On the way to Liberty this morning, the concept of needing help haunted me.
A conversation with my secretary (slash) friend Miranda prompted the spectre of helplessness to linger. I told her that I had fallen that morning. Anybody could have fallen like this, I rationalized. I reached for the door frame, missed, and the momentum carried me to the floor.
As I did what I’ve been taught to do to avoid serious injury, flashes of resentment coursed through my brain. Damn damn damn, I muttered, even as I twisted to face upright and threw my shoulders forward. The motion landed me on my butt, just as it’s intended to do, but my head jerked back and I got a good goose egg for my efforts.
Better a goose egg than broken teeth or a concussion. But after last week’s nasty wrenched back, I had the mindset of going a week or three without further mishap.
Miranda told a story about seeing a man one morning at a gas station disembark from a van pulling his wheelchair behind him. The man had no legs. She later explained the man’s situation to her four-year-old daughter, who doubtless had never seen anyone so impaired. I didn’t know whether to help or not, Miranda admitted. I figured he probably knew how to take care of everything himself.
Ah, yes. The age-old dilemma: To help or not to help.
When confronted with a person struggling to get through a door or off the ground, the important point to keep at the forefront of your mind involves the reason you might offer assistance. Here’s the thing. Whether or not I need or want help has nothing to do with the person making the offer. It has only to do with me. Your offer of help and my response does not measure the strength of your devotion or the quality of your character. I do not judge your manliness or virtue by the arm you offer or the hand you extend.
And sometimes, I don’t want help.
Sometimes, I don’t want to need help.
Other times, I want help to silently arrive in the form of a miracle that will lift me from the ground and reverse the clock so I’ll never have fallen. The other customers in the store won’t have seen the instant flood of tears or the wobble in my walk. A bag of apples won’t have spilled across the tile. My pride and my derriere will be unbruised. I won’t regret existing. I won’t feel stigmatized, inept, or ugly.
Other times, I want to be quickly pulled from the ground by two strong hands and dusted lightly, reassured that I’m not an idiot by the unspoken word in a brief touch on my arm.
If stairs confront me, I judge the likelihood of my steady ascent and do a weird tri-point measurement. My hand, a wall, my feet. I crab-walk down. I can manage reciprocating stairs on the ascent. I know where the side of a building or the hull of a plane will be if I fall. Of someone else’s body, I’m less certain. I’ve had sixty years to figure out how much weight I can bear depending on what time of day, what shoes I’ve managed to buckle onto my feet, and how emotional I feel.
I don’t know if the concept of help complicates the lives of all disabled persons in quite the same way. I’m sure I over-think the whole affair. Maybe the fact that I’ve had encountered more than my share of people who made me promises that they didn’t keep taints my ability to trust, even in the briefest of social encounters associated with a hand offered in a restaurant.
But there it is. When you offer to help me, I don’t know how to respond. I might know just what you can and cannot do for me but I might not trust myself to lean on you or your arm to hold me. I might have an intricate compensatory set of muscle reflexes that will do the trick, and adding your body into the mix might put us both in danger of collapse. Or maybe I’m just pissed at the intractable realities of my body’s limits.
So if you see me, and I look like I need help but I scowl in your direction, please don’t take it seriously. Just raise an eyebrow and lift one hand. If I need help and am able in the moment to accept it, I will be grateful. If I don’t need help, or if I’m overwhelmed by my own inadequacy, please don’t take offense if I remain silent or turn away. Don’t get upset if I stumble forward even if my lurch terrifies you or you think that I’m deliberately ignoring you. It’s not personal. At least, not to you. I might just be biting my tongue to keep from complaining.
It’s the fourteenth day of the fortieth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.