(Utne Reader, Sept-Oct 1997; originally published in Epoch, 1997 Series, Vol. 46, No. 1)
I found the full essay (PDF) at a homework site. I'm not sure of the origin of the PDF version of the essay, although the citation above happens to be identical to my wording. (I don't remember the origin of my quote either, although I did pick up some copies of Utne Reader from the bookstore back in the 1990s.) The PDF version looked a little rough, so I extracted the text and produced this HTML file. I added quoted dialog to the last sentence in paragraph 2. I replaced the italicized text in paragraph 7 with quoted dialog. Finally, the last sentence in the very last paragraph differed from my version in wording and highlighting, so I replaced it with my version. (Alex Measday)
In my sixth year as a cripple, I read a newspaper story about a 34-year-old man who, while he was playing rugby, received an injury that changed his body, and so his life, forever—he is a quadriplegic. The newspaper story focused on the good effect he had on his friends and other people in the city where he lived. They raised money for him; they visited him in the hospital; they said they drew strength from his courage. The injured man said he had regained the use of his hands and that someday he would walk again and play golf. He was still in the hospital.
I was hit by a car on the highway, and lost my left leg above the knee; my right leg was too damaged to use. On the night of my injury I was 49 years old and my sixth child was in her mother's womb. Friends visited me, phoned, wrote letters. Eight writers raised money for me with readings; I didn't even know five of them till we met at the readings. The quadriplegic was talking about playing a game on grass in summer, and his injury was far worse than mine. As he lay on the ground after being hurt, he said, "I'm still single."
So why, as I ate cereal and read this story, did I feel rage instead of gratitude? I wanted to yell at someone, wanted above all to put someone in a wheelchair for one long pushing, puffing, muscle-aching, mind-absorbing day. But who? The reporter and his editor? That newspaper gives favorable reviews to restaurants that the quadriplegic cannot go into, and it doesn't tell you whether or not the restaurant is accessible to people in wheelchairs. This means the reviewers and editors don't think of us as people. They wouldn't review a restaurant that was accessible only to Caucasians or only to men.
Who will carry the quadriplegic up even one step to a restaurant? And why would he want to be carried, when his helplessness, his very meatness, slaps his soul? Chairs with motors cost around $8,000, and if you plan to leave your home you need a van with a lift, and someone to drive it. The quadriplegic will not walk. He will forever be dependent on someone. He cannot sit on a toilet, he cannot wipe himself, or shave, shower, make his bed, dress. He will use a catheter. He cannot cook. He will not feel the heat of a woman, except with his face.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, I had a friend in a wheelchair. I met him in late afternoon on a cold winter day. There was snow on the ground and the sidewalks, and he was pushing his chair up a long steep hill. I was walking at the bottom of the hill when I heard his voice. I stopped and saw him looking over his shoulder at me, calling, "Can you give me a push?"
He couldn't make it any farther up the hill. I felt the embarrassment of being whole while he was not, and went up to him and pushed. In this way we introduced ourselves: I spoke to the back of his head, and he spoke into the cold air in front of him. The hill led to a street that was flat, and he told me I could stop pushing. Across the street was a bar, and we went in. I don't remember how he got down to the street, over the sidewalk's curb, and back up again on the other side. He did it alone. His crippling, he said, came from polio, while he was in the army. In rehabilitation he had learned to lean his chair backward, bring the small front wheels down on the curb, and push and lift the big rear wheels onto it.
He had broad shoulders and a deep voice that I loved hearing. I do not remember how much of his lower body was paralyzed. He had a girlfriend and, one evening in a bar, he said to me, "I can have intercourse." I don't remember pulling him up the steps to our house when he came for dinner or a party, but we had more than one step and my wife and I must have helped him. He told me of learning to use a wheelchair, how the instructors took the men on wheels out the hospital and raced to a nearby bar. "You had to keep up and get over the curbs," he said. "If you fell on your back, tough shit." He laughed and I laughed with him, and that's how I thought of people in wheelchairs until I became one: stout-hearted folk wheeling fast on sidewalks, climbing curbs, and of course sometimes falling backward, but that seemed to me like slipping and falling on the outfield grass while you're chasing a fly ball. That is, until over 20 years later, when I fell backward in my chair, and slammed my head against the floor, and I lay helpless and hurt. It was summer and the windows were open and my neighbor, in his house 30 yards away, heard my head striking wood.
My friend was very skillful in his wheelchair, and I lacked imagination. Or I lacked the compassion and courage to imagine someone else's suffering I never thought of my friend making his bed, sitting on a toilet, sitting in a shower, dressing himself, preparing breakfast and washing its dishes, just to leave his house, to go out into the freezing Iowa air.
In my freshman year of college in Louisiana, I studied journalism. If I had become a reporter, and if one day I had walked into a hospital and interviewed a quadriplegic, I would have written the same kind of story I read in the newspaper that morning. It's good story. The human spirit is strong, and the heart is capable of such hope that, even when we know the truth and it's not the truth we want, we still persevere. I would have celebrated this, as a reporter; and that night, after writing my story about the brave and hopeful quadriplegic, I would have climbed four steps to a restaurant.
And I wouldn't have imagined sitting in a 250-pound wheelchair staring at those few steps leading to the restaurant's door; or looking into a woman's eyes and, in my chest, feeling passion my body could no longer release.
A friend of mine who was a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam was blown into the air by a mine and lost his left leg below the knee. He had been a quarterback in school. When he came home to his small town, limping on an artificial leg, he saw his coach. The coach asked what happened to his leg, and my friend said, "I twisted my knee."
I met him nearly 20 years later, and less than a month before I was injured. We were at a writers' conference, and he didn't limp. When he told me about his leg, I said I never would have known. A long time after my injury, when I was still working with a physical therapist, I talked with this friend on the phone and reminded him of what I had said that summer. "You pissed me off," he said. "People don't know how tiring it is, and how much it hurts."
We were talking on the phone again when he told me about his coach. "You didn't tell him you were in the war?" I asked.
"I was afraid of his reaction."
I sing of those who cannot. To view human suffering as an abstraction, as a statement about how plucky we all are, is to blow air through brass while the boys and girls march in parade off to war. Seeing the flesh as only a challenge to the spirit is as false as seeing the spirit as only a challenge to the flesh. On the planet are people with whole and strong bodies, whose wounded spirit need the constant help that the quadriplegic needs for his body. What we need is not the sound of horns rising to the sky but the steady beat of the bass drum. When you march to a bass drum, your left foot touches the earth with each beat, and you can feel the drum in your body: boom and boom and boom and pity people pity people.I sing of those who cannot. To view human suffering as an abstraction, as a statement about how plucky we all are, is to blow air through brass while the boys and girls march in parade off to war. Seeing the flesh as only a challenge to the spirit is as false as seeing the spirit as only a challenge to the flesh. On the planet are people with whole and strong bodies, whose wounded spirits need the constant help that the quadriplegic needs for his body. What we need is not the sound of horns rising to the sky but the steady beat of the bass drum. When you march to a bass drum, your left foot touches the earth with each beat, and you can feel the drum in your body: boom and boom and boom and pity people pity people pity people.
"Crip Sheet: Why the Able-Bodied Still Don't Get It", by Andre Dubus (1997)