Did I see him in the airport lounge? Going through security? Or did we bump into each other in the boarding queue? Whatever the encounter, he must have offered to help me in some way…and doubtless I declined…and now here we were, Jane and I, in the final moments before the 12 sedentary hours separating Heathrow from San Francisco, waiting outside the aircraft door for whichever ground crew was going to stash my wheelchair in the hold. And this man walked by. Tall, about my age, conveying himself with an easy, loping gait, turning to talk to his wife. And now in this pivotal moment between realities, when long hidden truths emerge like old stains in a carpet, it was all so clear. How much of my body and its capabilities have been literally shot away, and for so long, and what life, at least physical life, would have been like. This man has a normal life, and yes, there is no such thing…and yet there is. He seems unconcerned, artless and uncomplicated, walking toward his plane. Which is also my plane. And I will do a bit of walking too, thank God. This being what is required to get to my seat…not to mention the loo a couple of times during the flight. And for this little bit of ambulation, I am in the odd position of being grateful. Things could be worse. Or as Jane points out, they will never be better. And my life is so far removed from that of the tall man who has now disappeared down the jetway….
Well, I do not know what to think. Except that I do think, all the time, about everything, especially everything trivial. Such as ‘jetway.’ The word, I have decided, has its origins in some marketing department somewhere and has been catapulted into popular usage in ways I find unsavory. Having done my best to do the same during my years shilling for the computer industry. And now, I have decided to go straight. Straight to my seat. Straight to California. Straight to the truth. Which includes the pleasant realization that at 40,000 feet, there is no pollen.
Hayfever, normally an annoyance at best, has at times assumed center stage on this trip. The allergy experience is not one I associate with Britain. Okay, eyeballing the fields of Northumberland, logic would dictate that something among the grains of this green and gentle land, undulating and pollinating…that sheer agricultural activity was doing my sinuses no good. Odd, because we were right on the coast, after all, all the motifs being Vikings and kippers and feudal seafaring kings. Proving that despite their proximity, human brains and sinuses are not in frequent contact. Days of sneezing, nights of coughing, repeated trips to Boots the chemist and on and on it went. Until my cousin’s husband bought me an over-the-counter remedy containing cortisone. Whatever. The pleasures of Britain distracted me enough to pay relatively little attention, even if my hacking and sleep disturbances kept Jane awake many a night.
And one of those pleasures is observing Britain and its changes. The populace has a natural skepticism regarding the effectiveness of public services. But as an occasional visitor, much of what I see looks awfully good. Take wheelchairs and railways. For years the two have been an awkward fit, and on many rail lines they remain so. But not the London-Newcastle run. First, note the stunning reality behind this particular rail experience. One travels about 300 miles in as little as 2 1/2 hours. Rolling along at 125 mph much of the way, stopping occasionally, stunning me completely. An electric railway, of course. Blink and you’ll miss the famous cathedral at Durham. Stopping at York, you had better know where to look or you will even miss the Minster pulling out of the station. Oh, well. Still, this is actually a digression from the real point: wheelchairs. Coming and going, at Kings Cross London and Central Station in Newcastle, railway staff easily found my name in their computer system. And there in carriage J or whatever was a wheelchair space and a seat for Jane…at least in theory. The southbound trip was impossibly jammed…and mercifully short. The bad news and the good news. And damned if we weren’t back in London in time for a most pleasant Italian meal.
I have pleasant memories of Veneto II in Wigmore Street, but these do not include the entrance and exit. The restaurant is up one step, and the simplest of ramps…even something homemade out of a small sheet of plywood…would make all the difference. Instead, it takes three serving staff to lift the front of my wheelchair, push from behind and generally expend a lot of wasted effort to get me indoors. All so unnecessary. The same is true a couple of nights later at the edge of Soho in the Rasa Samudra, my favorite South Indian restaurant. Again, a small army assembles to pull the wheelchair this way, wedge it that way…the whole experience reeking of inefficiency. No one quite understands what to do with the wheelchair. And nothing short of a PowerPoint presentation would really help me communicate what needs to be done. Actually, I am in defensive mode during these maneuvers. In restaurants I am generally providing both an English-as-a-second-language tutorial combined with a flash course in structural stress loads. My wheelchair, however sturdy, does not respond well to having its arms and seat yanked about.
Yet I always respond to being in Britain. I want to get involved, that is the thing. Involved with what? Well, for example, what is happening and not happening around disabled access. To compare notes on American and British efforts along these lines. Get West End restaurants to buy portable wheelchair ramps, for example. Why not pursue a similar worthy cause in my own nation? Perhaps there is too much baggage. Better yet a fresh start, pick up the pieces and start a fresh conversation with people who do not know me. A curious impulse.
Or is it? I had to do a lot of growing in the years after my shooting, and those years happened to occur here in London. My father’s brain tumor brought things to a sudden halt. I flew back to the US and that was that. Not surprising that I still have the sense of unfinished business in Britain. For I was getting used to a new body, as well as a new self, in a new country. Then home. Perhaps what I recall in visiting the UK is the unfinished business. The sense that I still have things to say. What are the lessons of the disability movement of the 1970s and 80s? Well, they are what they are, wherever I say them, whoever is listening. My belief, or fantasy, is that people would not be listening so critically in Britain. Go forth and express, that is the message. Deal with the critic, the bad mother, wherever she lurks. Go forth anyway, that is the real message. There are things to do, chances to take, and they do not all require jetlag.