Yesterday I crossed the Roosevelt Island Bridge to Queens, then the Pulaski Bridge to Brooklyn, and kept walking all the way to Prospect Park. Throughout this long and enjoyable walk, I saw new places and new faces—the views to Manhattan from Long Island City, the people wearing orthodox Jewish clothes in Williamsburg, the beautiful homes in Prospect Heights. When I was done with walking for the day, I took the subway back home to Roosevelt Island. To my own surprise, after walking 10 miles in novelty land, it was right at the entrance of my building that I found a genuine source of inspiration to write this post: I finally met Celina.*
Celina was there, at the building entrance, waiting for someone to open the front door for her, to hold the elevator and press the button for the 12th floor, and to ring the bell at 1205 so that her nurse would let her back in. To move around, Celina depends on a machine—an electric wheelchair. Not only that: to breathe, she depends on another machine—a medical ventilator.
Roosevelt Island must be home to hundreds of people with physical disabilities (because of the large hospital and nursing facility on the island). There’s the man whose legs were amputated, who is often on a wheeled hospital bed just outside the subway station. There’s always at least a half a dozen people in wheelchairs at any time you walk along the riverwalk. And there’s Celina.
This was not the first time I saw her around. In fact, I see her often. She lives on the same floor, two doors away from my place. Having lived here for three months, I had of course seen her around, and—I must admit—every time I did, I felt helplessly sorry for her and even afraid of any contact with her. What could I even say to someone whose suffering seems to be so evident? This was the first time she and I talked, introduced each other, and helped each other out.
“You mean you helped her out,” you might be thinking, but I really don’t think so. Help clearly went both ways in that situation. The encounter with Celina got me thinking… Two final points in this post.
First, one point about rehabilitation. A few weeks ago, I had a stupid (there’s no better word to define it) accident at home: I accidentally skipped the last step going down the stairs and twisted my right foot. It did not look good for quite a while. Although it’s still a bit sensitive, as soon as most of the swelling was gone and I felt confident enough to go for a walk, I starting walking all over the place. In one week, I walked at least 20 miles in the City (and the week is not yet over, and there shall be more walking). It probably wouldn’t be fair to say it was like being able to walk after spending years in a wheelchair—but it felt so good! Perhaps I could say it felt like reaching the end of a dark, freezing winter, and being able to enjoy sunshine again. I hope I don’t come off as cruel (or, even worse, sadistic) when I say this: the encounter with Celina further reminded me never to take my health for granted.
Finally, one point about living with a disability. Despite her dependence on machines (and other people’s goodwill), I must say Celina seemed to be doing great. Again, please don’t be shocked with the assessment I just made—I’m not being inhuman. Yes, she has overwhelming disabilities, but she somehow manages to keep her spirits high, which to me shows an enormous strength. If I know anyone who could be said to be in her right to be cranky, it would be Celina. Yet, she didn’t say a single word of complaint, and her tone was joyful and friendly the whole time we talked. We’re never immune to serious medical conditions or accidents (unlike the stupid one I had), and end up in a wheelchair for a long time, or even for the rest of our lives. Still, whether we let ourselves be imprisoned in a dark and freezing winter—like a great many things in life—is a matter of choice. Sure, we can choose to be cranky and whiny, and tell everyone we hate our lives. Celina is a fine example that much better options are available.
*True story, fake name.