People in wheelchairs deserve to be seen

mom and ma (2)

I hardly see the wheelchair in one of my favorite photos of my fun-loving mom and my aunt.

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.

mom and me

My mom and me, before MS.

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.


9 thoughts on “People in wheelchairs deserve to be seen

  1. Taara Donley

    Thank you for stopping by my blog and posting a link to this article. It was beautifully written. I’m so sorry for your loss, Katherine. Your mother sounds as if she was a wonderful person. She must have been very proud of you. Please accept my heartfelt condolences.


  2. Mary Ann Solmonson

    Katherine, thank you for your post today. I miss your Mom every day and all of the fun times we shared together. Everything you wrote about today is so true. I see here when I am shopping at the store and try to get inbetween the rounders holding the clothes, I see her when I go into a bathroom, that is not handicap assessible, I see her almost every day, even though she has been gone for 13 years. She was my sister-in-law, but really she was my sister. I never had a sister, and Karen completed my family. I have so much respect for her as she lived her life with MS. The YMCA that had a special time for MS patients to swim, was because of your Mom. I would go swimming with her and see the smile on her face when she said, “This is the only time I can stand up, becasue the water makes it possible!” She sould swim laps and use her arm, that otherwise she couldn’t move it . I couldn’t keep up with her and that made her smile too. I was privilaged to take her to her class room at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he helped students with the papers they had written. They loved her.I knew it was ok to leave her there, because they would help her if she needed it. They had a Starbucks coffee waiting for her when she arrived. One day I went to pick her up and she wasn’t in the room. Someone had helped her to the bathroom, and soon they were back. She touched so many peoples lives and was an insiration to many. Because of her, I do see the handicapped person in the wheel chair, and I assist them when I can.

    I feel blessed we got the opportunity to move to Alaska, and be a part of her day to day life, when she still could walk–and most people didn’t even know anything was wrong with her. The blessings continued when we got to come back for two years. I wasn’t working and I spendt most of the day with Karen! The one thing she really wanted to get done, was a scrapbook of you kid’s growing up years. We spent hours in her study, going through all of the stuff she had saved–laughing and crying at some of it. I am happy you all have your scrapbook from your Mom and her “sister”.

    Your Dad is a Saint! He was a help to Karen through out all the years she had MS. When she needed him, he was there. He would drop what he was doing in his law office and come home. We love, you John, and are glad we can celebrate Karen’s life everytime we see you.

    I saw her sitting right beside me when I sat through one of Eric’s trials. She would have been so proud.
    I saw her standing with us as we were with you and Bryan celebrated the birth of Hawke.
    I saw her at the baptism of her first Grandchild, Zach.
    I saw her as she was with me when Rick died.
    I could keep going and going, but I just want to say I see her everyday in the lives of people who are handicapped.
    Your Mom was a beautiful woman!
    Love to you,
    Mary Ann



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