Let’s go to the Botanical Garden in Toledo, I tell my chauffeur. I want to photograph the spring flowers.
The sun is shining, the air is cool, a perfect day.
The car is loaded: camera, tripod, cane, and wheelchair. All the necessary tools of an aging crippled photographer.
Are you sure you want to push my fat ass around, I ask my chauffeur. And just like every other time I ask this question, she smiles and says yes.
The Toledo Botanical Garden is 50 miles or so from home. We arrive around 4 PM. Several hours of great lighting left, I tell myself. We pull into the parking lot, finding it full cars, limousines, and small buses. It’s prom night and hundreds of area high school student are at the Garden to get their photograph taken. They are dressed in ill-fitting dresses and tuxes, each trying to outdo the other on their special night.
We finally find a parking spot. Actually, we make a parking spot where there isn’t one. I ask my chauffeur, are you sure you want to do this? Like always, she smiles and said yes.
The wheelchair is unloaded and I am soon being wheeled along the paved walkways. I made sure before we left home that the walkways were wheelchair accessible. As we quickly find out, their idea of accessible is very different from ours. From potholes to broken cement to hoses stretching across the walkways, my chauffeur has great difficulty navigating. I hear her breathing become more labored. I turn to her and say, we can go if you want to. And just like every other time I ask this question, she smiles and says no. She knows, thanks to unrelenting pain, I rarely leave home. She wants me to have a good time.
Hundreds of high school students are gathered in groups throughout the Garden. Avoid obstructions, I tell myself. Go this way, avoid the crowd. But, no matter how we try to avoid the clustered students, we eventually are forced to stop and wait for them to move so we can pass.
The invisible man, that is what I am to these students. They stand towering above me and my slumping body. We wait, hoping they will notice we can’t get by them. Few pay attention to the man in the wheelchair. Don’t get upset, I tell myself. They will move.
As we come up one of the walkways, I notice a large group of students standing on the walkway. I say to my chauffeur, let’s go home. She replies, no, they will move. As we close in on the group many of the students move allowing the Moses in the wheelchair to part the Red Sea. One student refuses to move. His girl turns to him and says, hey let the guy go by. He looks at me with eyes I have encountered many times before and moves just enough to let me get by. His girl is none to happy with him. With anger in her eyes, she pushes her man and tells him MOVE! Put in his place, the towering student complies and moves so I can pass by.
Such is life in the chair. I think everyone, healthy or not, should spend some time in the chair. Believe me, the world looks completely different from the seat of the chair. Simple things like navigating the grocery store become an insurmountable task. Are people callous or indifferent to the handicapped? Sometimes, but most people have no frame of reference for understanding the challenges of having to use a wheelchair. (or a cane) They can walk and move at will. Any obstacle can be moved or navigated around. For the person in the chair, obstacles that are nothing for a healthy person, become a source of frustration.
I do my best to avoid crowds when I must use my wheelchair. But even then, at three in the morning at the local Meijer, shelf stockers often make the aisles impassable. They have a job to do, but I’d sure like to buy some groceries. I’ve concluded that there is no good time to go shopping. I must mentally prepare myself for the indifference of others. I must grit my teeth and ignore the pain inflicted on me by thoughtless shoppers. I think, someday, they will be where I am and then they will understand. For now, I am just the invisible man in the chair.