Last summer, I read this post on Erika Napoletano’s UN-Popular blog, 90 Seconds of Must-See Paralympic Action (and why you should care).
Go read it. I’ll wait….
Erika begins this way: Admit it. You’re guilty of it. You see someone in a wheelchair. Someone wearing a prosthetic arm. Someone walking with the assistance of a white cane. You see them and you feel pity. You try not to make eye contact or stare at what makes them different from us. You automatically assume that they’re weaker than you because they don’t have all of the same limbs and sense you were blessed with.
And I thought, no I don’t.
Because I don’t.
When I see a disabled person, I think: There goes courage. There goes resolve. There goes an athlete. The truth is, I think this whenever I see someone wrestling out a challenge. I learned it from my parents.
From my dad, born with cerebral palsy. From my mom, fighting her way toward the light after a childhood of abuse and a lifetime of its effects on her mental health. Now, as she struggles to stay positive – and stay on her feet after open heart surgery; and then, a broken thigh; and then, an excruciating pinched nerve, I continue to think it: Athlete, working the path of the body.
A few years ago, my dad said something that really resonates with me: “We’re all disabled,’ he said. “Some of us wear it on the outside. Some, on the inside.”
Writing this, I think of my yoga teacher, who has spent the last three months on the floor of her bedroom after a fall – and a back injury. I think of my husband, who wakes up every morning in pain – and figures out how to get through it.
I think of friends, family members and clients struggling with depression, cancer, botched surgery and broken marriages. I think of the elders at my father’s nursing home, slumped in their wheelchairs after strokes, paralysis and Alzheimer’s.
I think of their families, devastated, guilty – walking through the emotional olympics of watching someone you love suffer and being unable to stop it.
I’m reminded of another teacher: the homeless woman I met 25 years ago in Grand Central Station who, when I gave her two slices of pizza I’d saved from the weekly office party, looked deep into my eyes and spoke from a deep well of wisdom, “Go around the corner and really make a difference.” When I did, I found hundreds of hungry people standing in line for a paper bag lunch offered, once a day, by the Coalition for the Homeless. That woman inspired me – and so did those hungry, humbled, homeless people whom I met and served for several years.
We are all disabled by something. It’s what we make of it all that matters.
That’s why Erika’s post spoke to me and so did those Paralympians who, despite the challenges of the bodies they live in, get up and do what they need to do, what they want to do. They get up and try.
Disabled people are all athletes – and, as Dad said, we’re all disabled people.
My parents worked every day of their lives to keep up with ‘normal’ and, now, at the end of their lives, they are the champions I look to. They are my Olympians.
They showed me, with every step, with every healing breakthrough, and every moment of love they gave to my sisters and me, what courage looks like – and what ‘special’ really means.
Today, my father can barely move his body. Confined to a wheelchair, he’s still teaching me. “Try not to make a big deal out of this,” he says. “Everyone’s disabled and everyone is special.” My mother, confined to her apartment, says, “I am finally learning to stand up for myself, to listen, to love.”
Everyone is working their own version of the Paralympics – it’s called life. We are all Superhumans, all making our way. That’s the legacy my ‘special’ parents leave behind.