Hurdles, Art Books and the Handicapped
Last night The Jays lost 8-0 to Tampa Bay ( remember I write several months ahead and then edit later), but we left before the end of the game. As I huffed my way up the stairs to the exit, I thought of my father. Not that he was a sports enthusiast although he enjoyed watching an odd golf game or even awkwardly dropping a ball to bowl occasionally. But the impossibility he would have had mounting those stairs caused me pause.
My father was a victim of polio, his legs forever destroyed so for the rest of his life from age 28, he required braces and crutches to keep him upright. When he left Riverdale Hospital in 1949, he was fully braced in something that would conjure a Hannibal Lector cage of straps and bars. Later he relied on half braces and wooden sticks much like Itzak Perlman’s to balance his body as he swung his legs. Eventually some design fool had decided that a plastic substitute should replace the rubber tips at the bottom of the crutches so that sliding on wet surfaces became another obstacle to overcome when moving from place to place.
As I puffed up the stairs at the ACC, I reflected on how many venues are inaccessible to the handicapped. Although my father had been forced to navigate before “ Handicapped” signs were designated for special parking privileges and broken down curbs or ramps were even a cloud in a city planner’s mind, he and others had somehow travelled the city.
Once he had brought me an art book from Queen Street and only years later did I ponder, how could he have parked his car, gotten into the store on that busy street, and carried that over-sized book back home? I was so amazed and overwhelmed by the act at the time, that thanking him for his feat did not even pass over my consciousness, so consumed was I by my prize.
When we chose as our first home, an apartment with two flights of stairs, there had been no thought of the effort required to hoist his 180 pound body to our door for dinner. I recall as well when I continued to demand he wear madras shorts and he finally retorted that he had no desire to expose his braces.
Now I reflect or rationalize with embarrassment that perhaps it was a need to believe that one’s parents are forever strong and invincible, like all other able bodies parents, or truthfully and more honestly, it is a lack of empathy, particularly when we, ourselves, are strong, bold and young, unmindful of the ravages that a disease or age can impose: in weighing down the body with limps, shakes, gasps or pain.
At more than 60 now, I regret such brazen insensitivity.
And now that my father is gone, I can never express to him that I am so sorry and so unmindful of how difficult his life was. Yet, he would have scorned my pity., brushing away my comments, perhaps not wanting to even discuss such matters.
As I struggled with my grandson’s carriage at Starbuck’s this summer, no person my age or much younger, jumped up to open the door as I fought to push the stroller through. Even directly meeting their eyes which did not flinch from my questioning gaze to suggest that they momentarily leave their frothy cappuccinos to aid diverted the course of events. Similarly on a bus or subway ride, it is not the young who rise to offer a seat, so ensconced are they by their earplugs. My friend Anne said a woman her own age offered a seat. Anne smiled but refused.
So when no one offers you a seat, or even deigns to open a door: you do it yourself.
That was what my father did. When even his and my mother’s family did not leave him a parking place in the dead of cold slippery winters, he somehow dragged himself through the ice, set on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling.
Year later, as a society we do pretend that we care and have put in place some support- or so we say. Perhaps it has to do with boomer aging as we find the stairs a bit more challenging or lose our balance so much easier than when we twirled effortlessly on ice skates. I often say that the boomers never believed that would lose the golden haze of youth and perhaps that is part of the everlasting Mic Jagger or Bon Jovi tours. We gaze at the wizening faces but applaud the flexibility in their limbs.
My mother used to use” you never know…” and it is true, you never do know until you experience the reality of a situation yourself.