My mother, her wheelchair and the feminist lesson I didn’t expect to learn

We took a family trip to Story Land and I cried. I cried as we surfed over artificial rapid rivers in koala bear rafts. I cried as we met Cinderella, dressed in a blue satin with a blonde wig and a goofy cherry smile. She shook my limp hand, and I sniffled a “hi.” Back then, when asked, I couldn’t explain why I was crying. I was the grumpy kid, who a real live princess couldn’t even console. Now, though, I remember. It was the first time I ever saw my Mom in a wheelchair. She told me she had become too tired to walk. I wasn’t crying because my mom was sick or because I felt bad for her. I was crying because my aunt was pushing her around, and I knew she could get around on her own.

Once, she fell in the parking lot of a grocery store. She was using a walker then, milking the last of her functioning leg muscles for all they had.  I looked down at her, helpless in a heap on the concrete. My mother, the personal injury lawyer, the wide-mouthed laugher, the Broadway belter, was not supposed to be helpless. I wasn’t supposed to be either. I wasn’t strong enough to lift her off the ground. I wished I could have, didn’t want anyone else to see her crumpled up and vulnerable. Didn’t want them to think the two of us couldn’t fend for ourselves. I looked around for a strong man. I found one, who, in the future, more comedic version of the story, would become known as “lettuce man.” He was carrying stacks of wooden crates of green vegetables into the store, so I knew his biceps were up for the task. He gladly lifted my mother by her armpits, encouraging her legs to untangle beneath her and her hands to grasp the handles of her purple walker, so she could regain her strength.

Since then, fatigue and multiple falls have made her purple electric wheelchair her main mode of transportation. She drives her hand-controlled van, zooms down the ramp that protrudes from its side, and cruises over choppy Boston sidewalks to get to her office.  Mostly, she gets through her days on her own. Sometimes, though, her chair gets stuck in the icy trenches of a New England winter or her weak hand muscles prevent her from opening a jar of olives. “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” she quotes A Streetcar Named Desire in her fake Southern accent. Yes, she would rather do these things for herself. But sometimes she can’t. Sometimes the world just isn’t built for her.

Sexism tells women we’re damsels in distress. We are weak, helpless, and scared. We need to be rescued. Mine and my mother’s feminist instincts tell us to be independent, that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we shouldn’t rely on a man, or anyone, for that matter. But what if physical impairments make asking for help a necessity?

Growing up with a mother like mine has taught me to view independence differently. It’s not doing things alone with no support. It’s advocating for one’s needs and using one’s resources to get what one wants. The way my mom advocates for herself makes her the strongest woman I know. She demands that buildings make their entrances handicapped accessible. She asks burly men to lift her up when she falls down. She travels the world, knocking down any obstacles that stand in her way.

Recently, my family and I took a trip to Spain. To get to the ancient Roman ruins in Tarragona, my Dad and I had to lift my Mom’s wheelchair up a flight of seven stone steps. This was no big deal. We had done more and we had perfected our technique. Like always, he stood behind the chair, holding onto the back handles and I held the chair from the front. Together, we lifted the chair slightly, while letting its wheels rest on each step as we went. On the way back down, a man offered to help. He didn’t know how, though, so I demonstrated, then allowed him to take my place.

After we left, I said to my parents, “I could have done that.” Of course, they knew this, but I had to make sure they knew how capable I was, that I wasn’t weak, that I was a strong woman who could take care of myself and my mother. But then I thought maybe the reason I made that comment was the very same reason I let that man take my job. I knew how strong I was, and I didn’t need to lift someone or something to prove it.

My mother knows how strong she is. She lifts weights in the gym. She argues tenaciously about issues that matter. Too-tight olive jar lids and snow banks are minor barriers to the larger achievements she makes every day. Asking for and accepting help is what makes her a fighter. It’s a skill that any person, woman or man, with or without a disability, should learn. It’s one I’ve learned from her and will continue to use as I make my way in the world as a feminist.


How I came to love my wheelchair

 (Images via iStock, the author)

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