Melanie Reid, the London Times columnist paralyzed in an accident two years ago, provides the best living account of adjustment to disability – and can easily make me relive my own experience. Considering our extraordinarily different backgrounds, the similarities can astonish me.
It is party season in Britain too, Christmas rolling towards New Year’s, with a nod to Hanukkah here and there. And Reid quite accurately portrays the disabled person’s fears. The horror of being invited to Christmas fêtes. Being seated while the party action occurs among those standing, the jokes, the observations, the looks. Not to mention the general circulation, wandering here in search of better conversation, there to get a look at someone. Heading for a toilet with any number of reasons in mind.
Recalling youthful partying, Reid acknowledges the ambivalence. The frantic and the lost in search of quick thrills and quick connections. She recalls looking good, the enjoyment of looking good. And the competition. Look at my looks, how they attract me to that person, that person to me. Win and loss of playing the game, even if in adulthood the game transmutes to include much of this going on while getting a reassuring nod from the spouse. You’re okay, and what you’re doing is okay and I still want you…not that any of this seems to matter at the moment when all we want to do is dance, dance, dance. Stay up, throw up, but don’t give up, even when youth has given us up and given up on us. Party, party, party, hang on until hung over.
While Reid is experiencing these adjustments in midlife, my own came much earlier.
I had dinner with friends, at some house in Los Angeles, that autumn, 1968. The phraseology ‘had dinner’ obscures a horrifyingly major social effort. Devoid, one must say, of any physical effort. At that point I was more or less totally paralyzed. Met at the hospital by friends, only one of whom I can recall. Lifted into a wheelchair and driven to some old house in LA. The term ‘old’ referring to one of those 1920s, craftsman style houses, now considered period pieces. Then, just cheap, studentish housing for post-students. I recall being carried up the stairs in my wheelchair. I recall being carried out, my old friend Bruce remarking shortly thereafter how much I seemed like a Pasha in his sedan chair. This felt then, and now, like an honest observation. It felt different, of course, to me. Helpless, humiliating, unsustainable. Too much, I felt at the time. All the wrong kind of attention for the wrong reasons. I was overcome by shame.
Which changed, fortunately, making all subsequent experience an improvement. For within a few months the hospital had released me, and I was visiting my father, brother and sister in Riverside, California. It was December. Somehow I was attending a party, friends of one or both siblings. The town was small enough for a brother and a sister to know the same people and find themselves at the same party, particularly the small area around the desert campus of the University of California. So I was among students at this party, and it was outside. Which suggests a patio or terrace, but that would be inaccurate. It was in a field, a desert field of scrub and rocks and sand. There was a fire, campfire or small bonfire, hard to say. And people were standing around. Why outside? Why not at least someone’s backyard? Because this was someone’s backyard. A field next to a student’s small house, most likely. A good place for an open fire, and probably the only place.
For me, the most important thing about the evening was being on my feet. I was walking, or limping, leaning on an aluminum crutch. Vertical among others who were vertical. The entire experience was tinged with fear. Would I fall in the dark? This was a sensible and realistic fear or someone who had only experienced crutching up and down the hallway of a Los Angeles rehabilitation hospital. But there was much more. The sense of the unexpected coming at me from the dark, a specter of the shooting. Even more than that, the newness of being out of an institution. For six months I had lived in hospital rooms beneath fluorescent lights, meals and exercise, elimination and socializing, all occurring within set hours.
Enough to make a person get loaded. Smoking marijuana being such an unwise thing to do for a newly paralyzed person, wandering in the desert dark. Which now revealed itself to be quite the opposite, the wisest and best thing to do. All my attention drawn into a drugged zone around me, hyperaware of balance and rejoicing in the fact of being on my feet and, yes, smoking a joint. And from this aimless, barely defined gathering in open-air December…I leap forward precisely four years to a place where smoking a joint means burning a meat roast. London.
New Year’s. It was a New Year’s party, and surely I got there on the tube. Crutching off the train, up the tube steps and armed with instructions and doubtless a paperback A-Z, I recall emerging from a station, noting street signs and numbers and getting to someone’s house. Probably a medical student’s flat. Or just a friend of Caroline’s, my cousin the doctor. She was there, I do recall that much. The evening meal involved jugged hare. The latter was soaking in its jug, either in a washing machine or next to the outflow hose from a washing machine and somehow got washed…much to the general mirth. Everyone was smoking, cigarettes that is. I stood, leaning on my crutch, with the feel of being more or less at ease. This was a new feeling, I recall that. But I was 26 years old, after all, my brain beginning to settle down. Going to parties in West London, drinking and smoking and yelling and jostling parties, I always felt extremely dull. The good natured jokes of the what’s-happened-to-you-mate, and here, have a beer, mostly horrified me. Drinking was a nightmare. Beer in particular. Toilets were generally up or down stairs and invariably occupied. Alcohol filled my bladder quickly, emptied my reserves of balance, and undermined any sense of fun. Trying not to fall and not to pee occupied much of such parties.
Women mostly frightened me. Did I ever successfully meet one at a party? Hard to say. I certainly did so unsuccessfully. The young women of London were most alluring. I stared at them a lot. But at this party, the one with the jugged hare, my expectations were low, my spirits relatively high. I knew a few people there. There was a quasi-family sense to the evening. And when it was over, an unexpected surprise, one of the beautiful young medical students drove me home. We get to my flat, I began to busy myself with the hauling of my paralyzed legs out of her car…when she made it clear that we could do something else. Kissing in her front seat. Something about this panicked me. I fled from the car and hobbled upstairs to the safety of my own bedsitter. Until, much later, I rushed back. She turned out to be a wonderful woman.
In short, it had been a party. My last in Britain for quite some time, but never mind. Somehow I acquired a degree of social confidence, broken body and all. When I feel bad about existence ending, gaze back on life’s road with regret…I really must try to remember how much ground I have covered.