A few days ago, someone said to me, after noticing how pregnant I was: “Wow, you must really be hating life right now.” I was confused for a second, and then I realized they were referring to how uncomfortable I must look.
“No,” I said, “I’m loving it actually.” They seemed surprised and then shook their head. I could see what they were thinking as if it was written on their forehead: “if that was me, I’d be hating life.”
I get a lot of that these days. Comments, some kind, some incredibly rude. It’s made me really think about how we make assumptions about others based on their physical condition. And that we are all, at some point, guilty of this.
Years ago, on a hot summer day, Dad and I were driving to the beach. I was 16, maybe 15 – old enough to drive, yet young enough to know that Dad was (and always would be) the driver when it was just the two of us. It was an unspoken rule, that he was the driver and I was the passenger, and I didn’t argue it. I had been riding in the front seat with Dad for many, many years.
On this particularly drive, we stopped at Wendy’s. Again, I was old enough to disdain fast food, and still young enough to indulge with a semi-clear conscious.
“Two Frosties,” Dad said, and slapped a five on the counter.
We sat down, enjoying the air conditioning, slurping up our Frosties. My eyes settled on a woman in a wheelchair at the table next to us. She was eating alone and having trouble. Food was dropping onto the table and she didn’t seem to care. She just kept shoveling fries into her mouth.
I averted my eyes, and shifted my body slightly so I didn’t have to look at her. So I didn’t have to feel uncomfortable. Her skin was gray, and her eyes were sad. I was making judgments about her, in that moment. That she must be sad because looking at her made me feel sad. I felt pity, and I assumed that she must, therefore, be pitiful. Dad glanced at me, and then over at her.
He got up, went over and said: “I sure hope you’re behaving yourself today,” and smiled his big smile.
I was watching this out of the corner of my eye, still trying not to stare, as I had been taught to do in regards to people who were ‘different’ than us. I expected her to snap at him, to tell him to leave her alone. Instead, her face lit up. She chuckled. “Honey, I wrote the BOOK on misbehaving,” she said. Dad grinned at her.
“I could tell,” he replied, and patted her on the shoulder. “I bet this thing gets good mileage,” he said, gesturing to her wheelchair.
“Almost as good as my Harley,” she answered.
Dad returned to our table. Her demeanor had changed, and, a few minutes later after she had finished her meal, she rolled out, but not before she turned around and said: “I’m gonna go raise some hell!”
“Go raise it, sister! Speed limit is 70!” Dad said and gave her a double thumbs-up.
I felt a bit ashamed of myself, after she left. Of how I had judged her, assumed things about her and her life. In the brief interaction with my Dad, she was none of what I expected: she was funny, she was fiery. And, most importantly, she didn’t feel sorry for herself. One would argue she had more spunk than most.
This memory has stayed with me for many, many years. I thought about it when Dad got sick, when he was the ‘handicapped’ one. I think about it now, when I am ‘handicapped’ at 9 months pregnant. I think about it when I meet others who are ‘handicapped.’ What is it about physical ‘disabilities’ that make others so uncomfortable? That makes others look at us, and then past us?
I get looked at a lot these days. Looked at and then – just as quickly – people avert their eyes. They don’t want to stare at my huge belly. It pains them so they assume that it pains me. They don’t want to look at my waddle, my swollen hands. And who can blame them. It’s all I am right now, to them. A very very pregnant woman. I am nothing else, just like – at first glance, so many years ago – that woman in Wendy’s was just someone to feel sorry for in a wheelchair, and nothing else. Just like my Dad, riddled with cancer, was a terminally ill man, and nothing else. We aren’t anonymous anymore – we’re “that pregnant woman,” or “that woman in the wheelchair” or “that man with cancer.” We get titled, and thus others feel entitled to comment, to compare, to criticize. To judge.
It sure is easy to judge someone else. It sure is easy to feel sorry for them, to pity them, to make assumptions about them and their life. You know what’s harder? To look inside, at yourself. To look at why you feel uncomfortable, what is it about YOU that you would like to change, that you don’t want others to see. What’s your handicap?
Sometimes, I would challenge my Dad at Scrabble during the final months of his life. I assumed he wouldn’t want to play, or, if he did, that I would have to ‘play gently’ since he was ‘sick’. He still insisted on keeping score. He never wrote “Dad” and “Tess” as our team names, but would instead name us respectively “Chemo-Head” and “Cutie-head”, or “Water-Butt” (thanks to the diuretic effect of some of his meds) and “Miss Beautiful”. He was still funny. He was still Dad. And, he beat me every time. Every single time.
My Dad was still a bad-ass, just like that woman in the wheelchair was a bad-ass. (To this day I still believe she really did have a Harley parked in her garage.) And me?
Judge for yourself. But before you do that, do us all a favor, and judge yourself.