Spring 2010 #3
The tropical surroundings of our Northern Territory building site were lush and verdant, and our activity attracted the interest of a fat, green frog. This guy was enormous. He was stupendous, an amphibian of gargantuan proportion! We were fitting out the kitchen, so we put him on a dinner plate (which he almost eclipsed!) with a little moat of water to cool his fat green hide. He stayed with us throughout the day, and though no one actually saw him move around in his porcelain pond, no matter where in the kitchen we were working he was always facing directly toward us, staring us down with his beady black eyes.
I’ve recently discovered that B4* and I can perfectly mimic the fat frog’s technique. I park myself bang in the middle of the kitchen, and wherever my Favourite Wife happens to be working, that’s where I point! She seems as surprised and perplexed by my behaviour as we were by the frog’s; but where we found the fat green frog’s antics rather endearing, mine seem not to be. Not if my Favourite Wife’s reaction to my watchful presence is any guide. “Get out of my kitchen!” she will finally erupt, usually after several polite suggestions that a wiser and more sensitive husband would have taken on board.
Which brings me to a most delicate topic: why is it that disabled people (people like me, for example) can be (very occasionally) so darned annoying?
Two or three years ago I watched as a woman asked for help once too often. She was a small woman, she walked with difficulty, and she was meeting a friend in a popular cafe. Her companion seemed a warm and generous person; and I must confess to having spied a little on their friendship. The small woman needed to access the washroom which was guarded by a heavily sprung door. If it had been possible for her to have asked for help in an easy, unaffected manner, if she could have asked her friend to open the door the way a workmate says “chuck us a screwdriver mate”, then all would have been well. But it was no more possible for her ask naturally for assistance than it was possible for her to open the door without it. There had been too many requests of too many people for too many years. Perhaps there was only a hint of awkwardness or apology in her voice, but it was enough to nudge an unmistakable wedge of tension between them. As I watched this scene play out I empathized with the helpful friend’s mild annoyance, and more keenly with the small woman’s despair. I was an onlooker then, and I turned away from the scene with all its ordinary pain to attend to the simpler task of drinking my coffee; leaving them to their business which was none of mine.
Well, things change, don’t they? I am no longer an onlooker to this drama; and perhaps I never was.
As I see it, the nearly insurmountable challenge is to retain a natural voice and a normal vocabulary even as the ‘normal’ world slips from reach. I think this comes both from the frustration of personal incapacity, and from the knowledge that someone will be inconvenienced, if only slightly, by each and every request.
Hesitancy is another dilemma. My Favourite Wife, patient soul, might say, “Anything you need honey?” and I am paralysed with indecision. Is the trifling thing on my mind, like a cup of tea or something from another room, really worth her time? What does the broiling sea of my emotions have to contribute to this minor decision? By the time I decide that yes, I do want something, she’s halfway up the hall again. “Honey”, I call out, “could you just……” Now, that’s annoying!
My Dear asks me why I sound so surprised when she offers, for the 40th time in a day, to help me in some way. My tone of surprise is a merely a defence, of course. A way of erasing the existence of the previous 39 assists, and a subtle denial of the fact that I need any help at all. It carries the dangerous risk of offense: conveying the idea that I find her kindness somehow unexpected. Now, that’s darned annoying!
It’s double jeopardy. Not only does disability distance you in many compounding ways from human interaction; but the interactions themselves – those moments that should be redemptive gifts of grace – can be laden with complexities that only widen the gap. As another frog wisely noted, “It’s not easy being green”.
I’m not sure that this vortex can actually be escaped. The command that we love one another has an obvious corollary: people need to be loved; and loving is no mean feat. And so I am deeply grateful for the help my family and my friends offer, and I am more grateful still for the safe haven they provide in which I can learn a new language of love.
My challenge: To look you in the eye, to speak to you as I always have, to trust you, to trust myself, and to be at peace with the truth that – like it or not – we are in this together.
* That’s B4, the power chair with the fantastically tight turning circle!