I met Anne in my first memoir writing class. She intimidated me. She had already written a one woman play, and had been storytelling around the country. I was new to creative writing, which, I discovered, is very different from legal writing. She knew how to do that too, however, as a global travelling attorney at the World Bank. From her writing though, I discovered how much we shared in families that taught us to be tough and independent, weakness was bad, and in the ways this had shaped our successes and challenges in life.
We didn’t interact outside of reflections on each other’s writing in class, however, until I entered the bathroom one day shortly after her. I found her stall door jammed open, unable to close with her wheelchair. Should I leave to give her privacy? But then will she think I’m treating her different? I went into my own stall without a word, pretending like I had seen nothing unusual. When I exited, however, she was washing her hands and casually explained, “The ADA has been great for people in wheelchairs in many ways, but a lot of places build restrooms that aren’t really accessible – they swing the door the wrong way, put the bars in the wrong places. In a wheelchair you quickly give up any ideas you have about privacy.”
She put me at ease speaking so comfortably about the actuality of her everyday existence. I had learned some difficult realities about being paraplegic from her writing – far beyond those of just losing the use of one’s legs. Seeing one of those difficulties live, and a mild one at that, hit me in a new way though. I appreciated that she didn’t seem to judge me for my ignorance.
Following a car accident while hitchhiking through Spain at 18, Anne suddenly became paraplegic. Her doctor told her she should go into a nursing home to avoid burdening anyone. Being a burden and being weak – her worst fears (and mine) – were not going to be her reality. She defied that doctor and learned to be more independent than most people I know with the full use of their body. She went to sometimes ridiculous lengths to avoid people who wanted to assist her – and by the time I met her, she told hilarious stories about it.
At fifty the doctors diagnosed Anne with a rare blood disease and told her she had at most two years to live. Ten years later she was going strong and threw a “not dead yet” party, dancing the night away, an acrobat in her wheelchair.
After the writing class finished, a group of us continued to meet to provide feedback on each other’s writing. Anne always asked me the most profound questions and pushed me to become ever more vulnerable. Eventually it whittled down to Anne and me and became more about friends spending time together than about writing. Anne was the type of person who asked question after question and listened intently to whatever was happening in my life. It was only when I pushed that she spoke about herself. She rarely complained about her circumstances, which drove me crazy, since if she couldn’t feel sorry for herself then I didn’t see how I could.
A little over a year ago, she broke both legs. Visiting her in the rehabilitation center, she described how the hospital took four days to determine what was wrong and only after she pointed to her swollen legs. Most doctors have as little understanding of paraplegics as I do evidently. She explained how much she had to advocate for her own medical care.
When she returned home, she recognized she needed help and told me how she was finally realizing people genuinely wanted to help her, and she let them. For that reason, I knew she really considered me a friend when she let me push her wheelchair up and down a ramp at an event we attended. Our friendship cemented when she opened up to me about her struggle over learning that her broken legs may never heal.
The last time I saw Anne, we spoke about my breakup and whether I could stay friends with my ex. She had experienced an eerily similar relationship and breakup about a year earlier and advised a clean break. Remaining friends with her ex had been painful. When we finished commiserating, neither of us had plans for the afternoon so we watched a movie – I, Tanya.
Her health started deteriorating after that visit. We had occasional plans, but she wasn’t feeling well and repeatedly cancelled until she eventually ended up in the emergency room. She told me to wait to visit until she knew what was happening. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong, but she was going home anyway and we made plans. She texted me about her fear that her blood disease was back.
She didn’t say, but I understood, that she might be dying. I longed to see her again; to make sure I had one last time with her. The day of our plans, though, she went back in the hospital. Her health continued to deteriorate, but again, she thought she was going home. This time with a health aid. She was disappointed to lose the independence she had fought her whole life to maintain, but she had to accept it. We again made plans, but, she ultimately remained in the hospital. She texted that she was weak and her sister would let me know when she was strong enough for visitors.
Her sisters exhorted people to not visit, send texts or call until she regained her strength. I wanted to be respectful because I knew how hard it was for her to tell people to stay away, but I hated the thought that others might be ignoring it and would see her when I wasn’t.
My thoughts reminded me of a story about a petrified forest where tourists would take pieces of fossilized remains. Slowly, the taking was destroying the park, so personnel put up signs asking visitors to leave the park as it was, warning them that it would not rejuvenate and that taking such souvenirs would prevent future visitors from enjoying it. The takings and destruction of the forest, however, increased. The park personnel surmised that the signs suggested to people that if they didn’t take theirs that others would and they’d miss out. And in that analogy, I saw myself as the better person. I was the one concerned with Anne’s well-being over my own.
Yet, while I realize I made the right decision, I recognize my pride. These people loved Anne so much and they didn’t want to lose her, perhaps even more than I didn’t want to. I had only known her a couple years after all. And I also knew I had that last afternoon of watching I,Tanya with her. The memory is almost more special in its mundaneness – two friends just “being” with each other.
After Anne’s memorial service a couple months later, a mutual friend suggested we go salsa dancing to continue the celebration of her life. It was late, so as much as I thought it was a brilliant idea, I declined. But Anne had other ideas. Because when we walked down the stairs, we walked past a wedding celebration with a dance floor and dj. We both felt her nudging us to crash it. It seemed like such a bold Anne thing to do.
After much hemming and hawing, we walked straight into a chicken dance of about twenty people who looked at us and then at each other, as if to ask – who the hell are they? As we waved our winged arms, and shook our fannies, we explained to the people next to us that our deceased friend had made us do it. They looked at us with skeptical eyes, but no one asked us to leave. At the last song, I thanked the bride for letting us crash; we scampered out with a number of guests assuring us they had us on video. I think they loved it, but we may never be allowed on that military base again.
In contemplating the Easter story this past week, I thought of Anne when I read the story of the last supper before Jesus’ death. Before eating, Jesus grabs a towel and tells his disciples that he is going to wash their feet. I always understood this part of the story as a lesson about the importance of serving others.
But last week, what most struck me in the story was Peter’s recoiling at Jesus’ offer, “you shall never wash my feet.” I related to Peter. I could easily wash the feet of another, but it gives me uncomfortable slithers to think of someone washing mine.
Yet Jesus’ response to Peter is “unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Peter relents and allows Jesus to wash his feet (and in fact, goes overboard and tells Jesus he can wash his head and hands, which Jesus politely declines).
I thought of Anne because before meeting her, I had assumed that someone in a wheelchair would easily accept help – wouldn’t they need to? Anne taught me that it wasn’t true. She feared being a burden as much as I did. She was also the kind of person who was such a good listener and asker of profound questions that one could easily get caught up in letting her be there for them without Anne disclosing much of herself. By virtue of sharing our writing, I had been blessed with learning much about Anne’s struggles, but when she revealed her life beyond the stories, and as importantly, when she asked me to push her wheelchair, I knew we were really friends. I needed her to be vulnerable with me to connect with her, and in that bond, my ability to share with her increased.
Similarly, as I become more open to trusting others and God to “wash my feet,” whether by sharing my struggle or letting someone push my metaphorical wheelchair, I’m finding more of what I need arriving with less worry and stress. No doubt the help has been there all along, I just pushed it away, like Peter, believing I wasn’t deserving, or I didn’t see it as I plowed through with my own machinations. My acupuncturist described my experience through her Chinese medicine tradition: God speaks to my heart and as I increasingly listen to and trust that voice, I’m traversing the flow of life with more grace and peace than when I believed I was on my own.