The lion cub gazed longingly at the shiny spokes, bobbing his head to and fro, wondering whether this foreign contraption could be his next meal. It wasn’t long before he was gnawing on my left wheel, an audacious little twinkle in his eyes. I looked down, slightly nervous, slightly amused, and hoped to God a lion cub’s bite in South Africa wouldn’t be Rita’s demise.
For the past five years, Rita Hayroll III and I have seen it all. As my trusty companion, this wheelchair has been part of an unexpected, yet fruitful journey. Like the Hollywood starlet Miss Hayworth herself, Rita’s presence has been…iconic. I never imagined I’d be here writing about the adventures (and often misadventures) of a wheelchair, and yet here I am!
My first wheelchair (Rita I) came into my life shortly after my accident. I still remember it being wheeled in; a black monstrosity with thick arm rests, a bulky seat, and spokes the size of an ox cart. With careful precision, the nurse parked the chair adjacent to my bedside. “Il suo Ferrari la aspetta,” she teased (“Your Ferrari awaits”). I sat up, almost immediately tilting over like a wilted flower, my body still adjusting to its new proportions (or lack of). As social norm would indicate, the third time was indeed the charm, as I found my balance, leaned on the nurse’s shoulder very slowly and made my way onto the chair. Little did I know that this would cement a pivotal moment in my life and mark the beginning of a very long and permanent relationship. Initially, this new companionship was met with an unabashed apathy that quickly transgressed into downright resentment. See, to me, having a wheelchair meant accepting defeat, accepting that my life would forever be constricted to and defined by a disability. It was synonymous with old age and being a member of a community that I wanted nothing to do with at age 21. It would be surrendering to a lifestyle that would only bring public scrutiny and, often times, unspoken pity. I’m pretty sure I spent many days preferring the confines of a bed (with MTV Italia blaring in the background), rather than accepting my fate in a chair.
But deep down, I knew I needed it. Once the prosthetics were off, a wheelchair would be my saving grace; my only means of moving and finding much-needed independence. With time, I began to take notice of all the things I could do on my own, and how having a wheelchair made the transition easier. By the time I left the hospital for rehab in Zurich, a new, custom-fit wheelchair (Rita II) had been fashioned to better suit my needs. I’d whizz through the hallways, making my way through back-to-back therapy sessions, a small Hello Kitty tote bag trailing behind. In the evenings, my Swiss-German roommate and I would wheel ourselves to a small balcony on our floor and stare out into the cold snow-laden countryside. We’d chat and smoke, occasionally giggling at her feeble attempts at popping wheelies. During the day, other patients in wheelchairs would glide past our room, very frequently nodding, often giving me the thumbs up; a silent gesture implying we were now part of something greater…and we were in it together. We were all fighting a good fight and making the best of what we had. This motley crew and I eventually developed an irreversible bond that came through a shared sense of loss. Somehow, this all didn’t seem so bad. In fact, it seemed quite comforting.
Years later, with Rita III by my side, my perception of a wheelchair has undoubtedly changed. Rita is a loyal respite as she welcomes me at the door every day, a plump cushion and Frida tote bag her only accessories. If Rita could talk, she’d probably say, “Ummm…so where are we going now?” I’d imagine she’d be just as eager and forthright as I usually am for the next adventure.
Like any vehicle, Rita also needs to be fine-tuned and cleaned every so often. Some Sunday afternoons I sit on my floor with a bucket of soapy water, polishing Rita’s metallic red exterior. Again, if Rita could talk I’d imagine she’d say, “Hey, let’s not forget the errant hairs and dust balls caught in the front wheels, mmkay?” She’d certainly remind me of a trip to Madrid last fall, when we stayed in an apartment on the dodgy side of town. Some of the streets in the neighborhood were lined with trash and what I could only hope was canine poop. While my brave friend and I traversed the uncombed path that led to our bus stop, I could feel my knee throbbing as images of my cold wooden floor and that bucket of water began to haunt me. I’m sure we were all grateful for the thorough scrub down after. Oh, the things those little wheels have seen!
Together, Rita and I have ventured through a parade of unsteady terrain from the rugged Highlands in Scotland, to fish guts in Morocco, to dicey cobblestone pathways in Rome. With half a brake wheel missing in the back, she’s clearly seen better days, and yet her sturdiness is unshakeable. With Rita, I’ve been to places far and wide, always a little more independent, a little more curious about what awaits just around the corner. Having a wheelchair means you never have to wait in line and you always get bumped to the front row, wherever you go. I still remember being slightly mortified at being able to skip through at least 50 people who were in line to enter La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. We even avoided the long trek up to the Acropolis in Athens, when we were escorted up in a very rickety, but efficient elevator that screeched and roared intermittently, as we made our ascent. Rita definitely has perks!
On a recent trip back from India, Rita went missing and somehow made her way to Amsterdam instead of Milan. My heart plummeted, and all kinds of disastrous mental images danced in my mind. For the first time ever, I found myself worried about Rita and whether I’d see her again. Would they scratch her shiny surface? Would they crack her pedals or brakes? Would she end up in the seedy part of Amsterdam where the ladies there might have a soft spot for pretty red things? Gasp. Luckily, Rita made it home a few days later, and without a scratch or dent on her. I welcomed her with an open arm and sat down faster than a customer at a Taco Bell bathroom. Now, whenever the flight assistance crew wheel her away into the cargo hold, I reiterate my travel instructions ad nauseam, hoping every time that she’ll greet me on the other side. “See you soon, Rita,” I’ll bellow out, as a confused staff member rolls her away into the shady abyss.
A few years ago, while strolling through the streets of Como, a little boy on his bike stopped me dead in my tracks and eagerly turned toward his mother. His slender finger pointed at my wheels, before he shouted, “Guarda, mamma, anche lei ha la sua bicicletta!” (“Look, Mom, she also has a bicycle!”). His mother’s cheeks turned a cotton candy pink, her laugh apologetically soft. I flashed her a comforting smile and replied, “Si! Anche la mia e molto bella, vero?” (“Yes, and mine is also very beautiful, right?”) And I truly meant it.
To me, Rita is beautiful. My little roadster has taught me that beauty is present in all things our heart deems important. Our experiences of heartache and joy all cascade into a mountain of memories that not only nurture our souls, but drive them. But dignity isn’t shaped by what we experience; it is a result of how we choose to carry on that experience. I chose to embrace Rita for the many facets of life I could still enjoy through her. Because of my wheelchair, I’ve learned to chip away at the ingrained notion that sitting down meant missing out. Obviously, it doesn’t. My adventures are still my own, and while the view might be a little lower, it’s undeniably clear. I’ve come to accept that Rita and I are in it for the long haul, and that our journey, while challenging at times, will never be less than memorable.
I wonder whatever happened to that little boy in Como, but I hope that wherever he goes in life, he’ll be driving something cool too.
In the meantime, my chariot awaits.