The first Town Hall meeting back in school I wheel myself up to the front. Loud chatter abruptly stops. Stunned silence. Widened eyes, hard long gazes: is she playing some kind of joke? The juniors don’t understand why they’re gaping: they’ve already seen me at their Orientation, they’ve only known me like this.
“So I was backpacking in the States,” I started, trying to sound casual, “and my spine snapped.” A few gasps: loud sharp whispers of ‘what?’ and ‘no’ and ‘shit’. I bite my quivering lip. I thought I could do this, but the looks on their faces are unbearable. I look to him for support. His eyes are steady. He is with me. Even in the crowd he is beside me.
(I was on the train and at my stop I had grabbed my backpack with one hand as usual to put one arm through first, then the next, but before I was done the train jerked and my bag swung and the momentum was pulling me to the left but my legs were blocked by the panel and suddenly a snap and I collapsed to the ground. I was suddenly not me, out of me, hearing my own frantic screams and “I CAN’T MOVE I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS I CAN’T GET UP” and people rushing over but not knowing what to do. A man removed my bag; two others tried to get me up but I SCREAMED DON’T I CAN’T MOVE IT HURTS GOD HELP GOD PLEASE. They could only leave me on the floor, a screaming collapsed heap, and I couldn’t feel my legs.)
I take a deep breath, try to keep my voice level. “I have completely lost the use of the lower half of my body. I’m no longer ticklish. I can get a navel piercing with no pain now. I can sit on a freaking radiator and get a second-degree burn on my bum and never know. I can draw patterns on my thighs with a knife, I can bleed without pain now. I don’t even know when I need to pee.” Still the same hard, shocked stares. They don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Whatever. I wanted to say two things. First, treasure your ability to walk, to run, to feel buttaches. Those of you who know me well will know how I love sitting in the grass and feeling the soft beach sand between my toes. And because I will never know that feeling again, I would like to request that you feel it on my behalf. Walk barefoot. Don’t cut yourself off from sensation. Let your feet get cut, and treasure sensory intensity. But protect yourself too, of course.
“Second, don’t you dare look at me differently, and don’t ever pity me. Because I am so much more than my disability. And why focus on what I don’t have? I have hands too, don’t I? And a brain? And a mouth, that I will continue to take full advantage of.” A few chuckles and small, warm smiles. “And I still have the ability to see, which is one thing I never want to lose.
“Will I ever get a boyfriend again? I don’t know. Will I ever get married? I don’t know. It’s hard to live with someone who can’t feel a thing waist down. But I know that if I keep moping about this, it will make me even less attractive. I have a personality that is bigger than my body. I was never pretty, anyway, and no one ever said I had nice legs. But people have said that I have a great deal of inner beauty, and I don’t depend on my body for that. In fact, now, I can make up for my disability by having an even bigger personality. I haven't lost the ability to love. I’m going to be bloody awesome.” More smiles.
“And don’t you dare ever feel guilty for being able to use your legs when you’re around me. In fact, when you’re with me, walk more, run more, because I can’t. And remember to feel grateful for it. Go on long walks with me, and let me wheel myself along, because I still have my arms and I want to use them as much as possible. Don’t feel obliged to sit down when you’re with me. I’ll be sitting for the rest of my life, and it really isn’t all that fun. Do what I can’t, please. And I’ll do what I can.”
I run out of words, and I’m exhausted. I wheel myself off the stage, and they applaud because they love me. Because I’m still a part of them. Don't they dare applaud out of pity. The girls run over to shower me with hugs and kisses and i-love-yous, and you’re-so-beautifuls. They pat me on the back and say I’m so strong, that I have an undying spirit. I smile absentmindedly and let the words of love form a fog around me, but never touching me. Kept away by a certain wariness.
Town hall ends and everyone files out of the hall and all along the way I am showered with hugs and words of love but I am so tired. The lift reaches my floor. The commotion fades away; the ringing in my head quietens. Calm. I unlock my door, wheel myself in, hoist myself onto my bed, shut the windows. Now I am alone. I lie down and I cry. I cry more than my lungs can take, they scream for air, I start to scream. I’m wailing and I shout “I don’t know I can’t” – to who? to myself? to my willpower? – I am a mess. Let me grieve. I can’t even curl up.
A knock. “Go away,” I croak, reducing my cries to sobs. I don’t want people right now, please, leave me alone. The door opens anyway. Him. He stands in the doorway for a few seconds, reviews my mess. Then he comes in. He holds my upper body up, sits on my bed, lets me lean into himself, and holds me as I cry again. I cry and I cry, and he says nothing, lets his embrace say all I need.