The heat rose in visible whorls of dust as we simultaneously converged toward the bus stop — me at a rate of knots, rushing as usual, and he, slowly inching forward in his electric wheelchair. I jumped onto the little green shuttle bus as soon as it opened its doors, plonked myself down with a sigh and wiped my forehead, relieved to have made it and further thankful for the air-conditioning. Immediately, an elderly gentleman jumped up. “Don’t get up,” he ordered the bus driver, in true Israeli style, as he ran to open up the ramp joining entrance and pavement, inviting the disabled gentleman to enter. Sheepishly, I sat there, both ashamed, that I hadn’t assisted, and impressed with the bus’s technology, enabling all its occupants to embark with ease.
Intelligent eyes. Kind eyes. Eye contact. The man on the bus and I glance at each other, the only occupants besides the elderly gentleman. He begins speaking in Hebrew. “You know I used to live in another area of Jerusalem,” he says, not directing his conversation to anyone in particular. “Every morning I would wait at the bus stop and seven or eight drivers would whizz right past me. They never stopped, despite my frantic gestures.” He refers to his wheelchair in Hebrew. The word is agalah. The same word for a baby stroller. Helplessness. I feel a pit in my stomach.
I think back to a conversation I once had with a super-successful entrepreneur, rendered quadriplegic following a tragic accident. Despite having a PhD and selling a company he founded to a multimillion dollar conglomerate, he contends on a regular basis with waiters in restaurants asking his wife what he wants to eat. Invisible. Displaced in space. Randomly struck. He makes light of it by saying that at least in a wheelchair — always being in a sitting position — he has a remarkable view of all walks of derrières.
On a personal level, having my own father classified as 98-percent disabled, for the last 18 months of his life, opened a whole universe for me. It’s a bit like being pregnant or getting a new blue Honda. You suddenly find yourself looking at other women’s bellies to spot comrades, or count all the blue Hondas you see on the road with a strange sense of satisfaction. A new concentric circle of awareness expanded my rather insular world. Suddenly, I sparked a righteous rage when I caught people illegally parking in disabled spots. My mother made a new point of greeting every disabled person she saw in the street.
I recently heard of a highly talented woman, fully functional in every sense despite having been struck with spina bifida at birth, who was forced one evening to wait an entire hour to park her car in a disabled parking spot outside the pool where she regularly swam. When a strapping able-bodied young man eventually came to claim his car and she questioned his parking illegally, he arrogantly and cruelly responded that he was fully entitled to park there as, um, disabled people never go out at night, right?
I used to play these crazy mind games as a child: What would I choose to sacrifice if I had to lose a sense or a piece of my health? Ears? No, not ears. Never. Could not survive one day without music. Eyes? But I love reading and, gosh, to live life without seeing the splash of nature’s colors. Nope, not that. How about legs? Oh my goodness, don’t go there. I need those. I love to dance and do yoga and all that other mind-body stuff, which keeps me sane and attuned. How about arms? No. How about feet? Hands? Brain? Balance? Taste? Smell? Organs? Fertility? Bones? No. No. No. Stop. Stop. Stop. Enough. I can’t do this…
All random, all temporary gifts, which we too easily forget in the hubbub of life.
Could have been me. Could have been you.
A woman lives on my street. I drive past her every day and observe her delivering her son to kindergarten. She lies on an electric bed alongside the boy, traipsing up the hill, contorted legs, and exudes a radiance that belies her situation. One morning I watch them having a little chuckle together, sharing a private joke as she smooths his downy blond head — an intimate mother-child gesture. Unsung hero, woman of valor. My daily leveler and reminder to sharpen my sensitivity, appreciate my lot and express gratitude. President of the US, Queen of England, Forbes billionaires, Leonardo DiCaprio, whatever… “You don’t impress me much.” Nope. It’s those other guys described above who are the able and capable and accomplished souls — and frankly a much sounder source of muse and inspiration.