There are certain things that make me nostalgic.
Driving the route that used to be my daily commute to high school, remembering the 7am jazz band practices or late nights following musical dress rehearsals. Going to the Outagamie County Fair and remembering the daily (and then some) runs to Walmart that occurred the week of entry day to finish those last minute 4-H projects that probably should have been done months ago. And today. Today, May 25, always makes me stop and remember.
Today marks six years, adding another tally mark to the side of my life lived in a wheelchair. They’re still drastically unbalanced sides, 21 years walking to a measly six years wheeling but still, that smaller side is growing. It’s like a slow dripping leak into a bucket — a drop here and a drop there doesn’t seem as though it amounts to much so you stop paying attention. Yet suddenly, as if by some dark magic, the bucket is overflowing and making its presence well known to anyone nearby.
Injury anniversaries mean different things to different people, and I’ve been surprised to notice how the meaning of my particular anniversary has changed in my own mind as the years continue to pass by. I’m older, although not necessarily wiser. I’ve done different things and latched on to related, but certainly different passions. I’ve asked a lot of questions and found some answers that were quickly replaced by even more questions. Looking from that frame of reference, I guess it isn’t much of a surprise that each year anniversary has a somewhat different vibe.
Right now I’m sitting outside on my patio, looking down 16 floors at the constantly bustling Chicago streets and sidewalks. As a silent observer watching the strangers moving about below, each at their own pace headed towards a unique destination, I can’t help but think about the times when these roles are reversed and I’m the one being observed. Crossing Michigan Avenue. Ordering a drink at Starbucks. Riding in an elevator. Getting out of my car.
At one point in time, that really bothered me — the feeling of always being watched. Yet, after six years, I usually (and finally) don’t notice the “few seconds to long” stares. But when I do, I no longer feel the need to look away or pretend that if I can’t see them, they can’t see me —- and that’s new.
We all go through life with so many different identities. I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, and more recently I’m an aunt. I’m a Christian. I’m an MD PhD student. And I’m a disabled woman.
I’ve known that last identity exists as a part of my “demographic information” for quite some time, but claiming it and being honestly and truthfully willing to claim, it has taken longer than I want to admit (*cough* 6 years *cough*).
The older I get, the more time I seem to spend contemplating my identity — who am I really and what are the things that make me, well, me. Sitting here today, I know that part of who I am has become directly linked to “that girl in the wheelchair” and that’s something I no longer have any desire to try and change or “unlink.” I think I worked so hard those first years after my injury to prove to the world and really myself, that I was more than my chair. Of course a human being is “more” than an inanimate object used for mobility, but I think that attempt to justify my “new life” was really an attempt to distance myself from this starkly different reality. An attempt to put space between me and the thing I sat in and all the cultural connotations it carried. An attempt to “be different,” but this time on my terms, not those of some stupid dead tree.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m so proud of that time, the things I learned about myself and the disabled community, and I couldn’t imagine and wouldn’t want to have lived that time any differently. After all, racing a marathon I had been training for when I was first injured, becoming Ms. Wheelchair WI and then Ms. Wheelchair America before going on to apply to and become accepted to medical school — those memories are some of my favorites on this side of my “post-injury-life” timeline. I guess now I just see those moments through a different lens. A lens that shows an equally beautiful image, but now with a little more depth.
Thinking back over these past 6 years, as well as the moment of and months directly following my injury (when things were the hardest), I guess there’s a touch of melancholy, recognizing all too well that many of the obstacles and challenges I face are a direct result of that one moment of my life. That one moment that resulted in me existing and being known in seated form, having to learn the in’s and out’s of accessibility, becoming a master of “figure it out on the fly” problem solving, and having to know the difference between presta and schrader valves.
That one moment, while I certainly struggled to admit it, changed my identity.
But now, I realize and know that that is totally and 100% okay.
I’m different now (although, admittedly I’ve always been a bit “different” — you should see my 2nd grade school pictures). I see and approach the world as a disabled woman, recognizing that simple fact can be viewed both as a powerful tool/asset or a crippling weakness — it just depends who’s doing the looking.
I guess that’s the best part, there’s no need for me to do that looking. I’m not and you’re not an observer of your own life, you’re the main character actually playing the role; finding, shaping, realizing, and someday claiming those identities.
I was able to run on the Lakeshore path for the first time since moving to Chicago the other day and I can promise you, a lime green racing chair zipping along caused quite a few heads to turn and comments to be made. But moving forward, pounding those wheels on my own accord with the sun on my back, looking totally different than any and everyone around with my disability on proud display; I can promise you one thing, I felt totally and unadulterated me.
Taking ownership and claiming certain pieces of our life stories and identities is a story in its own right. I’m sure (as with everything), this current contentedness will ebb and flow as the world continues to turn and my grey hairs increase in number.
But today, at 6 years of life with a spinal cord injury, I exhale with pride.
Acknowledging with humility the many things I can no longer (and will likely never) do.
Accepting my occasional need for help and my simultaneous independence.
Claiming my identity as a disabled woman, living a remarkable “bonus-time” life with the support of amazing family and friends and a loving God who has kept me through it all.