Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of my dad’s death. In his memory, I’m posting an essay I wrote years ago for Northern Ohio Live about him and his wheelchair. It’s also woven into my book Missing.
My father’s wheelchair was big and heavy, like a fifties car, and had a red leather seat and back. It was a presence in our household—an object to squeeze past at the kitchen table, heave into the back of the station wagon, and wheel around in at a breakneck pace when Dad was in bed. Most of the time, the chair was a part of my father. He set his beer down in the corner of the seat next to his right hip and draped his leg over the armrest while he watched TV, sometimes with me on his lap.
My father was a paraplegic for the last twenty years of his life and just about the first twenty years of mine, from the early fifties to his death from cancer in 1971. Paralyzed from a little above the waist down, he had the use only of his chest and arm muscles to get himself around. Although he could maneuver the wheelchair around the house and get in and out of bed by himself, he had to ask me or my sisters for help whenever he wanted to go outdoors.
Sometimes, when he asked, we would sigh. Then we would back him up to the side door and roll him down the ramp a neighbor had built for him onto the side porch. Turning a sharp right pivot, we rolled him backwards off the porch and onto the rough grass of the backyard.
He wasn’t a small man. The chair rocked heavily from side to side, bumping off the porch and over the grass. Sometimes it was easier to tilt it way back and let the large rear wheels take all the weight. Once, moving from the porch to the backyard, I lost control and tipped over the chair on its side, with my father in it. I panicked, while my dad, lying on the grass, was a little grumpy but calm. I ran to get a neighbor, who came to the rescue. My mother remained somewhere in the house, studiously uninvolved.
In the winter, the wheels dug into the snow and slush and skidded a little. Getting out to the driveway took extra finesse, requiring the pressure of your foot on the rear of the chair for traction. No wonder that back then, as my father often pointed out, many disabled people stayed inside most of the winter. My dad, resolutely independent, had hand controls installed in the car so that he could drive.
Determined to get out of the house, he took us on a couple of driving vacations. We went to Niagara Falls from Canton in 1960. Finding a motel that could accommodate a wheelchair was a major struggle. My dad would pull in to a likely place, my oldest sister Betsey would run inside and ask the manager, and she’d run back out to say, no, their doorways weren’t wide enough. At one place, the manager assured us that his place was accessible. We unloaded my dad and the luggage and went inside, only to find that my dad couldn’t fit into the bathroom. We had to load everything back into the car to search for another motel. I don’t remember my mom ever pushing the chair or trying to load it in the car. My dad felt that she had enough to bear, and so, any task that we kids could do, we had to do. At home it was always one of us who helped him in and out of the house.
In nice weather, going outside often meant playing catch. Thus, my father saved his three girls from lifelong embarrassment in neighborhood softball games. Playing catch was a kind of drill, my dad alternating pop-ups, grounders, and line drives. We learned to catch and throw, and you have to throw accurately to a guy in a wheelchair. If you missed by only a little and the ball landed right next to the chair, my father could reach down and get it, but if it landed a few feet away, you’d have to retrieve it yourself. With a really wild throw, into the shrubs or trees, my father would look bewildered and joke, “Who was that to?” I can still picture his throw–all arm, overhand, rocking his powerless legs and hips.
When the sun was setting and the air grew colder, it was time to go back inside. I’d grab the white plastic handles on the back of the chair and push hard up the slope to the porch. I’d tilt the chair back to lift the front wheels up onto the concrete porch and then raise the heavy back wheels. Then we’d turn sharp to the left and align the wheels with the ramp. Pushing the chair up the ramp took strength, but my dad could stop the wheels with his hands to keep from rolling backwards if I had to take a breath halfway up. With the final push into the dining room he’d take over himself. And always, he’d say thank you.