“How could I have gotten so old without figuring out how to interact with people in wheelchairs?” Sure, I had encountered people in wheelchairs and walking with walkers and on crutches, but I always kept my distance.
What should I say? How should I act? The answers had eluded me much as the appropriate dialog when faced with a death. My mother taught me to say “How do you do” when introduced to someone—I always felt stupid and wanted to say “Hi” or just “Hello”--but I learned to be as polite and refined as my mother insisted.
My mother never taught me what to say, or whether to say anything at all, to someone in a wheelchair. I can only surmise that she didn’t know how to react either.
I finally learned a lesson a few months ago while on a cruise. It was one of those perfect days at sea that I had come to love when on cruises. We didn’t have to disembark, to go through another store with diamonds, jewelry, watches, or just stuff, when the ship pulled into another port just like the last one and all those before.
Sitting on the deck at a table in the shade near the pool and trying to ignore all the chaos around me (It was Thanksgiving week and there were lots of kids aboard.), I was reading something, I have no idea what, on my Kindle, and didn’t even notice the woman in her wheelchair who had pulled up near me. She was very thin, could not sit without trembling and shaking, and was obviously very ill with what I never did figure out.
I reached into my bag for a lipstick and, while putting it on by rote, as I had done thousands of times, the woman in the wheelchair said she really liked the color and asked what it was. I had never taken the time to think about physically challenged people enjoying all the seemingly dumb things we do every day.
Taken aback, but trying to be cordial, I looked at the lipstick, read the name of the color, and proceeded to tell her how much I liked it, had just discovered it at Walmart, and how much I wanted to buy more. (True to form with almost everything I like, it has since been discontinued.) How, I wondered, could this woman even think about something as frivolous as lipstick? I couldn’t figure out how she even applied it with her trembling hands.
She then looked in her purse for her lipstick to show me the colors she liked. Talking about lipstick, I was able to forget how disabled my new friend was. For the rest of the cruise, every time I ran into her, we were friendly and easygoing.
How many times, I kept thinking, had I looked right through or simply ignored a person in a wheelchair or leaning on a walker? How awful each person must have felt when treated as a non-person. How awful had I made each person feel?
It was the casual encounter with the lady with the lipstick that changed my attitude.
By chance, very shortly thereafter, my daughter approached me with a tale of meeting a woman who trained service dogs for the handicapped and how, as a medical researcher, she was interested in conducting a study to demonstrate the positive effects of service dogs on the quality of life of people with multiple sclerosis.
As we had done many times, we began our collaboration, intending to work together on the grant proposal she had been thinking about. The project grew and grew and evolved into msbeyondmeds.com.
Through our work I met and interacted with many people in wheelchairs, with walkers, with service dogs. The lady with the lipstick taught me to ask Donna, a woman who had lost both legs at the hips, what happened to her legs. I might have been the first person to approach her so boldly, and we became friends until she died two years later.