Last night, I attended a service in a church for the first time since the loss of my leg.
While not my home church, this was a church full of people I love; it’s a place in which I feel comfortable and welcome. And, as I adapt to life in a wheelchair, it’s a space I knew I could navigate. I’ve been working hard; my upper body strength is insane, I’ve been trained well by my occupational and physical therapists. And physically and mentally, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since my first surgeries in November 2015.
I was ready. And yet…
I’m comfortable with the image of me in a wheelchair; I’ve gone so far as to piece together a likeness in Lego, which I think is pretty good, if I do say so myself. As I venture out into the world and reclaim the daily activities I’ve lost, I run into people with a very different image and memory of me. Last night, a man came up to me; our first conversation was in spring 2014, after a major work event in which I bounded across a room and up a flight of stairs to fix a tech problem. He’d referenced that event multiple times, and that moment, in talking about me in rooms in which I was to be introduced. I loved the story and I loved being seen that way. And last night he came up to me full of love and concern, and put his hand on me and told me how sorry he was that this had happened. And we talked for a while, and I felt very loved by and connected to this remarkable man.
What I have trouble adjusting to is that first look I get, time and again, as my friends and colleagues adjust to this new situation of mine. It isn’t just pity that I’m feeling or sensing, but that’s the part of it I suss out as hurting the most. It feels like I lose my agency all over again in those moments; I’ve recontextualized myself as far from helpless, but when you see a relatively young person in my altered state for the first time, helplessness floods into the picture. And then I feel the need to compensate and prove myself, all over again, as the machinery above my neck is working in its most spectacular fashion.
A big chunk of that is on me, but I also feel a sharp new lesson on the nature of charity and pity; we’re called not only to help those who are in need, but see their strengths and gifts as well, and be glad for the presence of these bounties. I need to get better at that, in both myself and others.
After all, isn’t that the basic definition of honoring human dignity?