A crossing guard halts traffic in front of the church so I can safely wheel across the street. He starts to tell me that the wheelchair entrance is—then he just shouts, “Bob!” and the fellow in the driveway comes to walk me to the side of the church, where the wheelchair accessible entrance is. He tells me that they have just recently put in a lift—of which he is righteously proud—and helps me into it. Thankfully, there is room and he follows me in. These church lifts are not for the faint of heart—or claustrophobic.
We exit into the Women’s Lounge, then take a right into a back lobby, and left to the door into the sanctuary. Everybody else enters sanctuaries from the back; us wheelers have to enter from the front, on display to the entire congregation. But there is a problem today. The Syracuse University Brass Ensemble’s timpani section is blocking access to the pews. We all muddle over this for a while, then I propose that I will park my chair and walk in—which presents the problem of where to park, because the behind-the-scenes spaces are narrow and full.
I finally park in the back lobby, partially blocking an easel with a board displaying a list of names. Bob says that nobody will be using the outside door so I can park in front of it. I murmur, “I’m not comfortable blocking a fire exit,” and then take my tote and walk into the sanctuary.
It’s full. I’m going to have to hike a quarter mile unless—unless—. The front of the church is jammed with tables for the hand bell choirs and chairs for the brass ensemble but the front pew is empty. Nobody—absolutely nobody—wants to sit in the front pew in church but I’ve done worse things in my life. Besides, there’s a sign hanging on the pew that says “Reserved for the deaf.” ‘And disabled’ I mentally amend, and seat myself.
Moments later several women in black dresses advise me that it’s reserved for the choir. I sigh inwardly. Why? Why can’t things be easier? Why can’t the world make a place for me? But I don’t say it. I just murmur, “My wheelchair is parked outside that door. Where would you like me to sit?” I leave it to them; it’s their problem. They huddle and mumble and finally decide I can stay where I am. Then a man comes in, picks up a hand bell table and turns it so it blocks my access to the door behind the pulpit.
I don’t like it. I am not exactly claustrophobic but I do need to know that I can get out to the bathroom if and when my kidney disease demands. I consult my kidneys. How long are we going to last? I have no idea.
Precisely at 3:00 p.m., the youth hand bell ringers file in, their director takes her place and two guys take up positions in front. One picks up the microphone and welcomes us, then launches into “housekeeping business,” directing us to exits, bathrooms and so on. The other guy begins gesturing in the very cloying professional manner of an airline steward. He points two hands to the back exit, simpers a smile, gracefully pivots to point two hands to the front exit—the audience titters, then giggles, then guffaws. He grins.
Then the hand bellers ring. They are the eighth to eleven graders, mostly girls but with several boys in the back row handling the big bells. I thoughtfully contemplate the last fellow, good-looking, tall, well-muscled, with long wavy brunette hair. I picture his mom, alternating between tolerating the hair, teasing him about it, and nagging him to get it cut. As he solemnly swings his big two-handed bell, I imagine him groaning, “Aw-w-w, Mom!”
The children ring their way through several carols. They are intent but fairly relaxed about it. It’s a gig; they enjoy it. At the end, they file out and the adult ringers file into place. The adults are pretty tense. The woman directly in front of me repeatedly misses her cues and fumbles for the wrong bell. Two places to her left, the ringer has circles under her eyes—too many Christmas plans, too many commitments, just trying to get through it.
I close my eyes and let the bells ring over me, a waving, drifting sound that rises, resonates, rejoices. Bells are always good, and forgiving if the bell ringers are not always on top of their game. Somewhere along the line I focus on the pain in my upper left chest and try to remember when it started. Half an hour ago? If feels like a bruise or pulled muscle but I can’t remember anything that’s happened to cause such an injury.
Tears well up in my eyes for no good reason, and I pray, “God, take me now! Let it be over. Please—no more suffering.” I’ve been depressed for months—homebound, alone, chronically tired, short of breath. (To be continued)