Saturday, July 12, 2014

Kids and Old People Don't Count

They mean well.”

I wish I had a dollar for each time my dearest friend, Arleen, has said those words to me in the last two years, often while coaxing me off the ledge. I know she’s right – people who see a one-legged lady hobbling around on crutches, sitting in a wheelchair, or using what is clearly a prosthetic leg can be caught off guard. They can say awkward things in an effort to hide their shock or make light of an uncomfortable situation. But here’s the truth: since making my debut in the world as a chick with a missing limb, strangers (and sometimes friends) have felt compelled to make the most ridiculous, insensitive, jaw-droppingly stupid – and yes, even hilarious – comments about my physical being.
Some of the events I will be sharing over time sound too strange to be true, but I assure you, they are one-hundred-percent real. And let’s be clear – I’m not even counting kids and old people.
Having had little ones of my own, I know kids come from a place of curiosity and innocence, and they’re only trying to figure stuff out. That’s why I don’t mind encounters like the one I had at a Kohl’s department store early on in my recovery, when a little girl stared with her mouth hanging open, pointed at me, and yelled, “Mommy, mommy! That girl’s leg fell off!” And I will always treasure how the adorable four-year-old son of my fitness trainer pulled his dad aside one day and whispered, “Is she a robot?” I always try to answer kids’ questions with a smile. I remember when my five-year-old grandniece, Annabelle, first saw my prosthetic leg. She scowled from a safe distance, checking it out from top to bottom. Eventually she was brave enough to touch it. “Why do you have a special leg?” she asked. I was happy to tell Annabelle that my leg got sick and doctors gave me a very special leg so that one day I could take the dogs for a walk like I used to. “Oh,” she said, and then went to pet one of the aforementioned dogs. She never asked about my leg again.
At the other end of the spectrum, senior citizens tend to offer condolences (“God bless you, dear”) and tell me about their own health issues. Some launch into long conversations that assume I lost my leg because of the exact same health problem they face in their own lives, whether it be cancer, diabetes, circulatory problems, automobile accidents, or falling off the ladder while pressure washing vinyl siding. I had one lady come up to me, shake her head, and say, “That darn di-ya-beet-uss!” I try my best to smile and thank them for their concern, because how can I be annoyed by nice old people with equally serious afflictions? I’ve had some time to think about this, and I’ve developed a theory about these kinds of encounters. I think senior citizens are motivated by the basic human need to be assured we are not alone. Giving and receiving connection is a way to calm the fear of mortality, a way of saying “we’re all in this together” or, “I hear you, girlfriend.”
What bothers me is the stupid shit people between puberty and Social Security say and do. And let me tell you – there is no shortage of stupid shit out there.
I’ll never forget the first time I experienced the shock of someone else’s insensitivity. I didn’t even have to leave the hospital to get my first taste. A visiting friend pulled a chair to the side of the bed and had this to share: “I don’t know how you can go on. I would’ve pulled out my Glock and put an end to it.” Another visitor said, “I’m glad to see you haven’t given up on life.”
Huh? Glocks? Give up? What the fuck? Truly, at that point I didn’t even possess the self-awareness to consider giving up! I was alive because of the adrenaline-producing instinct to survive whatever any given day would bring – surgery, pain, pumps and hoses and needles, hallucinations, loneliness for my kids, etc., etc. The concept of “giving up” hadn’t even occurred to me as an option     . . . until that moment. Thanks a lot.
They mean well . . . they mean well . . . they mean well. . .
Once I was discharged from the hospital and began venturing forth into public, I realized how difficult it was going to be to keep my shit together and not lash out at people. A man at church saw me trying to get into the choir loft by going up the steps backwards on my ass. “I feel so sorry for you,” he said, shaking his head. At a graduation party for Arleen’s son, her neighbor (a man who knew all about what I’ve been through) looked at me and said with a grin, “So, can I try on your fake leg?” A gasp rose from my daughter, Kathleen. She gripped my hand in hers. Kathleen guessed what was going on in my brain. She knew that if I had been physically able, I would’ve jumped up, removed said fake leg, and beat him upside the head with it. But, since I didn’t want to ruin the party atmosphere, I simply replied, “Maybe later.”
One particularly memorable morning early on in my physical therapy, I was late for an appointment and found there were no parking spots, handicapped or otherwise. I circled the lot for fifteen minutes, crying because I was frustrated and feeling mighty sorry for myself. Eventually, I staked my claim on a spot being vacated, only to have to cuss out the jerk who tried to steal it from me. I got out and began the long and painfully slow trek to the entrance. As I inched forward on crutches and my temporary prosthesis – in ninety-five-degree weather, tears and sweat running down my face – a whole cornucopia of negative (and just plain false) thoughts began looping through my head: I can’t do this any more. It’s too hard. I can’t go on. Look at me. I’m a cripple – a sweaty, crying, cripple. I’m a freak. I can’t even get to an appointment on time. I’m alone in the world. I can’t handle this another minute. . . 
And then I saw her, a woman heading my way with “that” look on her face. I prayed she would pass me by. But no. She shook her head and made a few tsk-tsking sounds, then said, “You’re a better person than me, honey. I’d have just crawled up in a ball and died.”
Seriously? What in the hell makes a person think that saying that to a crying chick with a fake leg and crutches would be even remotely helpful? 
I bawled the whole way to the check-in desk, immediately reaching inside the Plexiglass window for a Kleenex. The receptionist said, “Oh, we cancelled that appointment. Didn’t you get our voicemail?” Back to the car I went with my crutches and fake leg, sobbing.
Another one of my favorite encounters occurred just outside the same physical therapy suite. As I approached the automatic entrance door, a woman hurried down the hall of the medical center, coming right at me with a determined glint in her eye. I knew this was going to be bad.
“Let me get the door for you,” she said.
“No thank you. I’ve got it.” I had learned the hard way that this particular automatic door opened in the wrong direction, and if you weren’t careful to give it enough clearance, you could get smacked.
“No, let me get it for you.”
“No, really. I’m fine.”
She tapped the automatic opener. The door flew open and hit me in the forehead. I almost fell over.
“Oh, my God! I’m so sorry!”
“That’s why I told you I could get it myself.”
“Here. Let me try again.”
Unbelievably, she pounded on the opener once more, but my crutch hadn’t quite cleared the arc of the swinging door. I almost fell over again.
They mean well . . . they mean well . . . they mean well . . . As Arleen reminds me, this kind of insensitivity stems from social awkwardness.
Yeah, whatever. But why are the socially awkward drawn to me? Can’t they take their awkwardness elsewhere?
Since I’m on a roll here, I’ll tell you what else pisses me off. I walked through this world on two legs for more than fifty years. It wasn’t until I began hopping around on one leg with a walker or crutches that I began to notice how many of our common idioms assume we all have two legs, two feet, and two sets of toes. A nurse once told me the secret was “putting one foot in front of the other.” I wish I were joking. I’ve also heard “take it one step at a time.” Then there was, “you’ll soon be back on your own two feet,” and, “you put your pants on one leg at a time like everyone else,” and the ever-popular “you have to learn to walk before you can run.”
But that stuff rolls off my back compared to some words and phrases that cause me to CRINGE. To me, they feel condescending at best, cruel at worst. Perhaps I’m overreacting. Or I’m too sensitive. Or I haven’t yet worked through all my anger. (Ya think?) Regardless, here is a sampling of words and phrases that make me shiver with irritation:  Stump, disabled, crippled, handicapped, physically challenged, inspiration, heroic, an example for others, triumph of the human spirit, special, courageous, new normal, your changed circumstances, catastrophic life event, amputee, I don’t know how you do it, well look at you!, you have such a good attitude, bless your heart, keep up with the good work, and aren’t you the brave one?
Maybe all this bothers me because it’s not how I want to be seen in the world. I know I’m more than a brave amputee with a good attitude, but it’s the label I often get nowadays, like it or not. It’s funny, really – I spent my whole life struggling to be anything but ordinary and average, and now I’d give my left leg to blend in again.


Lori King said...

Thanks for the different perspective. I guess I've always assumed that I was helping if I held the door for someone on crutches, or limping, but perhaps that's not always the case. Your post will make me take an extra pause to reassess the situation before I jump in and overwhelm someone because "I mean well."

Monique said...

"What does not kill us, makes us stronger".....but may I suggest learning to curse in many foreign languages, (Chinese, Farsi, German, Japanese, Russian, etc.)I bet saying miserable bitch, or bastard in various languages will make you feel much better. Then add "Bless your heart," in a real patronizing voice. Or "accidently" hit them with a crutch or stomp on them with your leg...."just can't get used to this". As for the gentleman who wanted to try on your leg, and I use that term loosely, I think accidently hitting him in the "pills" would have been appropriate. Asshole!

Gail Barrett said...

I hate to tell you, Susan, but I've had strangers remark on my body my entire life due to my height. Why anyone would feel compelled to comment on someone else's body to their face, I haven't got a clue, but it happens all the time and the comments can be quite appalling. As recently as last week, some random worker in my neighborhood made a weird remark to me that I was TOO THIN (!!!) He actually went on a scary rant! So I'm afraid I can't offer any reassurances. At least in your case they probably mean well for the most part. And since we have all said things we've later regretted, maybe someday they will realize they were insensitive.