wheel chair lessons

The day my dad’s aging body forced him to take a seat was the day our wheelchair education began.
Shortly after he settled into the chair, our children visited. As he rested on his bed, they plopped down in his chair, pushing it back and forth with their feet chatting until one ventured down the hall for a spin.
“Make sure you put it right back where you got it from when you’re done, so I can get it,” Dad’s concern hardened his voice. He did not want to be stuck in bed. He needed that wheelchair for mobility. With the deterioration of his once sturdy, confident walk he wobbled even during transfers from bed to chair .
We took him out for a ride and discovered life with a wheelchair.
First, we emptied leftover tools and packages out of the back of the van so we could haul the chair. I appreciate the ease of collapsing a modern, vinyl wheelchair, but I yield to my husband’s expertise at loading it into the trunk. When I lift the chair, the wheels become a gyroscope, spinning it – and me – off balance and away from the vehicle.
Most of our expeditions with Dad include church and a meal out. We weigh our options for eating out against each facility’s wheelchair friendliness. At least one eatery I negated because, “it isn’t laid out with enough space for a wheelchair – plus it has at least one step to get to the dining area.”
With Dad in the car we assume ownership of handicapped parking places. When other cars fill the slots, we mentally calculate how to wheel him across the parking lot and into the building for dinner. Upward slopes increases the gravitational pull. Downward slopes threaten runaway wheelchair accidents.
Doorways, even in public places, can be threatening. For a while he used a very wide wheelchair that barely fit through most doors. We quickly learned to check that he had tucked his arms inside chair’s arm rests – a glancing scrape that would barely scratch a young person tore his fragile, aging skin.
At church we park in the driveway to unload the chair and Dad – every other parking spot requires a step-up or a bumpy push to get into the church.
Inside the church we no longer sit with friends. His wheelchair fits best on the level floor, beside the shortened pews in the last row. If mobile families beat us to the seat, we ask if they would consider moving so we can sit with Dad.
From the back of the church, away from the surround sound of congregational singing, we sing ‘alone.’ Dad spends his praise and worship time staring at the backside of the folks in the pews in front of us especially when they stand to follow words projected on a screen at the front. Once, just once, I heard his clear, strong voice well up from behind the wall of people and join us in an old familiar hymn that he knew without the words.
His first few church services in a wheelchair, Dad glumly watched when the congregates stood to greet each other. Eventually, folks realized he could not join the flurry of activity unless they personally left their pews to shake his hand. Every time someone does, his face brightens into a grin – demonstrating anew how little it takes to include the wheelchair bound folks in our lives.
(Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times.)