Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Musings, 29 January 2011

Good morning,

I stretch my taut, aching muscles and shake the tingle from my right hand. Last night, I fell asleep after reading only 20 pages of a book on chronic pain management. I've decided that it is not so much that the pain is getting worse, as it is that I am getting crankier about living with it. I want to be one of those uncomplaining women whose epitaphs praise how much they bore without grumbling. I'm afraid it's too late for me in that regard, so I am now striving to be charmingly humorous in my constant whining about my fate.

I know I am fortunate. I've outlived all prognostications and at least one prognosticator. I've been publicly proclaimed too stubborn to die, too mean to live, and too irritable to be told which way to dance. But I have not done so with head held high, and stoic gaze, and dry eye. Rather, I have done so with sniveling spirit, and snapping voice, and more than a reasonable measure of stridency.

I am reminded, as I strain to lift my coffee cup, of one afternoon at St. Louis University, in the fall of 1973, my freshman year.

I struggled across the quad, against the beat of an early, cold wind. I pulled my camel-hair coat tighter around me, and bound the sash belt more snugly against my thin frame. Shifting the pile of spiral notebooks and texts from one arm to the other, I stopped, briefly, trying to decide if I could cut another class. Look out, gang way, I heard, from behind, and stepped aside just quickly enough to avoid being side-swiped by a fast-moving wheelchair.

I watched as the chair, bearing a slender man whose fragile arms nonetheless worked the wheels with fury, zipped down the sidewalk and across Grand Blvd., and continued on, weaving around students meandering toward the buildings east of Grand. Amazing, I thought. I continued my slow trod to class, and thought no more of him.

Later, in the student union, I saw the man again, wending his way past dawdling young people into the pub. I watched as he touched an arm, nodded, and moved beyond the first few tables, pushing aside chairs blocking his path. He settled at a table in the far back, his arms drawn up, his head bobbing, the lean line of his jaw pointing towards the ceiling as his eyes pitched round.

He caught me staring. You, girl, come on over here, get a better look! he called. I closed my eyes in a futile attempt to escape the taunting cackle. Come on, you know you want to! I'm a damn good lookin' fella, come on over and sit yourself down. By the end of his second sentence, I knew that I had no choice; the entire noon-day population of the pub waited to see what I would do.

I sat down at his table. Someone brought a cold mug of beer with a giant straw for him, and glanced at me. You want anything? I shook my head. The waitress left without a second's hesitation.

He leaned forward, mouthing the straw, taking a long pull. I've got CP, he said. What's your excuse? I knew he didn't mean my excuse for limping. I'm sorry, I said, knowing the words were not enough. I looked away from his struggle to drink without meaningful use of his hands or arms. In my 18 years of living, I had yet to encounter many people with physical conditions more serious than mine. The Americans With Disabilities Act had not yet pushed its way onto architectural planning; there were few "crippled people" as we used to be called, who could really navigate the world so freely as to be frequently out on their own. Only people such as myself, still ambulating though with difficulty, traversed the world on a regular basis until the advent of plentiful ramped curbs and accessible buildings.

He told me his name was David. I tendered my name. His interest drifted from the silence that ensued, and he saw other people, people he knew, and haled them. Soon, a cluster of laughing young men and women surrounded us, on chairs, crammed against the back wall, and standing. David had many more friends than I did, an easier demeanor, and a razor quick wit. He was popular.

I eased myself up from my chair after ten or fifteen minutes of sitting in the midst of their good-natured rowdiness. I put one finger out, and touched his shoulder. Nice to meet you, I told him, and he jerked his head in what might have been acknowledgment, or could have just been a random spasm. I left as quickly as I could, and the gap created by my absence closed around him. By some sad coincidence, a loud roar of laughter rose from his table just as I reached the door of the pub, and I could not help but believe that the joke was on me.

I saw him a lot after that. I learned that he intended to be a writer, a poet or a journalist, he had not decided which. He carried a tape recorder in a canvas bag hooked to the side of his wheelchair. He interviewed everybody he met, and went everywhere he could navigate on campus. People remembered him; folks in wheelchairs are not common enough to be unremarkable even now, and they were less so in the 70s.

I came upon David in the pub many days. He wore his straight hair long, and sported heavy flannel shirts over thermal t-shirts. Coats are too much work, he told me. I did not reply. I started sitting at his table, listening mostly, while he gently prodded stories from other students. I never knew if they understood themselves to be material for his work, or if they knew but did not care. Everybody likes to talk, he told me. He rolled his eyes to find mine, canting his head, manipulating the recalcitrant muscles of his neck. Got that? Everybody likes to talk.

He never asked me any questions though. My story did not interest him. I sat in a miserable huddle at his table day after day, and watched the ebb and flow of humanity seek him out. He would let one arm fall down and graze against each person as they sat beside him, but the arm would draw back up to his chest, tight and stubborn. His knees knocked against each other; he strapped his legs to the brackets of his footrest and kept them in a bound position all day He lowered his arms only to work the chair and get it going, and when he did so, great beads of sweat broke out across his forehead as he strained to force his arms to do his beckoning.

Towards Christmas break, I saw him with a girl, who pushed his chair, and stood behind him when they paused at lights. She wore an impossibly long scarf and had straight, waist-length hair of an indeterminate color. She had a tattered pea coat and tall, black boots with laces. She did not speak. That's Susan, he told me, gesturing with one crooked arm, one useless hand. She smiled at me with her mouth, under a slender nose and grim, honest, clear grey eyes.

I got involved in a play after Christmas, and got bitten by a brown recluse back stage during rehearsal one afternoon. I made the first performance -- Look Homeward, Angel -- and sat on the porch swing until the end of the second act, swooning with fever. My parents had come to see the show, and took me back to their house, where I sank into illness that lasted several weeks.

When I made it back to campus, I looked for David. But I did not see him. I would occasionally hear someone shout, Look out, gang way! and, turning, expect to see his small form in its metal ride, hurdling down the sidewalk. But it never was. His usual table had been pushed against the back wall of the pub, and the multitude of chairs previously grouped around it had been re-positioned. No one seemed to know why.

Towards spring, I stood, one afternoon, waiting to cross Grand, waiting for a walk signal. A small noise on my right distracted me, and I looked at the person standing there. I recognized the long, lazy sweep of mousy hair, and the arch of one brow over an unrestrained grey gaze. I asked her, Have you seen David lately? and Susan replied, just before stepping off the curb, He died.

I held back, unable to make my feet hit the pavement. I watched her cross, and disappear into the unending flow of students, living their lives, from dorm to lecture hall, from student union to the cool of the shady quadrangle. A horn honked, and I found myself standing in the crosswalk halfway over to the far side, crossing against the light. I stood very still, and waited, until the cars around me had passed, and then, lifting my tired feet a little higher, and holding my lily white spastic hands a little more easily, I made my way to class.

I focus, suddenly, on the quiet rush of the tinnitus with which I have lived for years, and the hum of the refrigerator. The sounds of the house shift around me, and outside, a passing car briefly revs its engine as it maneuvers around the two white SUVs parked in front. Lifting my coffee cup, I see that I have, without realizing, drunk another eight ounces of lukewarm artificial energy, and I think about making an egg before getting dressed, and getting on with my day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Dedicated to all the twelve-foot giants I have known. Rock on.

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.