Sunday, January 2, 2011

Our Night Out on the Town

“If I only had a little humility, I'd be perfect.”
  - Ted Turner

I’m predisposed to enjoy solitary pursuits like reading a good book, sitting by the fire, or watching quality TV. But once in a while I get the urge to abandon my safe haven and venture into the disabled-unfriendly world beyond, usually at my wife’s prodding. Wednesday was one of those days.

Let me set this up first. Kim is as frugal as anyone I know, and she comes by it naturally. When her father visits, his conversational ice-breaker isn’t something like, “I’m thinking about getting one of the new BMW’s, but it has to come with leather seats.” It’s more likely to be, “Guess how much I paid for these sneakers?” And a good guess will be something south of $4.

One way that Kim scratches her penny-pinching itch is to compete in radio station giveaways, as opposed to actually purchasing concert tickets, for example. In recent years we’ve seen classic bands such as Styx, ZZ Top, and others, all with complementary tickets. This summer we even saw the still-lovely Cheryl Crow at Meadowbrook. In 1986, when we were newlyweds and living in far away and exotic Cleveland, Ohio, of all places, she won a $1,000 shopping spree at the store of our choice. At the time we possessed little more than student loans, the newfound thrill of living on our own, and a few wedding presents. We chose J.C. Penny. Some of the items we purchased included: two tennis racquets (the new aluminum kind), a softball glove that I used maybe 5 times, and a blue dress that Kim wore on and off for 20 years.

Last week, one of the local stations was giving away second row tickets to our favorite stand-up comic at our favorite historic theater. When prompted, we needed to be the ninth caller. For particularly appealing giveaways like this one, Kim will deputize me as her assistant caller. I had the land line, and she had her cell phone. We heard the cue and started dialing. I get nothing but busy signals call after call. Kim was both caller number two and caller number nine. How does she do that?

The evening of the show, I ascended into my iBot, like a king to his throne, and we set out for the city. The first challenge was parking. There are five handicapped parking spots very near the entrance to the theater. We were optimistic, but it was not to be. Five people, four and a half of whom were probably less disabled than me, beat us to the punch, fair and square.

The next cluster of handicapped parking spots was a couple of blocks away. We were able to claim the last one of those, but this required Kim to pull alongside a snow bank. When we opened the van door the slide-out ramp began to extend. It sliced through the middle of the snow bank like a hot knife through butter. The problem was that the ramp rested on top of the remainder of the snow bank, teetering as if it was a plank on a pirate ship. Luckily, despite having been an imperfect husband all these years, Kim didn't prod me out of the van with a sharp hook where her hand used to be. Instead, we retracted the ramp/plank, and Kim kicked away the bottom of the snow bank in her dressy boots. We re-extended the ramp, and I backed onto the sidewalk without incident. No splash, captain.

When we reached the theater lobby, I did what I love to do in crowds – I transitioned to balance mode in my iBot. Oh, the looks I get. Many people speak privately to one another, or so they think, as I go whizzing by. The most common remarks are uninformed expressions of amazement like "wow, look at that", or "cool!" I carry on as if moving about on two wheels in a crowded theater is as common as is walking down the street in three dollar sneakers.

I carry with me and occasionally hand out some semi-humorous, semi-serious business cards. I've been through a few iterations of them. Here is my latest one, front and back:

livepreviewCA724Y2Ilivepreview back

When Kim picked up the show tickets at the radio station a few days earlier, we were pleased that one of them was an aisle seat. Shortly after arriving at the theater, even though it was half an hour before the start of the show, we decided to scope out our seats to confirm that I would be able to transfer, and indeed I could. Next, we returned to the lobby to mingle and get some refreshments. I bought a warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie. Kim secured a pinot noir, served up in a plastic cup.

It's not that I don't like sipping wine at the theater; it's just that I have to manage my bladder at events like this. Sure, there is a handicapped bathroom off the lobby, but if I've transferred to my theater seat, and Kim has already driven my chair to its out-of-the-way storage space, and then I have to use the bathroom, I would cause a scene in the second row of a comedy show (“hey buddy, you don’t have to laugh at my jokes, but do you really need to jump in your wheelchair and sneak off”), and I would miss about 20 minutes of the 90 minute show. So, no pinot for me.

As we were casually standing (and balancing) in the lobby, a very nice lady approached me. She asked if mine was the stair-climbing wheelchair, and I proudly responded that it was. Like so many people who introduce themselves to me, she revealed that someone close to her was also a wheelchair user – her husband. Because I am a member of the club myself, I’m allowed to ask, "If you don't mind, why is your husband in a wheelchair?"

"He has MS," she replied. Bingo! I love meeting other MSers or MS caregivers.

"Oh, so do I," I exclaimed, affirming our fateful kinship.

"He has a wheelchair too, but nothing like this one,” she continued. I felt a surge of self-satisfaction. "He's on a ventilator now, and is blind, so he doesn't get out much. He tried one of those sip and puff controllers on his newest chair, but because he has difficulty breathing into the tube or even seeing where he’s going, it didn't work out very well."

That wasn’t what I expected to hear at all. I had been trumped! In most interactions of this sort I'm the incredibly disabled person. I'm to be marveled at and admired for overcoming obstacles to make it to the theater, mingle with the healthy folks, and nibble casually on cookies. I’m the role model…the inspiration.

When somebody tells me that a loved one is in a wheelchair or has MS, I almost always hand them one of my business cards so that they can visit my blog and be impressed by my wit and charm, and my noble attitude toward life’s challenges. I couldn't, however, bring myself to give one of these cards to this wonderful lady. I didn't feel worthy. It seemed presumptuous of me. If I were to meet her husband, a man who has been places I haven’t, places I may or may not go myself someday, oh the stories he could tell. He would be the mentor, and I would be the apprentice.

This lady was remarkably composed when describing her husband's situation. Her voice didn't crack, and she maintained a matter of fact, yet kind, expression on her face. She's well practiced, like Kim. Taking her cue that it was socially acceptable to keep our happy faces on, I said, "Well, one of the best things about being in this iBot is that beautiful women like you, who wouldn't normally give me the time of day, come up and talk to me."

We all laughed and wished each other a Happy New Year. My business card stayed in my pocket. I regret that now. I should not have made the determination that my website was inappropriate for these brave people. It should have been their choice to make. But that opportunity has now passed.

As the lady walked away my wife turned to me and whispered, "I hate to hear stories like that." I knew exactly what she meant.


  1. Mitch! I was reading along with your post, enjoying your typical banter, when the lady walks up and nails you with a gut check! For a moment I got the same gut check when reading.

    Perspective. Does a body good.


  2. I'm kind of left speechless but I wanted to acknowledge this blog. It kind of sucked the wind out of me for a bit. You know it's a possibility but then you meet someone and it's real.

    I had a similar experience this past summer. The EKG tech who did my heart test told me her husband had MS. I didn't really want to hear about it because I was having a difficult time with my heart due to MS and then she told me he was in a nursing home. I was suddenly grateful to be able to take the disabled transit unassisted to the cardiologist.

    Darren is right, perspective is good.

  3. Perspective is important, but I'm glad it didn't spoil your evening out. I think you were right to keep your card in your pocket.

    And, way to go Kim! for scoring free tickets. How cool is that?

    Happy New Year to the both of you.

  4. You write a very captivating story, of a trip to the theater. It is tough to find handicap parking, and you have to deal with snow. I love your sense of humor also.
    ps I used to wear a T-Shirt from MS walk? It would help people, to not wonder if I was in a car wreck!

  5. We are all blessed and cursed at the same time. Perhaps that gives us a clue as to how we need to live our lives. Happy New Year!


  6. Darren, sorry for the sucker punch, but I was trying to recreate the same feeling for you that I had experienced myself. I know you get that.

    Weeble, I don't know what's worse with MS, what you know or what you don't know, you know?

    Webster, maybe my instincts were right that night. Happy New Year!

    Kim, the snow does add another "layer" of mobility problems :-)

    Charlie, you're right. There's a lesson here.

  7. Great post, Mitch, as usual. Getting out, parking, getting to your seat, bathroom issues – you gotta want it. The woman whose husband is seriously disabled would probably have been happy to take your card. She would definitely Get It. It sounds like you handled a potentially awkward situation with your usual wit and charm.

    But how was the show?