It’s a few weeks later that Kelly brings me my first wheelchair. It’s not the kind people use in the hospital, but something sleeker with red trim and a single footplate in the center. She measured me for it and asked me questions about the design, which I had answered with complete indifference, knowing I’d never use the damn thing. Who cared if it was red or blue or if it had a rigid or foldable frame?
Kelly surprises me by sitting in the chair and wheeling over to me, in what is apparently a live demo. I know she’s trying to show me that it isn’t so bad, but part of me hates her for doing that. I don’t like that she’s cruising around in that chair like it’s not so bad when she’s able to get up out of it and walk normal at any time.
“Wanna try it out?” she asks me, as she rises to her feet.
I give the chair a sideways glance. “Not really.”
“Fine, fine,” I grumble. I eye it again, trying to figure out the best way to get inside.
“Let me show you how to transfer,” she says. “I’m basically going to teach you to transfer like you’re a paraplegic, because you essentially are at this point.”
“I could use a walker to stand and then shift over,” I say.
“I think my way will be more practical,” Kelly tells me. “And you’ll still be able to do it if you can’t stand anymore.”
I wince. She says it like it’s an inevitability that I won’t be able to stand anymore someday.
She shows me how to transfer by grabbing on to the side of the wheelchair and shifting my body over using the strength in my arms. Good thing my arms have gotten a lot stronger in the last four years. Even so, it isn’t easy. Kelly hangs onto me the whole time and probably does most of the work.
And then I’m in the chair.
The second I get positioned, my stomach churns. I can’t believe I’m sitting in a wheelchair—my wheelchair. I swore I wouldn’t let this happen.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I mumble. I lean forward, pressing my face into my hands.
Kelly rushes off to get me a trough. I gag, but I don’t throw up. But I still feel ill.
“I don’t want to be in this wheelchair anymore,” I say.
I start to try to get up, but I can’t. My crutches aren’t within reach, and the footplate makes it hard to get up. At this point, I’m starting to panic and I’m about to hurl myself at the floor. Kelly finally has me grab her around the neck, then basically lifts me out of the chair, back onto the bench.
When I’m safely out of the chair, I wipe sweat off my brow. I can’t believe I had a panic attack from sitting in a wheelchair.
“Are you okay?” Kelly asks me, peering at my face.
“Fine,” I manage.
She looks at me for a minute, then sighs. “I think maybe we need to get you used to this gradually.”
I shake my head. “I can walk just fine.”
“Are you kidding me, Matt?” Kelly folds her arms across her chest. “You can barely walk. You look like you’re struggling with every step. It’s fine if you want to do it sometimes for exercise or bone health, but you should be using the wheelchair as your primary method of mobility.”
I look down at my hands.
“I know it’s hard,” she says gently. “I know you were hoping to stay out of the wheelchair for a while. But it’s not that bad. I think you’ll be surprised how much more mobile you are once you have the wheelchair. How much more freedom you have. I mean, when is the last time you decided not to do something just because you didn’t feel like you could walk that far?”
All the fucking time.
“Think about it, Matt,” she says.
No. I can’t. It’s too soon. It’s too soon.
I go to work two days every week, and spend the rest of the week working from home. Peter actually offered to let me stay at home more, but I feel like if I did that, I’d become one of those weird people who has no contact with the outside world. Especially considering I’m nearly at that point right now.
Work keeps me sane. Even if a lot of people barely talk to me anymore.
But Anna does.
When I hobble into work this morning, I see Anna as I’m heading to my own cubicle. She gives me a huge smile. I definitely wouldn’t call Anna my girlfriend, but we’re something more than friends. We talk on the phone nearly every night. I know all about her parents, her sister, her interests. I’ve never been in her house though. I’ve never kissed her. I’ve never even held her hand.
It’s a complicated relationship.
I’m being incredibly patient with this girl. It helps that I can’t imagine anyone else being willing to go out with me. Girls treat me like I’m either invisible, contagious, or five years old.
“Matt!” she says, jumping out of her seat when she sees me. Some days I’m convinced she might hug me or something like that, but she never does. Don’t laugh, but I fantasize about just touching her. I jack off thinking about us holding hands.
Today I notice that Anna has a pained look on her face. Her face is paler than usual and her eyes are red-rimmed.
“Is everything okay?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “Peter was yelling at me over the cans again.”
Since the episode with Calvin, Anna has managed to rebuild her tower of cans. It’s gotten back to the level of being clearly unacceptable. Sometimes I wonder if I should sit Anna down and have a serious talk with her about the cans.
“That’s terrible,” I say instead.
“He told me I have to get rid of them,” she says, “or else I’m fired.”
I stare at her in surprise. Peter has been yelling about those cans for years, but I never thought he’d give her an ultimatum like that. Despite how angry he gets at her, I know Peter likes Anna and he thinks she’s a genius (which she is).
“So…” She looks down at the cans. “I’m going to bring them home tonight. Well, some of them. Some I might keep in a drawer. And maybe I’ll throw away some of them. Unless…” She lifts her eyes to look at me. “Do you want to take some of them home?”
“Um…” I don’t. I mean, I do and I don’t. I don’t actually want the cans. Who would? I mean, besides Anna. But I do want to take them because I know it would make her happy.
Except how the hell am I going to get them to my car? Carrying a bunch of cans is just not a possibility for me.
Maybe Anna figures that part out, because she says to me, “How about if I put one in your desk drawer? So you can see it and think of me?”
“Sure,” I say, relieved. “Of course.”
I sit down and get to work while Anna dismantles her tower of cans. I’ve got a meeting today at ten o’clock and I have to plan my whole day around it. I know this sounds bad, but I usually start heading to a meeting about thirty minutes prior, because the conference room is all the way down the hall. It would probably take most people about sixty seconds to get there, but it takes me significantly longer than that. I don’t want to worry about having to rush and accidentally falling. Also, I can’t go to the bathroom during the meeting, so I have to go right before. Which means walking to the bathroom—another long trek for me.
Maybe this is what Kelly was talking about when we talked about how I’d have more mobility if I used a wheelchair.
At 9:30 a.m., I grab my crutches with the intention of heading for the meeting. I thread my forearms through the holes, grab the handles, and plant them on the ground. Except somehow, it’s harder to get up than it usually is. I rock back and forth, trying to gain some momentum. And… nothing.
I keep trying to get out of my chair, doing everything I can without risking falling out of my chair onto the ground. I don’t know what’s going on, if maybe the chair is lower than usual or what, but I can’t seem to get up. If I had my walker, I’d be able to get up because I’d have more leverage, but the crutches don’t give me the same stability.
It’s 9:40 now. I need to figure out how to get up and get to this meeting. Even if I missed the meeting though, I’d still eventually need to figure out how to get out of this chair. But how?
I look at the wall of my cubicle. Before I got my cane, I used to sometimes hang onto the walls of cubicles as I walked to keep from losing my balance. Maybe I could grab on to the wall of my cubicle to help pull myself to my feet. Of course, that’s a lot of weight to rest on what is a pretty thin wall. What if it collapses?
I roll my chair over to the wall of the cubicle. I grab the top of it, testing it to see how strong it feels. Not very.
I’ve got to get up somehow. And the crutches aren’t enough. I’ve got to get help.
I take out my phone and locate my buddy Calvin’s number. I send him a text message: Could you come help me with something?
A minute later, I am still glued to my chair, and Calvin is standing over me, a concerned look on his face. He’s wearing a blue dress shirt and khaki slacks, and he looks so healthy and athletic. He doesn’t look like someone who needs thirty minutes to walk to a meeting. I really, really don’t want to tell him what’s wrong. But what choice do I have?
“You okay, Matt?” he asks.
I take a deep breath. “I need help standing up.”
My cheeks burn. “I don’t know why, but I just can’t… you know…”
Calvin nods. “Sure. What do you want me to do?”
I hadn’t thought about it. “I guess… just grab the back of my pants, and I’ll grab onto your neck.”
Calvin leans forward and I put my arms around his neck. I feel really helpless. Then he reaches behind me and grabs onto my pants by the waistband. He’s able to lift me easily, without even grunting. And once I’m on my feet, I’m fine. I grab my crutches and then I’m fine. But I can’t look my former best friend in the eyes.
“Are you going to be okay, Matt?” he asks me. “Will you need my help again?”
I shake my head no. Although the truth is, maybe I will. If I couldn’t get up now, what the hell am I going to do the rest of the day?
I know what I need to do.
I need to call Kelly and pick up my wheelchair.
Kelly fits me in after I explain what happened to me. Not only does she fit me in, but when I arrive at the therapy center, I’m shocked when I see her standing there at the entrance. I pull over next to her and roll down the window of my car. “I need some time,” I tell her. “I’ll meet you inside.”
“How are you going to get out of your car?” she retorts.
I realize with a sinking feeling that she’s probably right. If I was struggling to get out of my chair at work, getting out of the car is going to be even harder.
“Park your car and I’ll meet you,” she says.
And that’s how we end up practicing car transfers.
I leave my crutches in the car. I have a feeling that I’ll probably be retiring them after today. I can still walk with my walker, but the crutches are just not realistic anymore.
I try to stifle any residual feelings of panic as I wheel my chair next to Kelly as we go to the therapy center. This isn’t awful. It’s actually much better than struggling to walk the distance from the parking spot to the entrance. It’s so fast compared to what I’ve become used to. Until…
I’m wheeling along and all of a sudden, I’m stuck. My chair won’t budge. The small front wheels of my chair have gotten wedged in a tiny little rut in the sidewalk. I can’t move at all. Every time I push on the rims, I’m just spinning in place.
Kelly hasn’t even noticed and is striding forward. “Hey!” I yell. “I got stuck.”
She comes back and sees my dilemma. I’m feeling more and more frustrated. Here I was thinking for a moment that this chair would give me more freedom, and then one minute later, I’m completely stuck. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me this could happen.
“You need to do a wheelie,” she tells me.
She demonstrates the motion I’m supposed to make with my wheels to lift the front wheels out of the rut. It’s not helpful. I can’t do it. I can’t fucking do it. I’m getting so frustrated, I want to throw myself out of the chair and crawl to the entrance. Finally, Kelly grabs the back of my chair so that the wheels are lifted out, and I’m free. But the whole episode leaves me feeling anxious about navigating this chair on my own.
In the gym, we spend over an hour practicing transfers. At first I was insistent we should use a walker for the transfers, but Kelly pointed out that wasn’t going to be practical outside of my home. While I’m transferred out of the chair, sitting on a mat, Kelly uses my wheelchair to show me how to do wheelies. I practice that too, until I feel confident enough that I probably won’t get stuck in a tiny rut again.
Kelly walks me to my car again and shows me how to disassemble the chair so that I can stash it in the seat next to me. We practice taking it apart and putting it back together. I feel exhausted by the end of it, and not at all confident that I can do any of this on my own.
“You’re going to be okay, Matt,” Kelly tells me. “We’ll practice again tomorrow.”
When I get back in my car for the final time at the end of my session, I see my crutches and I want to throw them out the window. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use them again—I can’t risk a repeat of what happened today at work. I’ll use my wheelchair out of the house, and in the house, I’ll walk with my walker.
I’m going to continue to walk. I refuse to lose that ability. I know it sounds dumb, but I feel like it’s part of what makes me a person.
Over the next few days, I continue practicing with Kelly. It gets to the point where I feel a lot more comfortable doing transfers. She says it will continue to get easier with practice. Fortunately, my arms are already very strong from crutching myself around for the last year, so I’m not starting from zero.
I finally go back to work the week after Calvin had to lift my sorry ass out of my chair. And I’m in my wheelchair. I don’t have crutches or braces or any back-up. I’m in my wheelchair for the entire day.
I park in one of the handicapped spots in the office lot, and this time I’m appreciative of the extra space next to the parking spot. I have my wheelchair in the seat next to mine, with the wheels detached. I pull out the frame and pop the wheels back on, one by one. Then I pull my legs out of the car the way Kelly showed me, and lift the rest of my body out into the chair. She promised me this was something I’d get faster at, but right now, I’m slow. And nervous. I don’t want to fall on my ass in the freaking parking garage.
I wheel myself to the entrance to the building. There’s a handicapped button that I sometimes press, or if Kenny is around, he holds the doors for me. He’s there today, and he looks taken aback to see me in a wheelchair. Although he probably shouldn’t, considering how awful I’ve been walking lately.
“Hello there, Mr. Harper.” He squints at me. “How you doin’?”
“Fine.” I force a smile. “How are you?”
“Just fine,” he says.
Thank fucking God, he doesn’t pursue the whole thing further.
It’s easier to be in a wheelchair than it had been walking at the end. I was so nervous about every bump in the tiling, like it might send me flying. Now I roll across the floor without a second thought. I don’t hit any ruts in the floor, but even if I did, I feel confident I could get over them. The only thing that makes me nervous is doorways—I had no idea how narrow most of them are. I get worried about clipping my hand as I go through.
The first problem comes in the elevator. I had no idea that the buttons were so high, but when I try to reach for the button for my floor, it eludes me. I feel ridiculous, stretching to hit the button, my fingers about an inch short.
“What floor do you need?” a man asks me.
“Eleven. Thanks,” I mumble.
Christ, am I going to have to go through this shit every time?
When I get up to my own floor, that’s when things get real. Everyone is staring at me as I wheel by. Not that they didn’t stare at me when I was walking on crutches, but I was so focused on not falling, I stopped noticing. I try not to notice today, but it’s hard.
I usually try to pass by Anna’s cubicle on my way to my own, but this time, I take a different path. I don’t want her to see me this way. I know it’s dumb because it’s obviously inevitable, but I don’t know. I just don’t. Not yet.
But of course, she sees me when she comes to my cubicle for lunch. Her blue eyes widen when she notices that I’m in the wheelchair.
“Oh,” she says.
I shrug. “I got sick of dragging myself around on those crutches.” Like it was a choice I made. Like I wouldn’t be walking if it were remotely possible.
“Lunch?” Anna suggests, holding up her insulated lunch bag.
I nod and follow her to the break room. I’m shorter than she is now, in my wheelchair. Maybe if we had a date, I could use my braces and crutches. Or I don’t know, maybe my walker even.
Who am I kidding? Anna and I will never have a date.
We get to the break room, and I realize that my water bottle is up in the top cabinet. I’ll never be able to reach it without standing up. I clear my throat. “Um, Anna, do you think you could reach my water bottle for me?”
Anna looks at me, and then she bursts into tears. She sinks into a chair, sobbing.