Falling Happens [Part 1]
No matter who encourages me—a therapist, my wheelchair dealer, loved ones—I refuse to buckle up and wear a seat belt even though it’s recommended. Let me be clear, I’m not referring to the kind of seat belt one wears while driving or riding in a vehicle (I do wear that kind of belt. It’s the law people). What I’m referring to is the black nylon lap belt located on my wheelchair.
Now before you start making judgments and thinking logical thoughts like, What’s the big deal? You’re already in this over-sized electric wheelchair. What’s a lap belt going to add? Allow me to explain.
It’s about style. And it’s not that I think seat belts look lame, it’s about how wearing a lap belt makes me feel—and frankly it makes me feel like a child strapped down to a car seat. For me, style is more about feeling good in what I’m wearing as opposed to what I may be actually wearing. Until there is a cure for paralysis, I will always be donning a wheelchair. It has become my biggest accessory. There are enough challenges when it comes to feeling stylish while in a wheelchair without worry of any seatbelt. When one adds a seatbelt it becomes like a warning label. WARNING: this woman is so unpredictable she must be strapped down at all times. After all, how do you think she got into this predicament in the first place?
Since I already must choose from a limited wardrobe (most clothes are designed for those that stand not those that sit), I sans the seat belt. It makes me feel more normal, whatever the definition of normal may be. The consequences of not wearing a seatbelt are feeling confident, fitting in and also falling out of your chair flat onto your face–which has happened more times than I’d like to admit.
The first time I fell out of my chair it caught me completely off guard. I had just arrived home from an outing. And like every other time after pulling into my parent’s driveway, I had wheeled around the house, past the garage and to the side to the door that led directly to my own room. When you’re 21-years old and living at home, having your own entrance is the next best thing to having your own apartment (but technically better because it’s free). Outside the entrance to my room I had parked my wheelchair next to the door at a diagonal, with my feet and right side closest to the doorknob. Like I had done a hundred times before, I reached my right arm up to unlock the door with my key. Unlike any other time before, as I reached up toward the door, the sleeve of my jacket caught my joystick, launching the front wheels of my chair over the sidewalk and into some dirty mulch in front of me. It had happened so fast I hadn’t had time to throw my left arm back to hook onto one of the push handles. So along with my wheelchair, my body also lounged forward and there was no stopping me. Mid-air, in between my chair and the ground, it occurred to me this could get ugly. Imagining myself face first in the mulch, I immediately swung my right arm across my body so that I could fall onto my right shoulder. The last minute decision was successful, and also quite helpful. I had spared any damage to my face and wound up landing on my side as planned, in a fetal position, which was unplanned, and just in front of the nearby trashcans. After a second of absorbing the shock of the fall I looked up to my wheelchair. What in the hell? I cursed aloud. Seconds ago, I had been comfortably sitting in my wheelchair trying to get into my room. Now I was covered in mulch and suddenly rendered helpless.
With despair I watched my Nokia, equipped with a black, leather flip phone cover, dangle freely from the joystick. I watched it swing slowly back and forth. It too was adjusting to the sudden ejection of the wheelchair passenger.
What the fuck?
With no access to my cell phone I pondered what to do. Judging by the cars out front, I knew my Mom and brothers were in the house somewhere. Considering my room was isolated from the rest of the house, I had to assume they were nowhere within earshot. Still, I screamed for help just in case.
Nothing. There was no response.
I began to recall how just the day before, I had opened my door to a three foot black snake slithering across the sidewalk. I screamed louder without any success. I thought of the bugs that might be crawling underneath the same mulch I was laying on and became itchy.
It’s an odd, unexplainable feeling to look at your body, command it to move, and it not listen. It’s only in these helpless moments that I remember how scary paralyzed I am, like I can drive a car but not crawl.
A pair of headlights peered from around the street corner. I had waited for what felt like an eternity—but was actually more like 10 minutes–but there was hope. Finally, it was my chance to be rescued.
My parent’s house is located on a straight-away after a large curve. As the lights became brighter and more apparent, I raised my free arm into the air and yelled for help with every ounce of my being, which wasn’t all that loud considering all the muscles around my lungs are—surprise—also paralyzed. So what felt like a roar, probably sounded more like a mouse. Still, with thoughts of snakes and creepy crawlers and our trash-eating raccoons swirling in my head, I was not going to give up. I had no choice. Surely I’d be killed by nature before I became dehydrated or starved death. I called out one last time in total exhaustion. I couldn’t be sure, but it appeared like the lights pulled into the driveway. I waited a couple seconds in silence.
“Hello?” I desperately called out.
There was no immediate response. Yet, I could hear keys jingling. I called out again. The swish-swash of a restless plastic bag started to become closer. I looked up and over passed the trashcan. My step-dad stopped before me, holding a white, convenience store bag.
“What are you doing laying in the mulch?” he asked.
“What do you mean what I’m doing laying in the mulch?” I replied. “I fell. Could you please pick me up and put me back in my chair?”
My step dad is construction strong. He didn’t even need to put the bag on the ground to scoop me up and place me back in my chair. In the bag I noticed a tub of ice cream.
Once in the chair I thanked my step-dad for his timely presence, and began storming through the house on a hunt for my mother. Moms are supposed to be omniscient Since she didn’t come to my rescue, or apparently have the ears of a bat, clearly she deserved to be reprimanded. Eventually I found her way on the other side of the 2,500 square foot house, standing in her master bathroom staring at her reflection in the mirror.
“Ahem,” I announced in the doorway, trying to gain her attention.
“Hey!” she said, turning to me. “Do you know you have mulch all over your jacket?”
“Yeah. Get this. I found her outside laying in the mulch,” my step-dad announced over my shoulder, taking the lead. “Her wheelchair was out by the side door, empty.”
With her brows furrowed, and brush in hand, she pointed at me and asked. “Why were you laying in the mulch?”
“That’s what I said!” my step-dad interrupted.
“Really? Why was I laying in the mulch? Because I thought it’d be nice to look at the stars…” I began. “What’s wrong with you people? I fell out of my chair. Why would I just be laying in the mulch?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I was asking,” my mother replied. She was removing pieces of mulch from my jacket one by one.
“You’re lucky I went up to the gas station to get some ice cream,” my step-dad said proudly. I turned back toward him. He was nodding his head and making a face like I owed him something. I could feel it. This favor would be hung over my head for months. “I thought it weird that the chair was empty. You’re lucky I happened to see it.”
“Yes, I’m soooo lucky.”
“You probably shouldn’t fall out of your chair,” my mom said, nodding in agreement.
“Thank you for such worldly advice Mom,” I finally surrendered. And as I drove away from the master bathroom into the formal living room towards the kitchen, I heard my parents laughing.
“It’s not nice to make fun of people in wheelchairs,” I yelled back. I should have known better. This was the second mulch incident.
A month before I was found lying in the mulch, I was forced to call 911 for rescue when my wheelchair became stuck in the same pile of dirty wood chips. Back then I always had parked my wheelchair with the left side closest to the door anytime I was opening a door lock. It was simply too difficult to balance and use the key otherwise. On this particular day (and like everyday until this particular incident), I was backing up my chair up to make room for the arc of the swinging door when the back wheels of my wheelchair slipped off the concreted sidewalk and fell into the mulch. Naturally, I gunned my joystick forward in an attempt to rectify the situation.
The results were unpleasant.
Instead of clinging to the concrete and edging me forward to safety, my wheels spun and spun and eventually buried themselves deep into the mulch. Since no one was home or even appeared to be anywhere in the neighborhood, I immediately knew I was facing a problem. I quickly made a mental checklist of possible solutions and acted accordingly.
Brothers are in school. Wait too long. So hot. Might die.
Call Mom. Why does she never answer her phone? Grrr…
Yell for help. I see no one.
Try to get out of mulch myself. Bury myself deeper.
Call 911? How horribly embarrassing yet practical.
I waited twenty minutes in the blistering Florida sun before I called 911. I had run out of options and my body was starting to react unfavorably to the heat. As a consequence of my injury, my body no longer perspires. So when I am outside in the sun, I often have to dump water on myself to cool off, create a faux-sweat if you will. Sitting there without water, and without sweat, baking in the August sun, I was in danger of over-heating. All the symptoms were starting to make themselves present: dry mouth, chapped lips, chest tightening, feelings of claustrophobia. The sun was literally burning my skin, and besides the stinging pain I swear I could smell leather, the kind found in a hot, parked car. What really made me start to become antsy was remembering the story an occupational therapist had shared with me about another local quadriplegic who had recently passed away from heat stroke. “If only she would have had a cell phone,” she had emphasized. Feeling delusional, I dialed the numbers. Feeling prideful, I waited a few more minutes before hitting the call button.
“This is 911. What’s your emergency?” the operator answered.
“Um, yes. Hi. I am in a wheelchair and I’m stuck in my yard. I need help,” I pleaded.
“Are you hurt? Do you need an ambulance?”
“No, I’m just embarrassed and stuck in the mulch.”
“Okay, a fire truck is on its way. Hang tight.”
“Oh boy. Is a fire truck necessary? I literally just need a push…”
“It’s already on its way ma’am.”
“Wow. That’s great. And fast. Um, could you maybe tell them not to turn on the lights… or the sirens because I don’t think either of them are really necessary,” I begged.
“I’ll see what a kind do,” the woman said, sternly.
I closed my eyes and waited for the upcoming production. I was day-dreaming of a breeze and tall, glass of cool water when they arrived.
“Hello ma’am. Can we help?” a voice called out. I looked behind me to see my biggest nightmare. Approaching cautiously were three men in full firefighting uniform, helmets and all. You would have thought I was on fire.
“Jesus. Um, yes. I just need a push. I don’t need all of you. Just one will do… but thanks for coming… everyone. All of you. I love firefighters.”
As if there had been an established pecking order, the firefighter with the biggest mustache leaped forward, “I got it.” It took all of two seconds to set me free, which added to my humility. It would have taken more effort to climb back into the fire truck than lift the back of my chair up just two inches.
Underneath the ferocious spin of my ceiling fan, I looked up to the firefighter. He looked like Jesus Christ. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” my savior asked.
“Actually, yes. I’m thirsty. Do you mind getting me a glass of water?”
Together we went into the kitchen. I pointed out the cabinet that held the cups. He grabbed one and headed to the ice and water dispenser at the fridge.
“Fridge water, okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, exhausted. “And what about a sandwich?”
He turned to me with wide eyes, willing, yet unsure how to respond.
“I’m kidding! Now go save some lives,” I declared, accepting the cup of water and then shooing him away with my free hand.
Sometimes humor is the only cure for adversity. They go together like stone pavers and mulch.
[Thanks for reading and sharing! Stay tuned for more ridiculous falling stories in Falling Happens Part 2.]