I hadn’t flown yet while in a wheelchair and I wasn’t excited about it. “Can’t I just stay here?” I asked my mother.
“Well, who will stay with you?” Mom retorted.
It fucking sucked that I was 24 years old, yet I couldn’t be left alone for a week. “What about your parents?”
“Oh no, Ryan,” she said, shaking her head. “They’re too old to take care of you for a whole week.”
I honestly didn’t think it was that much work, but Mom insisted it was. The only other option was Sean, but I didn’t want that asshole taking care of my personal needs. So I had no choice but to go on the trip.
Our other fight was over my wheelchair. My father told me we weren’t going to take my power wheelchair because it was really expensive and he didn’t want it to get damaged on the plane. I didn’t want it damaged either, but we were going to be in Michigan for a whole week. What the fuck was I supposed to do without my power wheelchair? We did have that manual chair, but fat lot of good that did me with one working bicep.
Finally, my occupational therapist rigged it up for me so that I could wheel the chair on my own a bit though. She put spokes on the right wheel so I could grip it a bit using my splint, and attached the two wheels so they would move simultaneously. So I wouldn’t be able to turn or anything, but I could at least wheel forward. Better than nothing.
My father got me into the manual chair on the morning of the trip and I used it a little bit in the house. It was really, really hard to wheel, although I could do it. He didn’t even bother to ask me if I wanted to try wheeling out of my room, because that would have taken way too much maneuvering. But when we got outside, on the sidewalk, I told my parents to back off and let me wheel it myself.
It was really hard to get my hand between the spokes and when I did, it felt like trying to move a mountain to just wheel a few inches. I was slow, in other words. But at the same time, I kind of loved it. I mean, I know I look like a freak in my power wheelchair, but I looked way more normal in this manual chair. And it was pretty cool that I could wheel it myself. I actually made it all the way down to the van on my own.
“You are not pushing that chair yourself at the airport,” Dad informed me. “We want to get on that plane sometime today.”
I wanted to reply with something snide, but I had learned my lesson. Anyway, I was completely exhausted from having just pushed the chair that short distance. The airport was out of the question.
The airport was really crowded, so it was kind of good that my mother was wheeling me. We were using my lap for my mother’s carry-on bag, and my arms were on top of that. I watched as my left arm slowly slid off the bag and thankfully stayed within the armrests of the wheelchair.
When we got to security, I knew I was going to be parting with my wheelchair. A security guard approached my parents, “Can he stand up?”
Naturally, they would never talk directly to me.
“No, he can’t,” Mom said.
So I got fucking frisked. It was really awkward, but not nearly as bad as when some airport personnel brought over an aisle chair for me to transfer into. I felt sick looking at that thing. It was so narrow, I knew I was going to feel really insecure in it.
My parents had requested two men to help me make the transfer. My mother instructed them as she undid the strap across my chest: “He doesn’t have any upper body control, so it’s going to be like lifting a sack of potatoes.”
Having been transferred many times by many different people, it’s very obvious to me when I’m being handled by someone used to transferring quads. These men were not. I felt scared as they lifted me up and got me into the chair. I think they took my mother’s “sack of potatoes” analogy a little too seriously. I literally felt like a sack of potatoes.
Once I was in the aisle chair, I learned a hard lesson about aisle chairs that I came to learn all too well: they don’t have any upper body support. Since there were zero muscles in my trunk, I started falling forward in the chair. I was practically doubled over.
“Don’t you have a belt for his chest?” Mom asked the men.
They looked at me, completely unable to sit up in this stupid fucking narrow chair. I could tell these guys weren’t going to be of any help. Finally, Mom got a scarf out of her bag and tied me to the chair. It was not ideal but it worked.
We heard there was one other disabled passenger on our flight. I was hoping it would be someone I could talk to, but I knew it almost definitely wouldn’t be. In my experience, disabled people are almost all either old and weird. The guy on my flight turned out to be weird. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but his eyes were rolled up and he was drooling, and his head was kind of misshapen. I got to sit right next to him as we waited to board our flight. The best part was that the guy was also with his parents, so my mom struck up a conversation with his mom. Bonding over their crippled sons.
At one point, the other guy in the wheelchair looked straight at me. I tried to avoid eye contact, but then he said, “Hi!” His speech was really slurred.
I just stared at him until my mother said to me, “Say hi, Ryan.”
I really, really didn’t want to start up a conversation with this kid. But I could tell my mother wasn’t going to let it go. So I said, “Hi.”
“Isn’t that cute?” the other guy’s mother said. “Maybe they’ll be friends during the flight.”
No. Fucking. Way.
Thankfully, we started boarding soon. The other family was smart enough to get bulkhead seating, but we weren’t, so I had to get squeezed down to seat 5C. And unfortunately, I still needed the scarf around my chest to keep my balance because the flight attendants wouldn’t let me keep the seat reclined.
One thing I had to say about the flight was that the stewardesses were really attentive to me. They kept coming up to my mother and saying, “Is he okay? Is there anything he needs?” They didn’t actually manage to talk directly to me the whole flight, but whatever. It was a short flight.
When the flight landed, everyone else had to get off before me. It sucked because I could see my leg bag was really full and I wanted to get it emptied before it started leaking or something. The last thing I wanted was to have to wheel around the airport in urine-soaked pants.
After I’d been waiting just about forever, a flight attendant came by with my wheelchair. Not an aisle chair, but my actual wheelchair, which had no way of fitting down the narrow aisle. He brought it to row 1, about ten feet away from me, and looked at me expectantly.
“He needs an aisle chair,” Dad told the flight attendant.
“Oh.” The guy scratched his head and looked completely baffled. “It’s only a few feet, can’t he just walk that short distance?”
There was a fucking scarf holding me into my seat. Did I look like I could walk at all?
My dad read the guy the riot act and although they didn’t manage to locate an aisle chair, they found two strong luggage handlers to carry me to my wheelchair. At this point, I felt like the most high maintenance piece of luggage on the whole goddamn plane.
Dad had rented a van, which we picked up at the airport. It was about a thirty minute ride from the airport to my grandparents’ house and we mostly rode in silence. Dad always got kind of tense when we made this trip.
My grandparents had a two-story house with five steps to get to the front door. One of the benefits of being in the manual chair is that it would be easier to get up those steps. Dad helped me out of the van, pushed me to the house, then bumped me up the stairs. I was beginning to realize that I wasn’t going to be wheeling my own chair very much on this trip.
I hadn’t seen my grandparents in a while, and I couldn’t help but think they looked really old. Grandma’s face was a mass of wrinkles and her hair was a big white, thinning poof. Grandpa looked even more decrepit. He greeted us at the door with a cane and he walked with shuffling steps. Not that I should be criticizing how someone else walked, but the last time I was here, he was still playing tennis.
“Oh, Ryan!” Grandma cried, flinging her arms around me. “It’s been so long! We’ve missed you!”
I hugged her back best I could with my one arm. All the while, my grandfather was staring at me with kind of narrowed eyes. He looked really pissed off at me for some reason.
“What the hell did you do to yourself, kid?” he said to me.
“I got in an accident,” I said, feeling really uncomfortable.
“Figures,” Grandpa muttered. “You’ve always been a fuck up.”
“Art!” Grandma cried. “Stop it!”
“Stop what?” Grandpa grumbled. “I’ve been telling Mark for the last fifty years that he’s going to mess his life up.”
“Art,” Grandma hissed. “This is Ryan. Your grandson.” She smiled at me. “I’m sorry, Ryan.”
I nodded, thinking it was interesting that he had mixed me up with my father. I looked over at Dad to see if he’d noticed the mistake, but he was busy with something.
“Come with me to your room, Ryan,” Grandma said.
Another bonus I discovered to the trip: my grandparents’ house was carpeted. That meant that instead of feeling like I was pushing a mountain when I wheeled my chair, it was more like pushing a planet. I basically couldn’t do it. Grandma had gotten almost to the doorway when she noticed I hadn’t budged.
“Ryan, what’s wrong?” she asked me.
“Nothing, just a second,” I said. I pushed as hard as I could against the wheel of my chair and I rolled a couple of inches. At this rate, I’d have made it to the bedroom by the time we were ready to leave.
Mom took charge of the situation. She grabbed the handles of the chair and pushed me across the living room. I realized that I was mostly going to have to rely on others for my mobility during this trip. I hated that, but there wasn’t much I could do about it at this point.
Apparently, my grandparents had rented a Hoyer lift to get me into the bed. I saw it positioned in the middle of the room. The bed wasn’t a hospital type bed, which meant I was going to have to get turned during the night to prevent sores. “What do you think?” Grandma asked me.
“It’s fine,” I said. What the fuck was I supposed to say?
“Say ‘thank you,’ Ryan,” Dad said.
Oh, I guess that was what I was supposed to say. Through gritted teeth, I said, “Thank you.” I hope my father knew that the only thing keeping me from hitting him now was two paralyzed arms.
That night, Grandma insisted we all sit down for a big family dinner. I would rather have jumped out the fucking window, but since I couldn't physically do that anymore, I didn't have a choice but to sit there for this stupid family dinner.
It smelled good, at least. Grandma was a really good cook. She was making herbed chicken with sides of mashed potato and stuffing. And vegetables, I guess. My father has always been on the side of being a fatass and I guess this is why.
Everyone else was still outside when I heard Grandma call that dinner was ready. I was watching TV, sitting in my piece of shit manual wheelchair. The dining room was about fifteen feet away from where I was parked and I figured this was a good opportunity to try to make it over there on my own.
I hooked my splinted right hand into the wheel and tried to give the wheel a push. It didn't budge. I tried a second time. Nothing.
This fucking carpet was ruining my life. It was hard enough to push this chair on a smooth surface, but this was really impossible. I couldn't believe I was now going to spend the whole week having to be pushed around just because of a goddamn carpet.
I took a deep breath, summoned all my strength, and gave the wheel another push. I moved three inches. It was a miracle!
I had actually made it a few feet closer to the dining table when my mother came into the house, saw I was having trouble, and just pushed me the rest of the way in about five seconds. At that point, I pretty much gave up.
It was obvious which of the seats at the table was meant for me. First of all, there was no seat at all. Second, there was one of my special plates with the high edges, and the meat was chopped up into teeny tiny pieces. I hated that everything about it screamed out "crippled." But what was the point of getting upset? I needed all those things.
The food was good, but the meal was really tense. I hadn't been here in a long time, and I'd forgotten that it used to be this way. Except I don't remember being the object of the animosity in the past. Through the whole meal, Grandpa kept glaring at me really angrily. At one point, I was trying to get a piece of chicken in my mouth and I missed and it rolled onto the floor.
"Look what you did to your mother's clean floor!" Grandpa snapped at me. "Are you going to pick that up?"
Obviously, I couldn't. So I said, "No, I can't."
"Pick that up right now!" Grandpa yelled at me.
Grandma quickly ran over and scooped up the piece of chicken. "Honey, he can't clean up. He's disabled."
"Always with the excuses," Grandpa grumbled. "One after another, huh? When are you going to learn some responsibility, Mark?"
It was pretty messed up that Grandpa was screaming at me and simultaneously mistaking me for my dad. I looked over at my father, who wasn't saying anything. Actually, he hadn't said anything through the whole meal. He was just looking down at his plate, pushing the food around with his fork. The whole thing was just really weird.
Because I couldn’t do much in terms of wheeling my own chair, I’d generally have to wait for someone to put me somewhere, then scream when I wanted to be moved. The next afternoon, my mother set me up on the porch, so I had a great view of my father trying to mow my grandparents’ lawn. The lawn looked like it hadn’t been mowed in years. The grass was practically up to my shoulders.
I remembered when I used to come here as a kid, Grandpa used to let me mow the lawn. I thought it was really fun. I looked down at my arms now and realized that I wasn’t ever going to be able to help mow a lawn again. All I could do was watch. And supervise.
After about half an hour, Dad was covered in sweat and said that he was going back inside to get a drink. “You want anything, Ryan?” he asked me.
“No,” I said.
“Well, of course not,” he said. “You’ve just been sitting there.”
Yeah, thanks, Dad.
Dad went back into the house and I knew he wasn’t coming out again anytime soon. I closed my eyes, feeling the breeze on my face. Lately, I was trying to concentrate more on sensations. Before I got injured, I always felt like I needed to be doing something, to be experiencing some new thing. But now I was trying to appreciate little things or little sensations. I remember I heard some bullshit story in some high school English class about a guy who climbed a tree to escape a tiger, but the branch he was on was about to crack, and he was going to fall and die. I guess there was only one branch. Anyway, he sees this strawberry hanging from the branch and he eats it, and it’s the best strawberry he ever tasted. Or maybe it was a peach? Because strawberries don’t grow on trees, right? Anyway, it’s a dumb story, but I sort of get it now.
I opened my eyes again and I saw a familiar face at the edge of my grandparents’ driveway. It was a very skinny girl around my age with stringy blond hair and big eyes. I couldn’t quite remember her name, but somehow May popped into my head. All I remembered for sure was that she and I had made out the last time I’d visited here.
“Ryan?” she said, squinting at me.
“Hi,” I said. I took a stab: “May?”
“April,” she said. I was close.
April crept closer to me, her big eyes getting bigger. They took up half her face. “Shit, Ryan, what happened to you?”
I probably should have told the truth. But for once, I wasn’t wearing any splints and I was in a normal wheelchair. It seemed easier to lie and not have to deal with her pity. “I hurt my leg and I had to have surgery,” I said. “I’m not supposed to walk on it.”
“Oh, that sucks,” April said, getting closer. “How long till you can walk again?”
“A few more weeks,” I said. If only that were true. It made me depressed just to think about it.
“You must be really bored,” April said. As she said it, she reached out and ran her head through my hair. And I was really glad I’d lied to her, because if I told her I was a quadriplegic, she’d probably be making awkward conversation by now and trying to think of a way to leave.
Fuck, I really wanted to make out with April. She wasn’t even all that pretty, but the thought of having her soft lips on mine was too amazing for words. All I had to do was keep pretending I wasn’t disabled, although I didn’t think I could pull that off for too much longer. Unless April was too stoned to notice, which she probably was.
“Why don’t you keep me company?” I suggested.
April grinned and sat down on my lap. She was almost sitting on my left hand, but it luckily sort of fell out of the way. I lifted my right and to rub her back, being careful not to let her see my hand. If she saw my curled hand up close, the gig would be up.
“You’re so cute, Ryan,” April said, her lips close to mine, teasing me.
“So are you,” I said, leaning forward to bridge the gap.
April was a really good kisser. She’d probably kissed hundreds of boys, so she really knew what she was doing. The sensation of her hot tongue against mine sent off fireworks in all the parts of my body that I could feel. I could have kissed her for hours, but of course, most of the guys April had been with (including myself) didn’t want to kiss for hours. They wanted to do other stuff. So before I could stop her, April was unzipping my pants. I knew before it happened what her reaction would be.
“What the fuck, Ryan?” April screeched, jumping up off my lap. “Are you wearing a diaper?”
I don’t know why I responded the way I did. Maybe I was embarrassed. But I completely flew off the handle and started yelling at her. “They’re not fucking diapers,” I snapped. “They’re adult undergarments, and you know what? Plenty of adults wear them. You’ll probably need them before you’re thirty after you pop out a few bastards.”
April backed up a few steps. I looked down and saw my pants hanging open. I put my right arm over the zipper to cover it, because I didn’t have the dexterity to zip them up again myself.
“What’s wrong with your hands?” April asked. “What happened to you, Ryan?”
“Why don’t you get the fuck away from me, you skanky bitch!” I yelled. “I don’t want your genital herpes.”
April narrowed her eyes at me. I think by this point, she had figured it out. “Suit yourself, you incontinent cripple,” she said.
She spun on her heels and marched away, leaving me sitting on the porch in my wheelchair with my fucking pants still hanging open. I felt tears rise in my eyes, but I swallowed hard, pushing them back. I wasn’t going to cry over this bitch or over my life.
Dad chose that moment to open the front door. He saw me sitting on the porch with my pants open. He frowned and gave me a completely baffled look. “Ryan, how did your pants come open?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They just popped open.”
Dad examined the pants carefully as he pulled up my zipper for me and redid the button. I could tell he was really perplexed as to how my pants undid themselves. By the end of his examination, I was ready to start cracking up. I guess when you’re a quadriplegic, you have to have a sense of humor about these things. It’s the only way.