Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Grapes of My Wrath

Let me start by saying that this essay is not an insensitive rant against people living with cognitive disabilities. I feel a great deal of compassion for my fellow humans with limited intellectual function. Like all of us everywhere, they are perfectly imperfect beings. I am aware that you might have a child with a mental impairment. Or a sibling or neighbor. You might even work with children or adults with cognitive limitations, and to all of you, I send my sincere blessings. I mean no offense.
But I have an announcement to make:  That's not my disability. I got ninety-nine problems but my frontal cortex ain’t one. My brain has always worked pretty darn good. It still does, despite all I’ve been through. And just because I lost a leg in a freak medical catastrophe and now rely on canes, crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs to get around in the world, it doesn’t mean I’m intellectually limited.
You might be scowling right about now. You may be saying out loud – “Whaaaat? Well, of course not, Susan! Jeesh! Everyone knows that!”
Wrong. As I have learned, everyone does not know that.
I discovered this one morning when I went to the gym to meet my fitness trainer, Chad, for one of our appointments. I drove up, strapped on my trusty little knapsack, and exited my car – slowly and carefully. I then stepped up on the sidewalk and, with the help of two canes, made my way to the gym entrance. All the while, I noticed a woman in my peripheral vision, standing by the door. Since I need to focus on the movement of my feet (the real one and the fake one) I allow myself only brief glances ahead as I walk. Here are the steps to this dance:
1.  Glance ahead.
2.  Look down and walk, walk, walk, walk.
3.  Glance up again.
4.  Look down and walk, walk, etc.
         The whole time, I knew the woman was there, waiting for me, holding open the door as she studied my sassy stroll. I looked up.
         Oh, craaaaap.
        “Well, good morning to you, honey!” She was in her early sixties and dressed quite nicely – a lot nicer than me, anyway. Her hair was styled and her jacket matched her yoga pants. She was leaning toward me a bit, a sweet, sweet smile plastered on her face, her eyes blinking with exaggerated friendliness. I notice that she was bent at the waist in that position adults sometimes assume when speaking to a child. Or a puppy. Or a simpleton.
            I stopped. I felt my eyeball twitch. Wait. What’s going on here?
“You just keep coming, honey. I will stay right here where I am, holding the door open for you just like this!” She spoke slowly. Her words were overly enunciated. Her tone was sugary sweet. Her voice was as sugary sweet as the blueberry pancake syrup at your neighborhood IHOP.
But this wasn’t possible. Seriously. Didn’t she just see me get out of my car? Wouldn’t that imply that the State of Maryland had found me competent enough for a driver’s license? She can’t possibly think I’m –
“Come on, now! Don’t give up! You’re almost here!”
Perhaps I should stop at this juncture and admit something. If you’ve been reading my blog all along, you probably know this already, so forgive me for pointing out the obvious. But here’s what I need to come clean about: I cuss too much. A lot of this cussing takes place in my head, but still, I do a lot more cussing than your standard middle-aged romance author should. I like cussing. It feels good – you know, it cleanses my energy field and all that shit. And I have a few favorite words and expressions I turn to when nothing else in the English language will do.
So as I stood there in front of the lady who clearly thought I was mentally disabled, I wanted to say every single one of them. But then Arleen’s mantra spoiled the fun. As my best friend always reminds me, they mean well . . . they mean well . . . they mean well.
           So how is one supposed to respond in a situation like this? I’m not sure Emily Post covered that scenario. I just smiled and said “thanks,” as I let her hold the door for me.
           Moments later, when I described the encounter to Chad, his eyes got huge with disbelief – just before he exploded into laughter. I don’t think I’d ever seen him laugh that hard before, nor am I likely to in the future.
          These encounters happen every so often, and for the most part they’ve all blended together in my memory. There is one experience that stands out, however. That would be the incident with the grapes.
          Last year at this time was my daughter’s college orientation. Kathleen is my youngest, and I really wanted to share the experience with her, but I didn’t know how I would get around all day on my own. Fortunately, Kathleen’s father decided to come, too. Unfortunately, that meant I’d be spending the day with my ex-husband as he pushed me in my wheelchair. The idea put the fear o’ God in me.
I'd like to go into detail about this, but because of some pesky legal matters of late, I’m not supposed to talk about John on social media (not that I ever have) so I’ll keep it brief. John might be a wonderful physician and a near-genius, but the dude isn’t all that observant. Our kids sometimes refer to their dad as “Mr. Oblivious.” Therefore, I was prepared to spend a day being knocked into curbs, nearly dumped over ledges, banged into concrete planter boxes, and abandoned in hallways. And I was. The best, however, was careening through campus streets in a pummeling rainstorm, nearly getting hurled from the chair when John steered me into a giant pothole.
But enough of giant holes.  Let’s move on to the grapes.
That afternoon, while our daughter, Kathleen, was out getting oriented to college life, John and I were in a lecture hall attending a financial aid seminar for parents. We were in the very back of the room, where I could remain seated in my wheelchair without getting in anyone’s way. At intermission, John went to the men’s room and I hung back to check my voicemail and email. Since it was crowded, a steady stream of people passed in front of me on their way to the lobby. I was in the middle of reading an email from my literary agent when I heard a woman’s soft voice.
“Do you want some grapes, sweetheart?”
I didn’t pay any attention, because I figured the lady was talking to her kid. God knows I had spent dozens of years schlepping around fruit and granola bars in an effort to keep my children from melting down in public.
“Would you like some of our grapes?”
It was much closer that time. The overly sweet tone of voice and the careful enunciation of words made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I was having déjà vu. I slowly looked up from my iPhone to see a lady in her late thirties hovering close to me, bent at the waist, smiling and blinking, holding open a plastic baggie of grapes about an inch from my nose as her terrified preschooler hung onto her leg. “Do you like grapes, sweetie? Are you allowed to have grapes?”
I know. I know. She meant well. But think about it. How many times have you attended an event and had somebody invade YOUR personal space and offer you grapes from a plastic baggie? Or, conversely, how many times have YOU leaned down into the face of another adult – a stranger at a financial aid seminar, for example – and asked them if they were allowed to have grapes?
Yeah. Me neither.
So my mouth fell open. Honestly, I didn’t know what to say to the chick with the grapes, but I was pissed. I hadn’t been drawing any attention to myself in any way. I was in the back of the room checking my iPhone. I hadn’t swallowed my tongue. I hadn’t slithered down onto the floor. And I certainly hadn’t snapped my fingers and yelled, “Yo! I need some grapes over here, bee-yatch!”
So how did I react to her condescending intrusion? I gave her a quick smile and said, “Thank you, no.” Then I went back to my iPhone, reviewing an ad for my latest novel that my publisher was placing in USA Today.
Is it any wonder I’ve decided that leaving the house is overrated?



Liz Flaherty said...

I read this, feeling righteous because I'm pretty sure I don't do this. However, it also makes me remember that when I worked at the post office and had customers who were blind--I talked louder because obviously, if they couldn't see, they couldn't hear. A customer finally told me she "wasn't deaf, dear" and I've tried never to do it again. Maybe your blog will serve as a reminder.

Linda I Slone said...

Susan.......This is a riot! I can certainly relate, although you seem to exercise more decorum than I in these ludicrous situations.