I hate that seeing a wheelchair always reminds me of my mom.
She was so much more than that chair. So much more than the monster called MS that she lived with for 30 years.
But whenever I see someone in a wheelchair, or a hopelessly inaccessible bathroom, or a store you can only reach by taking the stairs, I’m reminded of my remarkable mom, who was dependent on a wheelchair for too many years before she died too soon almost 13 years ago.
Sometimes the chair was all people would see.
Sometimes it made this vibrant woman invisible.
I thought about that this weekend while we were at our city’s Halloween festival. We admired the creative costumes, screamed through the haunted house, and trick-or-treated at the shops along the way to the town square for the dog costume contest and the wiener dog races.
A crowd gathered around the small cordoned-off area to watch the tiny four-legged racers. It was hard to see, and kids crouched down at the front while adults stood behind. A man wheeled up and took a spot behind the children.
Soon, a woman appeared and stood directly in front of him. She kept looking around, I assumed, to make sure she wasn’t in anyone’s way. She never noticed the gentleman in the wheelchair behind her. He kept trying to peer around her, to get a glimpse of the action, but he never said anything.
Finally, I touched her gently on the shoulder, letting her kindly know she was blocking his view. She was embarrassed, she felt bad, and of course she apologized.
“I didn’t even SEE him. I didn’t even SEE him,” she kept repeating.
She didn’t even see him.
My mom would never have been alone. My amazing dad or one of her kids or a friend would have been there to push her forward and make sure she had a clear view. This man was by himself. I don’t know him or anything about his circumstances and really have no right to speak for him.
But I saw him.
And I saw my mom and all the times airport security wanted her to stand up to be searched, all the waiters who tried to get us into a booth rather than seat us at a table she could easily pull up to, and all the salesclerks who looked over her head and asked me if they could help me find something. I thought of the numerous times my Mom was using her electric scooter on our walks and someone jogged by, cheerfully but thoughtlessly saying they envied her ride.
I remembered the times she didn’t want to make a scene when we couldn’t get somewhere she wanted to go, and the times she made a joke about it.
“Watch out for the crazy driver!” she’d laugh as I pushed through department store racks placed too tightly together so she could reach the sweater she wanted to try on.
I’m grateful for the strangers who would hold the door for us, who would help us negotiate a curb where there was no ramp, and especially thankful to those who greeted my mom, instead of avoiding her eyes and looking to me.
Because she was someone you wanted to know. She was a funny, smart, and resilient woman who loved shopping, football, and politics and could debate with the best. Before the disease ravaged her hands, she played a mean piano, and the former English teacher and music school owner inspired her children to play music, to write, to sing. She fought hard and worked hard and loved much and never stopped trying.
She was so much more than that damn chair.
Please remember that the next time you encounter a person in a wheelchair.
Just see her.