower myself to the floor and—dragging my “booted” feet behind me—crawl? In awkward bursts of effort, I managed to get to the bathroom, to the bedroom, and to the freezer to fetch fresh ice for my now aching knees. When the crawling became really painful, I made myself pads—wool Tibetan caps fastened to both knees. Trailing tassels and pompoms, I scuttled and bumped along the wooden boards. I took this on with bristling intensity. When Patrick went out Saturday morning and brought home a wheelchair, I was elated. With this new technology, I hoped to cope with more grace. But before I even crossed from the living room to the kitchen, I crashed into the coffee table, our newly painted walls and the china cabinet. I thought of my escapades in my first car.

Taken by Peter White in 1969 with whom I drove back and forth across the country in said "bug"

New York City bred, rider of the IRT, I was already twenty-three by the time I earned a driver’s license and began to terrorize the streets of Cambridge in my red VW Bug. On a family vacation at Popponesset Beach, my dad offered me driving training.

1970 Poppenesset Beach: In back row:my dad, me (in pink), my brother Mark; in front my sister Nicola and a stray boy I am not sure how I got safely to the Cape on Route 3 but when I arrived my dad assessed me warily, “Hmmmm,” he said as I pulled up in the new Bug already sporting a mangled fender, bent tailpipe, dented door, and cracked side mirror. Our lessons on the rutted back lanes and sandy trails often ended in tears (mine) when I banged into rocks, trees, and, once almost, a family of pail-carrying, toddling beach goers. On the fifth day of lessons, the Bug stalled out, stuck between two sizable road-side boulders. My dad vented, “This is a car!” The bones in his face seemed to sharpen. His forehead and the M-shaped bald spots on his skull gleamed. “Don’t use it as a tank!” At first with the wheelchair, I cracked into everything and everybody. In the kitchen alone that meant the dining table, the refrigerator and my sister Nic (who had come out to take care of me all the way from Connecticut). I knocked over two chairs then smashed into the dessert bowls on a bottom shelf of an open cabinet, and made a quick retreat smack into Roxie.

Photo taken by Amy Neiman on one of our many hikes on the Big Springs trail in Tilden Park

She yelped and cowered, then rushed out of the kitchen. O my sweet Border Collie pal, I am so sorry. I thought of that battered VW bug, of the way I sometimes drive our Subaru, even now forty-five years later. Was I using this wheelchair as a tank? I got particularly agitated trying to get the wheelchair over the wooden sill in the doorway to the bathroom. To conquer that threshold, I backed up and zoomed towards the sill. Once, twice, three times, each attempt with a fiercer thrust. But with every attack, the wheels spun crazy and the chair jolted backwards. Get those damn wheels to head straight. Alright. I took a few breaths, steadied my attention. This, oh please, I would execute with the mindfulness I had been training in for almost forty years. Slowly, I bent down and carefully I lined up the wheels so they faced forward, then backed up the chair again and, with an intense push, jammed into the sill. The wheelchair jumped, almost toppling me out. Again, I tried lining up the wheels. And again. My bladder was going to burst. In a fit of frustration, I wrenched my body onto the floor, onto my knees, and went back to crawling. On hands and knees, I conquered that impassable sill. I pulled in a dining chair after me into the bathroom, dragging it along the floor to the toilet and with some tussling, managed to set it upright. My arms shaking with the effort, I pressed one palm on the toilet seat and one on the chair, and raised myself onto the seat so I could pee. I sat on the toilet, peeing, and wept.

Photo: Jeannie O'Connor

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