“Did you walk today?”
It’s the first thing my father always says to me when he comes to visit me in my room in rehab. He doesn’t even say hello. He only wants to know one goddamn thing and it’s whether I walked.
Three months ago, the question wouldn’t have bothered me as much. That’s when I first broke my spine at the T4 level and was told that it was very unlikely I’d ever be able to walk again. I didn’t believe it at the time. I thought those doctors were full of shit.
Now it’s three months later. I have zero sensation or movement below the mid-chest. And when I say zero, I mean zero. I can’t wiggle my toe or bend my knee or feel my dick. Zero. It’s like the lower half of my body doesn’t even exist, and with every passing day, I know the chance of this being a forever kind of thing is getting higher. At this point, I’d actually be surprised if something below my chest did move. So yeah, the idea of walking is a little ridiculous, given what I’ve got to work with.
“Yes,” I reply.
Okay, that was a lie, obviously. But every single fucking day, it’s the same exact question. And he always looks so freaking hopeful when he says it. I’m his only son, the one who’s supposed to take over the company he’s built with his bare hands, and it kills him I might spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. So about two weeks ago, I started answering his question in the affirmative.
“That’s great!” Dad says, his blue eyes lighting up. Dad and I have the same eyes, people say. Girls have told me that they’re “soulful eyes,” whatever the fuck that means. I guess it’s good I’ve got nice eyes, since my body isn’t doing me any favors anymore. Anything to keep the attention off that. “How far did you walk?”
“About ten feet on the parallel bars,” I reply. I’ve got to keep it real. If I tell my father that I walked a hundred feet, he might expect me to hop out of my wheelchair and walk across the room. Obviously, that can’t happen. So I keep the numbers low. Five feet. Eight feet. You know.
“That’s fantastic, Jake!” Dad exclaims. “Wow, that’s a new record, isn’t it?”
I try to feign the kind of excitement I’d be feeling if I actually stood up out of my chair and walked ten feet. It’s not easy.
“I’m so proud of you,” he goes on. “I told you those doctors were wrong, that you’d walk if you just worked at it. I knew you weren’t going to spend the rest of your life as a cripple.”
Eventually, I’m going to have to tell him the truth. That I am going to spend the rest of my life as a cripple. There’s no way I can’t fake being able to walk. I can’t even stand, for fuck’s sake. So he’s going to figure it out sooner or later. But I’ve got about all I can deal with on my plate right now, so I’m choosing later.
My father sits down on my bed and tells me about how the company is doing. I worked there summers while in college and I’ve put in a year of time learning the ropes. He had stopped talking about the company until I told him I was walking again. I know he doesn’t want me back there unless I can walk. Hell, there are three steps to even get in the front door. He used to be so goddamn proud to introduce me to his work buddies—I’m guessing he won’t be so proud to show off his disabled son.
I can’t say it doesn’t hurt. I’ve always looked up to my dad and wanted to follow in his footsteps. That’s why I played football the same way he did and majored in business just like he did. We were always really close—he always says that I’m the one who’s going to carry on the family name.
Of course, as for carrying on the family name, I’m pretty much fucked in that department. When it’s late at night and I can’t sleep, sometimes I feel around for my dick, just to make absolutely sure that it’s still attached to me. I can’t feel it at all—so that part sucks. And as for getting hard—yeah, it doesn’t do that anymore. If I tug long enough, it gets a little hard. Like, al dente ziti hard. I can’t even believe this is the same dick I used to have to hide behind my giant history textbook every time I talked to Lisa Carbone. (“Lisa Carbone gives me a Car-boner.”)
My father doesn’t know about that either. Not something I ever intend to talk to him about. Christ, can you imagine? Hey, Dad, did you know your son is as impotent as an eighty-year-old man now? Just FYI.
While Dad and I are talking, my physical therapist Kara comes into the room. Kara looks like all the therapists—young and fresh-faced with these tight-fitting scrubs that make me only too aware of my now useless appendage. She’s got blond hair with a high ponytail that swings when she walks in way that’s really fucking sexy. What is it about those ponytails that just gets me?
“Hey, Jake!” Kara says brightly. “Good to see they’ve got you up and in your chair.”
My chair. Well, it’s not really my chair—it’s a loaner. A guy came by to see me last week to discuss what my wheelchair will look like, giving me so many options and features that it made my head spin. I didn’t want to make the wrong choice—this will be the chair I’ll be sitting in every single day until I wear it out. But what do I know about wheelchairs? The only kind I’ve ever sat in before this were the clunky hospital ones.
Kara places her thin hand on my shoulder. “You ready for your one o’clock session?”
My father glances at his watch. “I didn’t realize it was getting so late.”
“Hey…” Dad looks up at Kara. “Do you think it would be okay if I sat in on Jake’s session today?”
Before I can scream the word “no,” Kara says, “Sure. As long as you don’t do anything to distract us.”
Well, great. This isn’t going to go well.
But I can’t think of any way to get out of this, so I wheel out of my room after Kara and down the hall to the gym. She walks briskly and I have to wheel quickly to keep up with her. She smiles at me and dimples poke out on her cheeks. And that goddamn ponytail is taunting me.
“How was lunch?” Kara asks me. “Just as delicious as yesterday?”
She’s joking around with me because I spent a good ten minutes yesterday complaining about the sorry patty that the kitchen calls a hamburger. “Even better,” I say.
When I speak to Kara, I have to lift my head even though I’d be taller than her standing. That’s something I’m still getting used to—having to look up at everyone when I talk to them. I used to be tall—six feet. Am I still tall? I don’t know how to answer that. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m pretty much shorter than everyone when I’m in my chair.
The gymnasium is a large room with dozens of mats and exercise machines. This morning I worked on the weight training machines to do reps to build my upper body strength. Considering I’m going to be relying on my arms and upper chest for just about everything, they need to be as strong as possible.
But Kara and I usually work on transfers and balance. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had a brace called a TLSO that supported my spine and kept my upper body rigid. It was really fucking uncomfortable and I was thrilled to get it off, but I realized that without that brace, it’s really hard to even sit up. So that’s something that Kara and I work on.
We come to a stop at one of the benches, and Kara nods at it. “Let’s show your dad how great you’ve been doing with transfers, Jake.”
I stopped using a slideboard for transfers recently, which is a good thing. I mean, I can’t fucking carry a slideboard around with me everywhere I go. Kara says someday I’ll be able to transfer in two seconds, like it’s nothing, but right now, I’m slow and careful. I don’t want Kara to have to pick my sorry ass up off the floor. (Actually, more likely, she’d make me try to get back into my chair from the floor, which isn’t easy, believe me.)
I don’t focus on my father watching me as I slide my butt to the edge of my wheelchair. As soon as I don’t have the support of the backrest, I start slouching against my will, even with my arms supporting my upper body. I hate the way I look when I don’t have that support. It’s not like I had a six-pack before, but any muscles I had in my abdomen are now completely gone and the contents of my belly juts out like I’m some goddamn middle-aged drunk. It looks terrible.
I’m getting a lot better at transfers, but there are a lot of things that can go wrong, most of which involve falling. Usually, Kara catches me, but sometimes she’s not fast enough and I go down. In the beginning, I would do stupid things like forgetting to lock my wheels, but now it’s just a matter of losing my balance. The other shitty thing (literally) that could go wrong is that I sometimes shit myself during transfers. I guess it has something to do with my abdominal pressure increasing as I make the move or I don’t know what. It happens much less now that I’m on a regular bowel program, but often enough that I still tell the rehab tech that helps me dress in the morning that I need to wear a diaper. My doctor swears it won’t be a forever thing, that I’ll get control of it eventually, but there’s part of me that’s scared shitless (not literally) that I might spend the rest of my adult life in a diaper. It’s something I try not to think about.
I grab onto the mat with my right hand and the side of my chair with the other hand, and lift my body onto the other surface. Then I have to pull my legs along with me, while keeping my other arm on the mat to support my upper body. If my dad is paying any sort of attention, it should be painfully obvious that there’s no fucking way I can walk. I can barely sit up. If he really thinks I can walk, he’s delusional.
“Great job!” Kara tells me.
She rubs my shoulder when she says it. I really wish I could be meeting her in a club somewhere, instead of in rehab, where I’m struggling just to keep my body upright. The straighter I sit up, the less my gut sticks out. So I focus on that.
The next thing we work on is my balance. That means I practice leaning to one side without falling over. Then I get to lean to the other side without falling over. You get the idea.
My father watches the whole time. I can tell he’s not impressed by my ability to sit up (sort of). He didn’t come here to watch me sit up. So after about five minutes, he blurts out, “When are you going to walk with him?”
Kara’s blond eyebrows knit together. “Walk?”
She glances at me, but I keep my fool mouth shut.
“I was just hoping to see him take a few steps.” When Dad sees the baffled look on Kara’s face, he quickly adds, “I know he can’t go very far. I’m not expecting much.”
“Mr. McKinnon…” Kara looks like she doesn’t even know where to begin. “Jake can’t walk. At all.”
“I mean just on the parallel bars,” Dad says.
“He can’t walk on the parallel bars,” Kara says. “He can’t walk with a cane or a walker or anything. He can’t walk. He doesn’t have the strength in his lower body to walk. And the overwhelming likelihood is that he’ll need to rely on this wheelchair for the rest of his life.”
I’ve heard this spiel a million times. And actually, so has my dad. Except the difference is that I’ve started realizing it’s probably true, whereas my father still lives in fairyland.
“But,” Dad sputters. He looks over at me for help. “Jake told me he walked.”
My bad. I can feel Kara’s accusing eyes on me, so I just look down at my lap.
“Jake.” She’s using the angry voice she uses when she thinks I’m being lazy. “Did you tell your father you were walking?”
I raise my eyes to look at Kara. I hate this. I wish it were true that I walked ten feet rather than it just being a goddamn lie I had to tell so my father wouldn’t be disappointed. I hate looking at my legs just lying there, unwilling to do anything I want. I hate the fact that I’m a disabled person now. And that I will be for the rest of my life.
“He kept asking me…” I say helplessly.
Kara’s eyes soften. She looks between me and my father, clearly trying to figure out what to say. “Mr. McKinnon,” she says. “Were you asking Jake if he walked?”
Dad frowns. “Well, why not? That’s not a reasonable question to ask my son?”
“No,” she says. “It’s not. You’ve been told many times that Jake has a complete spinal cord injury and the chances of him walking, especially since he’s gotten no return in movement or sensation at this point, are really small. We talked about how his rehab isn’t going to address walking at all and is instead going to focus on learning to live as a full-time wheelchair user.”
“Right, but if you’re not even trying…”
“There’s no point in trying.” Kara shakes her head. “Jake can’t move his legs. At all. He’s not going to be able to walk.” My father opens his mouth as if to say something, but stops when Kara adds, “It’s not possible. I promise you.”
Kara’s words feel almost like a slap in the face. Yeah, I know I’m going to be stuck in this chair for the rest of my life. But saying that it’s not possible… it just makes me feel like there’s no hope. Not that I really thought there was any hope at this point, but… I don’t know… maybe I did.
Part of me still can’t believe that I’m really never going to be able to walk again. But I know that what Kara says is true. Every time I go into a building from now on, I’ll have to look for the ramp. Any time I travel, I’ll have to make special arrangements to accommodate my disability. When my thirtieth birthday comes, I’m going to celebrate it in my wheelchair. When I turn the big four-oh, maybe I’ll have a wife and a kid or two (if that’s possible), but I’ll still be in this chair. And if I make it to fifty, I’ll still be disabled and a wheelchair-user for over twenty fucking years. It’ll probably seem routine by then.
And when I go back to work at my father’s company, it will be in a wheelchair. He’s going to have to get the fuck over the fact that he’s got a son who is disabled. Of course, I can’t even get in the front door if he doesn’t do something about those stairs.
Speaking of which, I’ve been sitting up on this mat for a long time, and I feel like my arms are going to collapse. As we’ve been talking, I’ve been trying to find a position that takes the most weight off my arms and shoulders. It involves slumping forward so much that I’m practically folded over on myself. Even so, my arms are shaking—I feel like I could fall forward at any moment.
“Can… can I get back in my wheelchair?” I stammer.
Kara blinks at me, as if noticing my precarious situation for the first time. My father notices too that I’m struggling just to sit up. His brow furrows.
“Let’s get you back in your chair,” Kara says.
I make the transfer carefully back to my wheelchair. I’m so goddamn grateful for the back support the chair gives me. It’s obvious I’m in no position to be in one of those sleek chairs that has basically no backrest at all. I’ve got to have support up to at least my shoulder blades.
“I’ll give you two a few minutes alone,” Kara says gently. “I think you need it.”
I watch her leave, taking only a tiny amount of pleasure in how great her ass looks in her scrubs.
My back is throbbing slightly, which is par for the course. I can’t feel half my body and the parts that I can feel are always hurting me, especially my back. After two hours in the chair, I’m done. Kara says that time will get longer, which is good because I don’t know how I’d be able to do any kind of job if I can’t sit up for longer than two hours. It’s a depressing thought.
“Listen, Jake,” Dad says quietly, sitting down on the mat so that I don’t have to stare up at him. “I’m sorry I was pushing you so much to walk. I just… I feel like you’re better than this.”
Better than this? What the fuck does that mean?
“I mean,” he quickly corrects himself, “it’s hard to see you this way. You seem so… impaired.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad,” I say. “That’s really fucking helpful.”
“Don’t swear, Jake.”
Is he kidding me? “No, fuck you,” I say. I can feel a blood vessel throbbing in my right temple. “I’m doing the best I can here. This is what I’ve got to work with. And you telling me I look crippled? Not fucking helpful.”
“No, you listen.” I heave a deep breath, trying to calm myself. “Kara’s right. I’m probably never going to walk again, short of some miracle. I’m sorry if that disappoints you or embarrasses you in front of your buddies at work. But that’s the situation. So either you accept it or you don’t.”
My father is quiet for a very long minute. There’s a part of me that thinks he might throw his hands up, say he can’t deal with this, and walk away. I know I’ve let him down. I did something dumb, broke my back, and now I’ve got to deal with the consequences.
“Come on, Jake,” he says. “You know I’ll always be proud of you.”
I look down at my legs, wondering how he could possibly feel proud of me at this moment. When I look like this.
“You’re my son.” He puts his heavy hand on my shoulder. “You’ll always be my son, whether or not you can walk. I’m not ashamed of you—I’m so proud of the man you’re growing up to be.” He hesitates. “And I’m sorry I’ve been having trouble accepting all this. I know it doesn’t make things easier for you.”
“Yeah, well,” I mumble. “It’s not entirely your fault.”
Dad folds his arms across his chest. “Jake, I want you to come back to the company as soon as you feel up for it.”
I can’t quite look him in the eyes. “You know, there are three steps to the entrance. That’s going to be a problem.”
“So we’ll build a ramp.” A smile spreads across my father’s lips. “I’ll get one of those experts to come in and make the whole goddamn place wheelchair accessible. I’ll do it right after I get out of here.”
It’s hard not to allow myself to smile a little bit at that.
“So,” Dad says, “you’re going to come back, aren’t you?”
Going back to work for my father seemed like something that would never happen. That he’d never let me in the front door until I could walk up those three steps. But maybe I misjudged him. Maybe those steps aren’t the barrier I thought they’d be.
“Just try and stop me,” I say.