Footnote to “At the Breakfast Bar”

Most things I write are true but this one essay is one of the truest things I’ve ever written. I just describe what happened in a chance encounter at a hotel breakfast bar with a man in a wheelchair and it is as plain and uncomplicated as I could make it.

So I took this essay to my writing roundtable and read it aloud to the group. Then, as is the process, I sat quietly while they silently reread the copies I’d given them and jotted their comments on the piece. Then they spoke, one by one.

The most important comment was this: You don’t tell us enough about the man in the wheelchair. You only talk about his amputated leg.

And it was true, my description of him focused almost entirely on his missing leg – on what he didn’t have. Which, I’ve since figured out, was the whole point of the essay.

Anyway, here is the link to the essay, At the Breakfast Bar, published by WUWM on February 21, 2020. If you press the arrow embedded in the piece, you will hear me reading. I hope you like it. I learned a lot writing it.

Swivel Chair

My old tax returns made me sad.

I looked at my business income, held that year’s wad of 1099’s from clients, and then fed each year’s tax return into the shredder. One can’t make a scrap book out of financial records, after all, so they all needed to go. Boxes of my professional history now lay in layers of paper ribbons in big black garbage bags. One of them is still here behind my office chair. My business in a bag.

Those years were fabulous. A ton of clients, a really healthy income. A good reputation. A lot of respect. The last two still exist, I hope, but the first two are gone. “My hearing loss really killed me,” I said to my husband who was sitting in the old wooden swivel chair we’d bought at a sheriff’s sale 30 years ago. He nodded.

That’s why they call it a disability, I thought to myself. If a loss or an impairment or an illness didn’t damage your life, they wouldn’t call it a disability. I became disabled and I couldn’t be the person I was. I had to become a new person. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years.

I kept thinking about it above the roar of the shredder. Did I do everything I could to stay able? Did I fight back? Did I fold too fast? Did I back my chair up against the far wall when I could have stayed at the table? I don’t know.

There’s the disability and then there’s a person’s reaction to the disability. In my case, that meant waves of depression and self-doubt that made me yearn for retreat. It would be hard to parse. What part of the shrinking of my business was a true function of hearing loss and what part a function of my sorrow at the loss of my prized self-image as a hard-charger. It is very difficult, you know, to pretend one is the smartest person in the room when one can’t reliably track the topic.

“Do you want a retirement party?” my husband asked. He is a nonprofit executive, the founder of a very successful organization, and when he retires, there will be a retirement party in a magnificent place and there will be speeches and plaques from all the best suits in town.

“No.” No, no retirement party. That makes sense when someone leaves, like one day they are on the job and the next they’re on a cruise. It doesn’t make sense when someone withdraws, paints the circle smaller every morning. Which is what I did. But if I didn’t look at my old tax returns this afternoon, I wouldn’t have thought this. My embarkation is on a new beautiful ship and I’ve been glad about it for months. I am finally becoming the new person I needed to be when I lost my hearing.

But that woman, that person whose name is on all those tax papers, the hard-charger, I miss her.

Pulling

We watched the middle weight horse pull today at the Wisconsin State Fair. Two-horse teams pull a truck loaded with heavy weights. When we left, the weight was 3,250 pounds aiming for 4,000  before the event was over. The horses strain and pull, sometimes it looks like they might buckle.  But it’s what they do. They’ve been practicing all year.

Behind us and to the right was an older guy with one leg of his jeans rolled up to his knee. He wore a sleeveless white t-shirt and had tattoos down the length of the arm I could see. He had blond hair, arranged almost in a page boy, and he was thin and tanned through and through. He looked like a guy I might have seen thirty years ago at a Willie Nelson concert. He held a pack of Newports in his hands like a Bible.

I wondered about him and what brought him to watch the horse pull. He was with a woman holding a single cigarette in her hand like she was waiting for someone to blow the break whistle. She was blond, too, but her other details are lost to me. I figured he was there because of her. But no, maybe he was a horse person. Who could know?

Then I saw the rest of his leg, the steel and hinges of it.

Don’t look at his leg, I said to myself. And then I thought, well, people are looking at my cochlear implant, the receiver over my ear and the magnet on my head. Oh no, I thought, they’re not equivalent. What I lost was tiny and not heroic. He probably was in the war or he was hit by a car or shot by someone in the leg. What he has or doesn’t have, it’s worse. So don’t look. Stop looking.

So then I watched the horses and the teams of men who would bring them around to hitch to the truck that had to be pulled. Sometimes, the horses would bolt before they were hooked to the truck and the men would scramble to stay on their feet as the horses pulled across the arena. Spooked.

Other times the hitch would latch and the horses would pull – 15 feet, 20 feet, 26 feet and 7 inches. When they came around in front of where we were sitting, the horses would have sweat running down their front legs and tiny bubbles of spit in the corners of their mouths. It wasn’t easy pulling such a heavy load. That was the message. It wasn’t easy.

 

 

Greedy

The monster of hearing loss.

Red's Wrap

Winding around the cochlea, stretching to the auditory nerve, coiling in the middle ear, nesting slyly behind the ear drum, Beast’s eyes close while he waits patiently to devour all the beautiful words.

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Written in response to a Trifecta Writing Challenge: 33 words on a beast in an unusual place.

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Green Light

The blind lead the blind for a reason, I guess. They go where they need to go even if they can’t see where that is.

In the time it took for the light to change from red to green, the slim woman with the white cane strode across the street in front of me, crossed the side street, and parked herself at the bus stop. Then she checked her phone.

She walked with purpose, not like a marathon walker, she wasn’t chewing up the pavement, but she had no hesitation in any step I could see. She walked as if on a treadmill, certain that every step would have a predictable outcome.

Sitting in the car at the light, I hear nothing. I broke my cochlear implant processor over the weekend and it has been two days without much sound. People tap me when they want to talk to me and then talk slow like I am soon to be demented which I know I will be if this silence continues for long. I lip read. It is a skill. But it only works with some people. The people with good lips. Sometimes, they’re not the people I want to hear.

At the cochlear implant clinic, I sit quietly and a little smaller than I normally am while I wait for the diagnosis of my mechanical ear’s illness. I tell the audiologist that it’s a huge jolt to suddenly go silent and she nods. She asks me questions in big exaggerated words and I still have to ask her to ‘say again, please.’ I don’t tell her that my anxiety is in the stratosphere. That when I realized my implant wasn’t working a few days before, I started to cry.

I wonder about the woman with the white cane. She was walking from the local organization for the blind. I’ve been there so I know it’s in the direction from whence she came. Maybe she works there, I thought. Maybe she works there as a role model. I wish I was a role model, I think, then I wouldn’t be crying in the car because I have to wait one more day for a replacement processor. I can see where I’m driving after all. That’s something.

A man I know mostly from Facebook has posted about having an eye disease that is gradually taking his sight. His tone was such that one would glean he is preparing to go blind. The past few days he has been posting pictures from Paris. And I wondered, did he decide to go to Paris to see it before he became blind? Did he make a list? These are the things I want to see before I can’t see? Maybe he did.

It made me think. What is the last thing I would want to hear? But I don’t think about it for long. It seems narrow and dark and crushingly silent thinking about such a thing.

I decide I want to be like the blind woman crossing the street, confident, all in one piece, unafraid.

Maybe I want the blind to lead the deaf.

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Photo: Tim Gouw

The Daily Post: Blindly

Return

Disability depresses.

It struck me today how deeply I sank into a chronic state of melancholia over the past few years. My ever-worsening hearing disability ate away at my optimism and tested my ability to right myself. I became an Emily Dickenson figure in blue jeans, not quite confined to my bed but confined to my tightening world.

It was a cell.

I think I alternated between putting my head in my hands and trying to decorate my cell.

So now, after my cochlear implant, I am gathering up the things I’d left by the side of the road. Like having coffee with old friends. Like inviting people to lunch. Like discussing an issue with a group of people. Like going to a public hearing on police-community relations. Like being part of the talking world.

I feel like I am reclaiming myself from an old cardboard box in the attic, layers of old birthday cards and photos on top, clothes I wore ten years ago, books I read and loved. Reclaiming a time of confidence and certainty. A robust time.

I want to stand up. I am standing up. This is who I was. This is who I still am.

Jan Portrait 3 (2)

 

 

Pull the Wings Off Butterflies

If I was Donald Trump’s mother and I witnessed him jerking his arms in the air in mockery of New York Times reporter Serge Koveleski, I would have slapped him across the face. In front of God and everybody.

Never mind that he is running for President which, as his mother, I would know he has no business doing. How his horrible behavior reflected on me would trump, as it were, any other prevailing interests, including his misbegotten notion that he should be the leader of the free world.

I will not countenance a child of mine being a complete and utter asshole. Trust me, this isn’t hypothetical tough talk here.  I’m no travel writer talking  about places I’ve never visited.

What I learned long ago, not quite soon enough but in time, was that my disapproval as a mother is power-packed and toxic like the poison on an arrow piercing through a South American jungle.

My children are all adults now. And, happily, the occasions when I feel compelled to show any disapproval are rare, nearly non-existent. But, quite frankly, one doesn’t have to use a weapon to appreciate having it. As all the Cold War arms racers would say, it’s better to have a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in Nebraska than to stand on the shore with a slingshot.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s mother died in 2000 so she is not here to do what any mother in the universe would do if she caught her son making fun of a person with a disability. This means that Donald Trump is now a boy without any fear of the poisoned arrow. He thinks he is home free. He thinks he can pull the wings off butterflies and nobody can stop him.

So I say to all the mothers out there: if you caught your own boy behaving this way, mocking someone, being cocky and cruel, and bringing shame to your name, what would you do?

I think I know. Send the arrow.