I wonder if a stranger and I exchanged life lessons recently, or if I just learned something after hurting her feelings. I may never know.
A cold, drizzly, early-December Saturday morning, the fam and I are going to pick up a Christmas tree. I am in a shitty mood. In addition to my usual stack of discomforts there are a few extra piled on: no parking near the tree lot; broken, bumpy sidewalks make my hand keep slipping off the wheelchair’s joystick so I’m driving all hurky-jerky; I’m overdressed and overheated, except for my hands and feet, which are freezing; my hood keeps falling over my eyes and I have to keep gyrating my head around so I can see.
As I near the tree lot I hear a woman’s voice approaching. Excuse me, do you have ALS?
Ayup, I affirm without slowing down. Wonderful.
My partner passed away from ALS, she informs me hopefully as we come abreast. I still have not looked out from under my hood. Does she want me to stop under this wet tree and have a chat about her dead partner? Maybe compare notes on how it all goes down? That might be fun.
Great! I shoot back as I motor past her, my irritability kicking up a notch. I mean, WTF. It’s not like we both have cocker spaniels. I hear her voice recede behind me somewhat pathetically, OK then, have a nice day.
I felt like a bit of a dick, but still… WTF.
A week or so later I stopped by my local pub, because I had some business with a pint (and the proprietor too, coincidentally). We talked a bit and then he went to serve a young bloke a few seats down the bar. As I sipped my fine glass of Alt I overheard them talking about running. Pretty soon I notice the young guy is addressing me:
I run marathons to raise money for ALS. My dad died of it last year.
Now really – WTF!?
Look buddy, I said, I know you have been through an intense and painful loss. But I’m just a guy trying to have a beer here, OK?
I was trying to be jokey, but my wheezing, slurred speech kind of ruined the comedic nuance. The guy looked deflated. I felt bad, and then a weird thing happened. All the sudden I found myself in his seat, looking down the bar at my dead dad, happy to see him again.
I haven’t seen myself in a mirror in ages, mainly due to wheelchair logistics. The chair and the neck brace, the lopsided mouth, the bony shoulders sticking out, the arms hanging down like a couple of dead squid; I’m not conscious of these things beyond their being the source of varying degrees of daily frustration. That’s fine. I don’t need to look.
But for some people seeing me — I now forcefully realized — it brings up a lot of emotional stuff. Seeing me brings back the memories and the grief; it momentarily resurrects a loved one. I’ve never lost someone I was truly close to. I don’t know what that’s like. But in that moment at the bar through this guy’s eyes, I knew. It knocked the wind out of me.
Now, that’s a heavy trip that I didn’t ask for and don’t want. But in that moment at the bar I realized, you don’t get to choose or refuse the impact you have on other people. You can either graciously accept it, or you can be a dick about it.
So I apologized for being a dick about it. We had a laugh, and went on to discuss other important things, like beer.