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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2010 - Vol. 7, Issue 3


written by

Rebecca Cook

“I’m in a wheelchair--I’m not brain dead.”


“I know, but what if you need help? What if something bad happens?”


“What if it does? I can handle this.”


“If you’re sure. . .” Uncertainty dripped from every syllable.


“See you in a few days. I love you, Mom. I’m getting on the train now.”


I overrode her last minute worries and some of my own as I hung up the phone. I was assured that the train was “handicapped accessible” and felt optimistic. I went up the ramp and surveyed where I would be spending the next thirteen hours. It was small, with only one window that was almost above my head. In front of me were five stairs that led to the upper floor of the car. I debated with myself in the short amount of time it took for the train to depart the station. Hailing someone who looked like they worked there, I asked them to please carry my chair up the stairs. I stood at the bottom, the railing clutched with white knuckles to keep my balance, and watched as my chair was dutifully deposited at the top. After being assured that was all I needed, he moved on.


An older woman passed by and noticed my chair sitting seemingly by itself. I had already made it to the third stair, but apparently it looked like I needed help, for she proceeded to grab my arm and attempt to haul me up the remaining stairs by herself. “Ma’am, please let go,” I gritted out as I struggled not to overbalance and send us both tumbling.


“Here, let me help you dearie,” she said in a way that really meant, “I’m going to help you whether you like it or not.”


The only thing that saved me from a possible broken neck was the appearance of a young man who immediately distracted the woman. I climbed the remaining two stairs and turned to thank my rescuer. It was really hard to thank him. He wouldn’t look me in the eye, and he seemed uncomfortable; careful never to look at my chair. The older woman and the man moved off rather quickly as she spoke to him, still confused.


The aisles of the train were narrow so I looked for the nearest vacant seat. Two rows from where I stared, there was an open seat on the bench across from a man scribbling madly in a journal. I asked if he would mind if I sat, and got a distracted “Go ahead” in response. I transferred to the seat diagonal to him and folded my chair to make more room. He didn’t seem inclined to talk, and I didn’t mind because the first question a stranger asks is always some variation of, “What’s your disability?”


Soon an employee popped in to ask how the journey was going. “Sir, is there anything I can do for either yourself or your sister?”


The man across from me slowly pulled his attention away from his writing and said deadpan, “I’m rather enjoying myself, but if you want to call my sister and ask her if she needs anything, I can give you her phone number.” The man was nonplussed. He mumbled something and scooted away. My defender looked to see how I’d taken the slight and I shrugged as if to say, “Used to it.” It wasn’t nearly as hard to say thank you to this man.


The windows were much larger on the upper deck of the train, and I spent a few hours lost in the sight of fleet-footed deer, and flitting Violet-green Swallows as I pressed the side of my face against the glass. Minnesota in the summer is a great distraction, but after awhile muscles began to complain from lack of movement.


“Excuse me, do you mind if I put my feet up beside you?”


He looked up from his scribbling, pausing for the first time. “Sure. I was wondering when you were going to ask.” He smiled. I’m sure I looked confused because then he said, “My older sister was in a chair. She always had to put her feet up so she wouldn’t become ‘chair-shaped.’.” His eyes met mine. “CP, right?”


“Yup,” I said. I would have said more but my cell phone began to vibrate and, of course, I flinched at the unexpected sensation. I hoped he wouldn’t react the way many people do, and laugh nervously, because they are not sure how to react. He didn’t even blink. He simply waited for me to carry on the conversation.


“Do you mind if I take this?”


He shook his head and politely went back into the bubble that seemed to encase him as he wrote.


“Hi Mom.”


“How are you enjoying your weekend vacation?” she asked.


“It’s been awesome so far. I saw some deer a while ago,” I enthused.


“Is the train accessible enough for you? Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.”


“I can handle this,” I said with the utmost confidence.

Rebecca Cook is a sophomore at Southwest Minnesota State University. She is studying for a BA in Literature with a minor in history. Balance is her first publication.

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