For decades, my Christmas was like other people’s: I went home. Every Christmas I would drive down Route 81 to be with my parents in Pennsylvania. I took my antidepressants, not knowing that they were the cause of my continuing and worsening depression. When my parents became too old and frail to “do” Christmas anymore, they would be invited to one of my sisters. And, by the way, I would be invited, too.
There reached a time when my depression became so bad so often that I was hospitalized on inpatient psychiatry for three consecutive Christmases. Wow, that was a thrill. No family or pastoral visits, Christmas carols, cards, happy visitors or gifts. Dietary did try to do a festive meal.
Off drugs in 2001 and therefore no longer hospitalized, my spirit improved even as my body got worse from the damage caused by the antidepressants. I had become friends with a nurse whose husband was a minister and whose kids were—well, kids. Every year they had the most splendid Christmas party. They invited friends and neighbors, whole families. Everyone brought a covered dish so there was a fulsome buffet. We all decorated the Christmas tree then gathered around for readings and carols.
It was a perfect Christmas party and all the more wonderful because, other than the Christmas Eve service at church, it was my entire Christmas celebration. My parents and I were too sick to drive, and my siblings and I had become estranged. They gathered in our parents for Christmas but I was not welcome and, more’s the pain, I knew it.
Then one year I started to use a wheelchair. It was a manual wheelchair, easily folded up, and I didn’t use it inside the home, just for traveling out. As I eagerly anticipated the invitation to my friends’ Christmas party, I planned my travel. A mutual friend always went to the party and I was pretty sure he’d pick up me and my wheelchair. If not, my case manager would probably authorize funds for a taxi.
I waited and waited. The invitation never came. I had no Christmas.
It took three months before I was far enough removed from the pain to carefully raise the question with my friend. Yes, they’d had the Christmas party. And I wasn’t invited because . . .
“Well, you know, the wheelchair.”
Around the same time, my niece got married at a church a few miles from my home. My sisters and their husbands drove hundreds of miles and stayed at a motel in order to attend the wedding. They would not drive across town to pick me up. They made it clear that I was asking too much of them and that my wheelchair was a problem. I spent $50 to hire a medical transport company to take me and my wheelchair to the wedding.
So time passed—a lot of time. I got a power wheelchair (which weighs 250 pounds and costs $8500) so that I could take myself places under my own power. At Christmas I had nowhere to go. I figured it was because I am a total loser who nobody wants to have around; that’s what my siblings taught me. Then I went to a meeting about paratransit. At the meeting, I broke down in tears and had to leave the room. Other people in wheelchairs gathered around me in the hallway and offered comfort—and education.
“It’s not you,” they told me, “it’s the wheelchair.” And then they began to tell me their stories of being dropped by family and friends when they started to use a wheelchair. I was shocked to learn how society rejects people because they use wheelchairs. One story I have never been able to forget, told by a man who was born with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is not a degenerative disease but the effects of aging wear down the most vulnerable aspects of a body with cerebral palsy, so this fellow grew up walking but in his twenties he began to use a manual wheelchair.
He had always lived with his parents and every year his extended family would go on vacation together. Then came a year when he didn’t hear anything about the family vacation plans. When he asked, he was told that the plans were underway—and a babysitter had been hired to stay with him at home.
Well, you know, the wheelchair.
Once you start using a wheelchair, your opportunities for making friends become severely limited. Most friendships begin in the workplace and most people in wheelchairs can’t work, so there goes that. I spent many Christmases alone. The day was as flat and empty as any other winter day. Then I moved to the university section, which put me in a position to hire as my aide Amelia, a young woman who had been attending the university. Later, I also hired MaryKate, another young woman, who was finishing her master’s degree in social work. She introduced me to her brother Brendan, who became my computer-fixer, and her mother Annette, who worked in the university and became my friend.
On Christmas Eve in the afternoon, MaryKate and Brendan came, picked me up, put my manual wheelchair in the trunk, and took me to join their family for Mass, and thence to drive around town to gather up other friends, and then to their parents’ home for drinks, hors d’oeuvres, dinner, gifts and a jolly time with a large crowd of friends and family. On Christmas Day, Amelia and her boyfriend came to my home for dinner, thence to the movie theater to see “Les Miserables.”
And I discovered that I am a fine and lovely person with whom to share the blessing of Christmas, and that a wheelchair doesn’t limit me, it limits those with a tightly closed heart. To young hearts open in love, a wheelchair is not an impediment.