Celebrating Acceptance

When we think of Valentine’s Day, we think of love. And this year, for me, there was that. But it was also a celebration of one of the principles that accompany love – acceptance. Allow me to elaborate:

Last year, my daughter began kindergarten at a new school. We found ourselves in a community of people where I was the only person, let alone parent, in a wheelchair. She and I both dealt with her peers’ questions. Some kids were curious in an innocent, friendly, compassionate manner while others would abruptly ask, “What’s wrong with you?” “Why doesn’t your mom walk?” “What’s wrong with her legs?” While my daughter and I are used to being stared at, pointed at and either answering or dodging questions while in public, this was her first experience dealing with all of this amid making new friends and find her place at her new school.

By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around last year, us parents were sending out sign-ups and emails for the party that was to take place in her classroom. I helped her pick out treats and cards for her friends. And then, one night during dinner, I mentioned being excited about coming to her party the following week. She glanced shyly at me and asked, “Would it be okay with you if you didn’t come?” I asked her why? She said it would embarrass her; that I was the only mom in a wheelchair and she just wanted to have fun. I was crestfallen yet I couldn’t show her how bad I hurt. I told her I understood and only wanted her to have a good time. I promised her I wouldn’t come. She thanked me. It was the first time she’d ever told me I embarrassed her or told me she didn’t want me to join in on something she was doing. While it hurt my heart so bad, I knew it wasn’t about me. I couldn’t let on how I felt because it would make her feel guilty. The day of the party, I sat out in the carpool line waiting for her festivities to be over so I could hear all about it. A fellow mother sent me some pictures since I ‘couldn’t be there.’ That was my undoing. I started sobbing. I wanted to be in there watching her smile and have fun. I cried harder as parents and kids began coming out of the school with bags full of treats and cards, smiling and talking a mile-a-minute. But by the time my little girl got in the car, I’d dried my tears and listened as she told me all the fun things they’d done and what she’d gotten from her friends.

So, fast forward to this past Valentine’s Day. The same planning began taking place leading up to the holiday. The parents signed up to volunteer time and items and I took my daughter shopping for her classmates. I assumed I wasn’t coming and so made no plans to do so. The night before Valentine’s Day, she asked me if I was coming. I asked her if she wanted me to and she responded, “Of course! I love you! You have to be there!” I was elated! I realized she’d come to a point where she no longer cared about how I functioned as a mom; she cared simply that I was her mom and she wants me to be present. Her friends and classmates have also become less shy and inquisitive as the year has progressed. I wonder if they’re realizing I’m just like their moms, except that I parent from 6 wheels instead of 2 legs. I feel accepted there, even by other parents who didn’t know quite how to interact with me at first.

The party this year was so much fun! And to be a part of it; to be wanted there, needed there felt divine! The teacher had taken the students out of the classroom so that me and a few other moms could set up the party. When the students began filing into their newly decorated room, my daughter spotted me, yelled “Mommy!” and ran into my arms. Our embrace was caught on camera by another parent and it embodies the love my daughter and I feel for each other. And, this year, along with that love has come major acceptance of our situation, of each other. Yet isn’t that what love is all about?

Valentine's pic

photo credit: Steve Slone

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Mindfulness In Chronic Illness

            Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I never gave much thought to mindfulness. Even during my short foray into Soto Zen Buddhism in my late teens, staying present, being aware of my body, emotions and mentality didn’t seem like something I should give much import to.

            All that changed, however, at age 28. I was finishing my internship at a public school teaching a low-functioning, medically-fragile population of elementary students and working on my thesis for graduate school. Yet, suddenly, all that I’d planned for and worked towards became null and void. My whole life was turned completely around by the unforeseen onset of a rare neurological illness which left me physically disabled and visually impaired. It would take 1 ½ years for my eyesight to be completely restored and 3 years before I could walk again. I walked unaided for 15 months before my balance and mobility began to fail again. Since then, my prognosis is a slow regression of mobility though with no clear timeline. Since then, mindfulness has been forced upon me as a necessity and constant practice.

            I have been a single parent for all 7 years of my daughter’s life. Since her birth, I’ve progressed (or regressed, if you’d rather) from a cane to a manual wheelchair to a power chair. Recently, she and I were both diagnosed with another rare disease; a genetic disorder of our connective tissue. Any parent must take inventory of their physical ability to handle a given situation. Yet, as a parent with 2 chronic illnesses, I must maintain vigilant awareness of how much sleep I’ve gotten and whether or not it was sufficient; I must take stock of any aches and pains that are either currently beyond or have the ability to surpass my pain threshold; I must ask myself if I have the energy I need and how I might feel after the birthday party, field trip, visit to the park, etc. Will joining in be something my body will pay for later? Will it drain me of energy? Will it cause new aches or worsen current ones?

            It can be overwhelming trying to determine whether I can do something. I make mistakes often and must leave events early or I’m bedridden for a length of time afterwards. But I’m getting better at mindfulness. I’m learning more about my body. What’s surprising is that I’m not learning so much about my limitations as my capabilities. I’m stronger than I am weak. Mindfulness is a practice I think can strengthen us all, whether we’re disabled or not and whether we deal with chronic illness or acute ones.

Blessing Blooms From ‘Bathroom Blunder’

            I recently wrote about an incident which occurred at my daughter’s school titled, “School’s Inaccessibility Causes Bathroom Blunder.” In the two years my daughter has attended the school, it was the first time I found myself in a physically inaccessible situation. I was quite dismayed, to say the least. After the experience, I planned to contact the Headmaster and ask for a meeting. I intended to let him know how I’d felt and that I expected the necessary accommodations to be made to the bathroom by the end of the school year.

            So, it was to my surprise (and delight) that I received an email from the Headmaster a week later. He acknowledged that I must have felt frustrated and embarrassed, apologized profusely and explained to me that the Director of Facilities had bought equipment and installed it in order to make the bathroom ADA compliant and fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs. He invited me to come look at the bathroom and let him know if it did indeed meet requirements necessary for someone to transfer over to the commode.

            I stopped by the school earlier this week and was pleased that the stall divider between the accessible stall and the one beside it had been taken out and replaced with a thicker, sturdier divider. A horizontal transfer bar ran from behind the toilet to the side. (**Please see photos at bottom of article**) I went to the main office and the Headmaster came out to apologize again to me, this time in person. He commented that any time I see something that isn’t accessible or needs improvement, to please contact him so it can be dealt with immediately. I told him the only change in the bathroom I’d like to see at this point is a vertical bar above the horizontal one. For me, my upper body is regressing and I’m also a heavier person, so I grab onto both bars to transfer – it’s simply safer for me.

            It’s important to me that people know how the school dealt with this situation. I didn’t have to say anything to them. The school took the initiative. They responded quickly and reached out to me, not only apologizing for my experience but inviting me to make sure they’d fixed the problem. This solidified my faith in this school. In a world where so often, the disability community must fight for rights, accommodations, etc., it’s nice and reassuring that there’s people and places that will act quickly and with compassion simply because it’s the right thing to do.