The lobby was crowded with clusters of people talking and laughing. It was a challenge to thread the wheelchair around and through the groups. Few spaces were open. People seemed oblivious to my presence and made way for the wheelchair only when asked nicely to do so. The conversations didn’t miss a beat. Occasionally someone would look down and step aside. I felt small and invisible. Finally the way cleared, and I was out.
It was a busy Friday, and I had a long list of errands to care for before sundown. I decided to stop first at the grocery store. I needed only one item, and it seemed logical to cross off one of the easiest things from my list. I walked briskly into the store, intent on my mission. Recognizing that I was in the wrong aisle, I turned abruptly and suddenly found myself lying on the floor, unable to move. A quick-moving shopper had accidently collided with me, knocking me down. The result was a broken hip.
My initial surgery seemed to go well. Therapy sessions followed, and I was making steady progress walking with a cane. Then symptoms developed that indicated serious flaws from the surgery. Thirteen months later, after many surgeries, hospitalizations, and multiple weeks in a rehabilitation facility, I finally went home to resume my life—but under a totally new set of circumstances. I was now in a wheelchair.
When life circumstances abruptly interrupt your expectations, there are days that look very bleak. It’s at these moments that you covet encouragement from others.
After my accident my family immediately rallied to my needs, entering a continuous loop of daily visits to whatever institution in which I happened to be residing, as well as caring for my cat morning and evening. Not only was my life impacted by this situation—so was that of my family. Suddenly they found themselves thrust into the role of caregiver on top of already busy lives.
If you know of someone who has abruptly met unfortunate circumstances and they have extended family, don’t assume everything will be just fine. Sometimes family members don’t step up as they should. And even if they do, they can feel overwhelmed. In my case friends occasionally offered to care for my cat or bring me things I needed. This had a double effect. It relieved some of the burden from my daughter, and it helped me because I didn’t like feeling that I was a burden to her and her family or seeing their strain and weariness.
Other individuals supported me through a flow of greeting cards; some were humorous, others serious, but always they came with a note of encouragement and promises of prayer. Several people called frequently to give cheer. A number of chaplains and pastors talked with me, listening and giving me the freedom to speak openly about my feelings.
One of the most unexpected but helpful conversations I had was with a pastor who allowed me to vent my frustration by asking him the question “Why me?” He answered directly, “Why not? Why should you be different?” My protest of “I was doing so much work for the Lord with my music ministry and my work as a hospital chaplain. Wasn’t it good enough? Wasn’t it enough?” brought the response “Oh, because you were doing so much good, the Lord should have spared you?”
While seemingly abrupt and harsh, this candor was healthy and allowed me to realize that sometimes things just happen and that we have to trust the Lord with the reason and the ultimate outcome. It was pivotal in assisting me to move on in my journey of accepting my circumstances. If you know someone well, don’t be afraid to challenge them. It may be just what they need to hear in order to sort things through and go forward.
Prayer is an enormous blessing. Yes, I prayed mostly for relief from pain and for courage to perform tasks that were challenging to me. But the prayers of others were also meaningful and have been a great boon to me. Often someone whom I scarcely knew would say “I’ve been praying for you” or “The ladies’ prayer group remembered you.” I heard this again and again. We never know how many people are praying for us at any given time. Lift up to God the names of those who need encouragement, a healing touch, and His grace—and let those people know. Prayers matter.
Sometimes communication with others was not helpful. Some always insisted on asking, “What’s your pain level?” It’s enough that medical personnel ask you this frequently; to have others do so was not helpful. I would receive calls in quiet, “funeral tones,” inquiring, “How are you?” They were trying to be helpful, but it wasn’t uplifting. Rather, it made it sound as if they believed I was one foot from the grave. Others preached long dissertations about suffering, told long stories of their own woes (as if misery must love company), and prayed lengthy prayers. Short calls or visits in an upbeat, cheerful tone with a Bible text or short prayer are what I found to be the most helpful.
The View From Down Under
An individual in a wheelchair has some interesting experiences. People tend to come up behind you and start speaking. It becomes necessary to try to twist and angle your neck and body around to see who the person is. Some will have conversations behind you, not realizing that you are there and that you would participate if only you could see them.
There’s a tendency to assume that a wheelchair user may also be deaf or not mentally functioning, so one can be ignored or left listening to conversations above your head. Remember to speak directly to someone in a wheelchair, and it may involve leaning forward. They will appreciate being recognized.
My weekly visits to the grocery store have become an adventure. I never realized how many shelves are above a person’s head when that person is so close to the floor. I have an excellent view, however, of the shelves directly in front of me and of the ones below, and I’ve learned to settle for the greeting cards on the lower half of the racks. I’ve also found many willing strangers ready to help with hard-to-reach items. In some ways wheelchairs do bring out the best in people.
Church is also seen from a whole new perspective. Have you ever considered your church from the perspective of a wheelchair user—or any individual with a disability? My home church was built decades ago, and even though a ramp to the church door has been installed, the bathrooms are downstairs, making my attendance there challenging. This is not unique, as almost all the Adventist churches in my area are multilevel. Restrooms are usually inaccessible. Fellowship halls and pianos in the sanctuary are too. For wheelchair users who attend churches where restrooms are downstairs, this means either not attending church services or dehydrating (limited or no liquids beginning Friday evening) in order to make it through the four hours of a morning service. While this is often the fault of old architecture, it’s something I had never thought of before needing a wheelchair.
The church I attend more regularly now is all on one level and has a pull-up drop-off point at the door, which is very nice. But I used to play the piano for Sabbath school, and because the sanctuary piano is up on a separate level, it’s no longer accessible to me. Several of the church aisles are too narrow for my wheelchair. No church that I’ve attended has designated seating for those with disabilities. Often there are only one or two places a wheelchair can fit and thus enable the person to sit with family. A member of my family or I have to move quickly each Sabbath to assure the appropriate seat isn’t taken by another church member. While I’m sure they would move if asked, it makes the situation awkward and uncomfortable.
My opening scenario took place in a church. I often think not only of my own experience but that of children who must maneuver crowded foyers in a “sea of legs.” It can be very lonely down at that level—almost invisible as the conversations swirl just above your head. Next Sabbath, why not look down and greet those naturally “lower” than you?
I became adept in my wheelchair adventures; I was determined to make the best of it. And I now have disciplined myself to carry out tasks such as preparing meals, caring for my cat, doing laundry, and performing other simple household chores. For the most part I’m independent, but I’ve gained a whole new perspective on daily living.
I also have learned from this experience to trust in the Lord and ask for help whenever needed, and to keep busy. I’ve developed patience because I’m now dependent on others for transportation or help. I’ve become more thankful as I recognize others who are sensitive to my needs. I’ve learned to stay in touch with other people to prevent being isolated. Sending messages by e-mail, writing notes, or mailing greeting cards is something I enjoy doing. Facebook has become a wonderful new way for me to be connected. If you are a “friend” of someone on Facebook who is homebound, it’s an easy way to make that person feel included by writing a comment now and then. Phone calls and neighborly conversations keep my spirits buoyed up.
At the time of writing it’s been 1,096 days since my fall, and I’m still adjusting to the loss of my volunteer work, my home church, and my mobility. But it’s becoming easier. As the years pass by, I continue to pray that I will find outlets for ministry and become a mature Christian whose life is an inspiration to others.
Marilyn Petersen is a retired middle school teacher living in Silver Spring, Maryland. This article was published February 10, 2011.