Generally, the first thing I feel when I look disabled is pain. Or at least some very heavy discomfort. My definition of pain, what the worst sort of is pain, is different now. Today, this is the sort of pain that you feel deep inside you. I lay in my bed. I try to tell myself that it’s probably not so bad.
I sit up. I think that it might be so bad. I put my hand under my knee to help swing my leg around so it hangs off the side of the bed. I know it is so bad. I tell myself that it can’t be as bad as before, that it has been so much worse, that if I made it through that I can be fine. You can deal with so bad, I say. Just not as bad and this is not nearly as bad.
I try to stand, but I can’t quite unbend. I feel like a hinge that got stuck, like a Tin Man who’s lost its oilcan. I can almost feel the rust in my joints. I stumble hobble with my hands on any solid surface I can touch. Finally, the solid surface I feel is my cane. I don’t like this one. It’s a cheap drugstore knock-off, unlike the dark wood of my first. But I can almost stand straight with it, so that’s something.
I move slowly and purposefully to my closet. Then I feel the fabric of my clothes. I take more time picking out my outfit than normal. Everyone stares when you’re young – far too young for a cane – and pretty – far too pretty to be disabled. It’s one part not wanting to give people another reason ask prying questions, two parts hoping that if I look nice, I can feel nice.
I can’t say it always works, but I still try.
I try to put my shoes on so that I can leave the house and go to campus. I feel my shin, right below my knee. I can’t quite make it far enough. I spend five minutes doing a mix of wiggling and intent staring at my toes. I give up. I feel for a pair of flats that I can slip my feet into. It’s still not as bad – I couldn’t dress myself then.
I feel the steps of the bus beneath my feet next. I grasp the handrail and I think I can make it up if I lean. I concentrate hard. The first seat is empty and I gently lower myself down with a sigh of relief. I look up and my eyes find the eyes of the older lady across from me. She just barely lifts her cane up for me to see. She gives me a sweet sad smile that just about breaks my heart.
I get to campus. I feel someone come up beside me and I see the sympathetic eyes of a classmate. They haven’t seen me disabled before. I make a joke about it. I can tell that they don’t know whether to laugh or not.
I feel shy when I look disabled and I wish it wasn’t so. This is still relatively new for me and I don’t know quite what to do with it. I stare straight ahead and desperately wish I was feeling my boyfriend’s hand in mine. I wish I had someone – him, a friend who has known me before, during, and after the as bad – beside me to show to the world that you can still be loved when you’re broken. That even though sometimes I can’t walk normally, I still have people who look me in the eye without pity or sadness or something akin to guilt.
But I’m on my own today. I feel the sun on my head and the wind on my back. I feel better knowing that I’m very small and most likely very inconsequential to most of the world. I feel better knowing that the rest of the universe is going through whatever it is they are going through without caring even a tiny bit about me.
I go to the bathroom. At least I don’t have to maneuver a wheelchair into handicap stall like during the as bad. I feel my cane hanging from the crook of my elbow as I wash my hands. I feel coarse paper towels as I dry my hands and a door behind me open. I feel your eyes on my back, tracing their way to my right hand that’s holding my cheap drugstore knockoff cane. I make eye contact with you through the mirror and see you do a split-second assessment that ends with you looking away as quick as you can. I can almost feel you blush from here.
I turn slowly to leave and wish you could feel how much better that would have felt if you had just smiled, nodded, anything absolutely anything but looked away like my disability was going to set you on fire.