What You Learn When Your Husband is in a Wheelchair
I love sharing the story of how Travis and I met, because it really sums up our personalities. I knew him before the accident, and he’s still the same guy I fell in love with when I was thirteen years old. It was the first day of high school and, typical me, I was running very late to my first class. For some reason I could not figure out the numbering system for our classrooms. I finally got to room 203 and I whipped the door open in a hurry only to find that the teacher was already standing in the front taking role call. An instant wave of panic came over my body, and I could feel myself getting red. I searched the desks for an empty seat. It looked like every single one was taken. As I passed the edge of the back row, I saw a hand stretched out to the side trying to get my attention. I followed the hand to the body of a young-looking guy pointing to the empty seat next to him. I hustled into it. As I sat down, I pleaded an uncomfortable sorry-smile to the teacher, who rolled his eyes and continued on with his Ferris Bueller-style role call.
“You looked like a deer in headlights up there,” was the first thing he ever said to me.
“Yeah, thanks. I know I’m going to be on the teacher’s favorites list this year.”
“Ah, who wants that anyway. Travis,” he said, holding his hand out.
“Like the season,” he replied, giving a quick shake of my hand and then looking back to the teacher, who was lecturing about his expectations of us for the semester.
As the day went on, we realized that we had most of our classes together. The only exception? While he was learning how to weld a piece of metal in the shop, I was dissecting a cow intestine in the lawn right outside of it. It was really hard trying to look cute with rubber gloves up to your shoulders, with a thick apron and safety goggles on for good measure, but I did my best. As time went on, we hung out, and, yada yada yada, we became a couple!
In June 2006, we graduated high school and were released into the world. Kind of. He was going to school to become a personal trainer and I was going to become a massage therapist. That summer, we had so many plans of just hanging out and enjoying each other before we’d be heading off to a day’s worth of classes.
August 25, 2006 changed our lives forever. Travis’ truck wasn’t running right that whole day, so I decided I’d drive. We were heading home from dinner with friends when I noticed what looked like a set of headlights heading right for us. It felt like I pushed the brake pedal through the bottom of the car. Travis grabbed my arm. And that’s all.
When I woke up, there was dirt and dust all around. It was like a cloak. And out of that, a group of firefighters were yelling “Don’t move. We’ll get you out.” I was so confused. I went to unbuckle my seatbelt, but it had been torn. I touched my forehead and there was dry, sticky blood coming from a gash. I looked at the passenger seat, and Travis wasn’t there. For some reason, I touched the seat just to make sure. Like he might be invisible. When I looked at the windshield, I realized that he had been ejected from the car. I didn’t get to see him at all at the scene.
The hospital was the first time I was told how bad the accident had been. The other driver had been drinking and thought he was going the right way on the road. I had bumps, bruises, and a broken nose. But Travis was a lot worse. The impact had thrown him through the windshield, into the road. His spinal cord was severed (incompletely) around T10/11, which meant he was paralyzed from the waist down. A lot of time was spent in surgery, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and hospitals and doctors’ offices. But he’s fully recovered and has learned to live with this curve ball we were thrown. It’s also taught us a lot of important lessons that can translate to the real world.
IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF, AND OTHERS
One thing I’ve learned is patience. I’m a very impatient person in every facet of my life. Now, I’m more aware of it and I can correct myself. Something as simple as getting in and out of the car takes time. Not a lot, but to break down and put together his chair probably takes a few minutes. Getting ready in the mornings, I used to be the one that took the longest. Now, I think we’re equal and I can better understand how he felt when I took forever.
“One step at a time” and “Stop and smell the roses” are two phrases you will hear us repeating, all day every day. I had to accept that he would do things on his own terms, and I had to respect that. It wasn’t when I wanted it done anymore (that part ties into a sub-category below about personal space). Going out to dinner has been the most humbling in regards to my lack of patience. Before heading out, we have to call ahead to make sure it is accessible. Most places are required to have ramps, elevators, etc. But not everywhere does. And it’s frustrating.
PERSONAL SPACE IS REALLY IMPORTANT
Another struggle is personal space and awareness of our surroundings. When living with someone who uses a wheelchair, you HAVE to learn to become aware of where your body is at all times. Travis will not hesistate to tell you how many times I have tripped, kicked, pushed, hit and clothes-lined him. Never maliciously or on purpose, but I have hit him a lot. I still talk with my hands a lot, but they’re a lot smalled of gestures than they used to be.
Travis and I are fortunate enough to be “space” people. We understand that there are days where we just want to be left alone and we honor that. It’s also become a bigger lesson than just that. For the longest time after the accident, he did not like when I would touch his legs. We would be sitting at a movie or in the car, and I’d just put my hand on his leg like couples do. He hated that. He explained it to me as being a “weird sensation of knowing my hand was there, but not really feeling it.”
You’re never supposed to grab or touch someone’s wheelchair without asking, either. The therapists always explained it as it being an extention of the user. It’d be like someone coming up to us and just touching our legs without asking if it was okay.
PEOPLE DON’T ALWAYS THINK BEFORE THEY SPEAK OR ACT. TAKE IT WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.
Here’s a scenario that will sum this whole thing up:
Travis and are out at dinner. We get seated and a young waitress comes to the table. She greets us and then asks me “May I get you something to drink?” I order a beer. She looks at me again and says “And what about him?” I politely say, “I don’t know. What will you have, babe?” For some reason, people see his wheelchair and automatically assume that he can’t speak/hear/think. It happens all the time! And it’s okay.
That response has taken a lot of work to put together. I used to get kind of upset and say “I don’t know. Ask him!” and realized that it was rude of me. Sometimes people don’t think about what they are doing. Kind of like if you’ve ever been in the company of someone who is blind, and you speak loudly to them. People do that to Trav sometimes, too. It’s silly and we get a little chuckle out of it now. This also ties into the “Don’t Touch” point above. We’ve been out at a busy bar, waiting in line for drinks, and someone will move Travis out of the way. Don’t, please! I wouldn’t come up to you and pick you up to get out of my way.
PEOPLE WILL ASK QUESTIONS . . . AND THAT’S AWESOME!
Humans are curious by nature. I think way more than cats! If I see someone staring at us, I will wave them over and ask them if they had a question. I’m very polite and respectfull of their questions. I would rather you come over and ask, than stare at us while we’re stuffing our faces with burritos. When I meet new people and tell them my husband is in a wheelchair, they ask a lot of strange questions/make strange comments:
Friend: “But he can’t dance.”
Me: “Neither can I.”
Friend: “What does your husband do?”
Me: “He’s a personal trainer.”
Friend: “But he’s in a wheelchair.”
Me: “And he kicks my butt harder than any other trainer.”
I feel like this is the best way to respond to someone. I don’t want them to feel bad for asking what I felt like a “silly question”.
BE PREPARED TO HEAR “NO.” IT’S OKAY.
Growing up, I was always taught to hold doors for others and to say “please” and “thank you”. Basically, manners. Living with someone with a spinal cord injury, I’ve learned that you should always ask before you help and be prepared to hear “no”.
It’s frustrating when I know he is doing something he’s completely capable of, and someone will come over and just do it for him without asking. It’s frustrating for two reasons.
The first is because I know he is capable of whatever it is he is doing. The second is, I can’t be upset because they’re just trying to be nice. On the other side of it, though, I’ve had people get upset because they will ask him if he needs anything and he will say “no” (usually, “no thank you” because I’ve taught him better!). It’s okay! I ask him ALL the time if he needs help and he says “no” around 99% of the time. That’s about the same amount of times you’re going to hear it in the real world too!
IT’S ALL ABOUT HOW YOU CARRY YOURSELF
It’s all about how you present yourself to others. I think people get really curious about Travis and I, because we are always laughing and carrying on when we’re together. We genuinely enjoy life! After everything we’ve been through, we have to! I think, as a couple, we’re infectious. Travis definitely is. He has a laugh that can make the sourest person smile. When he talks to someone, he treats them like they’re the only person in the room. He is a happy guy. Happy people are interesting! Funny people are interesting! You might have a moment that changes your life forever. What are you going to do with it? You carry on and live life to the fullest, that’s what.
Summer Reece is half of a late 20-somethings married couple living in a rural, farming town on the East Coast. She is especially fond of bluegrass, fall weather, pumpkin spice anything and farmer’s markets. She and her husband have two fur babies (cats) and spend way more time at home improvement stores than any couple should.