Posts Tagged loss of mobility

Looking Up from a Wheelchair

He walked right up to me, shook my hand and welcomed me to the stadium. I was on a recruiting visit with my son at a large nationally ranked football program, and though we had never met him before, the record-setting starting quarterback was extremely friendly and generous with his pre-game time. A couple of his coaches and teammates also stopped by or waved my direction.

I’m sufficiently self-aware to recognize that my wheelchair, rather than my good looks, probably attracted the extra attention. I’m certain that I wasn’t mistaken as a recruit.

There was a time that I was ashamed to use my wheelchair – I can walk, after all – but using the chair has more than the obvious benefits, like moving comfortably and quickly to places that would otherwise be impossible. From that chair, I see incredible kindness in strangers – kindness that few people get to see, like that scene in the stadium.

People rush to open doors, to greet me and to ask if they can help in any way. Strangers have bought me drinks and insisted that I cut in line.

Despite the discord that captures headlines, using a wheelchair has shown me that most people genuinely care about others. Last month, I wrote about an awkward exchange with a stranger in a Las Vegas elevator, but that happens far less than the other side of the spectrum. More often, people go out of their way to be friendly and welcoming to me, and I truly appreciate that.

I’m still not completely comfortable in the chair, and only use it for longer distances or challenging terrain. On short walks, like into the gym or church, I walk unassisted. If it’s unfamiliar terrain, I use my “stick.” (I still can’t bring myself to call it a cane, and it really is a shooting stick that doubles as a walking stick.)

Physically though, I’m much more comfortable off my feet. When I’m on my feet and moving, my eyes focus on the ground in front of me, as I scan for slick spots or impediments that might knock me over. Because my attention is elsewhere, I can appear aloof and unapproachable when I’m walking, making it hard for me to notice strangers as much more than potential impediments. Most strangers react instinctively to my body language and give me space. The chair changes all of that.

Psychologically, I’m getting more comfortable using the chair when I have to, because I’ve learned that people are far less bothered by the chair than I am.

Ironically, I was more anxious in the chair in front of friends and family than in front of strangers. Walking around with a limp for nearly my entire life has numbed me to the stares of strangers. It was harder for me to succumb to the chair in the presence of people who have known me for years. It’s not like they didn’t know that I had a handicap, but it was important to me to show that I wasn’t that abnormal, especially to people who I have walked beside for years.. Hell, I hunted, skied, golfed and ran beside some of these people before the wear and tear of awkward movement made that impossible. I worried that somehow my relationships would change with the new limitations. Fortunately, using the chair has only improved my relationships.

For the last few years, I would skip games and other outings, because the walking they required made me uncomfortable during them and miserable afterward. I don’t have that problem in the chair, and my friends and family realize that and they are thankful that I was able to set my ego aside and ride. I have even relented and let some people push the chair. That was a big step for me, especially with my childhood friends with whom I used to compete for male dominance. None of have them have shown the discomfort I feared, and they all are eager to help.

Again, I’d much prefer a life without the occasional use of the chair, but that wasn’t the fate I was handed. Accepting that fate with a positive attitude has been rewarded with an enhanced feeling and appreciation of kindness that I otherwise wouldn’t have enjoyed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to enjoy and spread kindness, but you might have to consciously participate. Just slow down and take the time to be kind and appreciate kindness. In short order, you’ll find that kindness requires little investment and pays huge dividends.

 

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Swallowing a Wheelchair

When I went hunting in Africa last year, I did something that I’d never done before: I requested wheelchair assistance when booking a flight. I’d always gutted out airport walking, and with my wife’s assistance, it wasn’t easy, but it was possible. My wife wasn’t going to be with me at the end of my 17-hour flight to South Africa, and I knew that my legs would be tight from sitting so long. The wheelchair worked perfectly. I sacrificed my ego to save my legs.

This month, I did it again – not the safari, but the wheelchair. And this time, I didn’t borrow it; I bought it.

I can’t remember a more gut-wrenching buying experience. It took me more than six months to hit the “Buy” button, because every time I saw a wheelchair on my computer screen, I recoiled. Guys like me aren’t supposed to be in wheelchairs. I might as well have been shopping for a coffin, because my mind wouldn’t let me see myself in either.

It wasn’t my mind making this decision. Within the last ten years, my legs decided they needed a wheelchair for long or slippery walks. I was just too stubborn to listen. Instead of swallowing my ego, I sat at home while my family went to church and sporting events in inclement weather without me. In Las Vegas recently, I sat in a hotel room and watched TV while Lynda and the kids went exploring. My world was shrinking, and while I can accept that some things are beyond my reach, I have to make sure that my ego doesn’t handicap me more than my legs do.

So I bought a wheelchair.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. More than thirty years ago, I sat in a doctor’s office and heard him tell me that I would likely need braces, crutches and even a wheelchair as I aged, and my joints began to show the effects of my awkward walking motion. At the time, I was running hills and bench-pressing nearly 300 pounds. I heard him, but convinced myself that my physical regimen and resolve would prevail. That was the hope I clung to as my joints stiffened.

Ironically, I’ve never been stronger or more muscular. That part, I could control. Stiff, aching joints are a completely different story. Like the doctors said, you can’t walk like I do and not damage your joints. With further irony, all that running and bike riding I did hoping to play high school football likely accelerated the damage that slows me down today.

So I bought a wheelchair.

Now, instead of worrying that it might snow during one of my son’s football games or my daughter’s basketball games, I know that I’ll be there enjoying these irreplaceable experiences that are passing way too quickly. Neither snow nor my ego will keep me from that.

It’s still not easy. Riding in a wheelchair is a humbling experience. You feel apart from the world of the walking. Very few strangers give you more than a glance. You wonder what others are thinking. Riding in a wheelchair tests your self-worth, and I’m finally at a point where my self-worth trumps my misplaced pride.

So I bought a wheelchair.

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Yeah, I Don’t Do That Any More

Some of my greatest childhood memories are of the experiences I had trudging through the snow in the woods behind my childhood home. If you saw me now, you would shake your head and think that I was delusional – that I spent too much time in the sun, but it’s true. My body has never been perfect, but it was once a lot better.

As a kid, I rode my bicycle for miles, just to prove I could. I snow skied, water skied and golfed. I delivered newspapers on foot, through all kinds of weather. I climbed trees, rode horses and ran, although I never liked running, even when I could do it.

The doctors told me that my future was grim. That, as my body aged, it was going to be difficult for me to be as active. That I’ll probably need crutches, a cane, even a wheelchair. I shrugged my shoulders and went hunting in the woods behind my house. They didn’t know what they were talking about.

That was a long time ago.

I went snow skiing as a senior in high school. I took the ski lift all the way to the top of Keystone Mountain in Colorado’s Summit County, where a long easy run lay ahead of me. In prior years, I had flown down that run time and again, knowing where to hit my marks to maximize my speed and excitement. That day, however, I crashed in the first 100 yards, struggled to get up and crashed again just a few yards farther. My dad trailed behind, stopping just upslope to make sure I was OK. I shook off the first crash as the consequence of not skiing in the past three years, but he and I knew. It was the first crash of many, and, when I finally reached the bottom of the mountain, I took off the skis for the last time.

I experienced a similar reality about a year later while hunting pheasants in a corn field. Every downed stalk seemed to grab my legs, and my feet found all the holes. It was the last field I ever walked. When I swung a golf club three years ago, I learned that golf too was something that I could no longer do.

Most of us are fortunate enough to sail through most of our lives with nearly all of our physical and mental abilities. Sure, maybe we can’t run a five-minute mile any longer, but that doesn’t keep us from going on a run. Because it we are able to do most everything we want to do, we don’t fully appreciate everything we can do. That’s unfortunate.

When something or someone is taken from you, your world narrows and your attention focuses on only the most important things. It’s why family and friends gather at funerals, and renew relationships. It’s why amputees run marathons and soldiers form life-long friendships with each other. They’ve felt loss and realize it can happen at any time.

In loss, there is life. Loss hurts. It’s supposed to hurt, but we recover, and we recover stronger, because we learn that life goes on, and though it might not be as easy as we want it to be, it’s as beautiful as we make it.

A few weeks ago, some longtime friends invited Lynda and me to join them for dinner in Omaha’s Old Market. The Old Market is an incredibly vibrant and exciting place to have dinner and socialize, but I typically avoid it, especially on the weekends, because it invariably involves an uncomfortable amount of walking for me. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. With those very friends, I went up and down the streets and through crowded bars, never really letting my handicap get in the way.

That’s not an option any more. Even with Lynda dropping me off before parking the car, I had to walk farther than I wanted and then climb some stairs to get to the restaurant. There wasn’t going to be any bar hopping for me that night or any other night for that matter. I’ve accepted that and choose to focus on the things that I can do, like having dinner with treasured friends from the past.

With a healthy set of legs, the incredible dinner would have been just part of a night that would have involved stops at other clubs and restaurants. I would have enjoyed that night too, but I probably wouldn’t have appreciated just being there as much.

Too many of us assume that life will always be easy, and that allows us to take simple things for granted. It’s easy to skip that evening walk with your wife, but what if you were to lose the opportunity tomorrow or the next week or the next year or the next decade? Will you look at the missed opportunity with regret?

Don’t let something be taken from you before you appreciate it.

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