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"excuse me" the plaintive please came at me from the handicapped parking spot as I was making my way into the grocery store.
"could you please help me get into my wheelchair?"
in front of me stood a beaten up Camry, the inside strewn with litter, dirty as anything. inside was a little asian woman with greying hair dressed in all khaki. in front of her to the side of the driver's side was her wheelchair.
"could you please just hold the chair so I can get into it?" I dutifully held the chair. after about 30 seconds of struggling to lift herself up I asked, "would you like me to lift you into your chair?"
"no, no, thanks, I can do it." after 30 seconds more of struggling she let out a sigh, "well yes, maybe, if you don't mind, I could use the lift." so I lifted her (having much experience from. helping my grandmother) by putting my forearms under her shoulder blades.
safely in the chair, she smiled ruefully, "normally somebody doesn't even ask to lift, you know, with COVID and all..." with this she. shut her car door and made her way inside, throwing back a "thanks again" my way with a wave of her arm.
in the store I couldn't help but have my gaze drawn back to her. everything that we take for granted was an ordeal for her. reaching for a bag of chips, trying to get some bananas. it made me realise that display locations are not very well suited for those in wheelchairs, especially the fruit section.
we met again in the salad aisle, "I hate to do this again, but for some reason the good salads are up top in the back, would you mind just bringing two down for me?" I once again dutifully did so and she compared them, biting her lip and shaking her head, "well I really hate to do this but these seem wilted, would you mind if you just gave me two others? I promise I won't bother you anymore after that!" I brought down to other bags of salad with the retort, "it's really not a bother."
and I meant it. considering the sad life I've led, I was actually very happy to be useful to someone.
"oh well that's really sweet of you." she looked at the bags, resigned herself to one of them and handed the other back to me.
"do you mind my asking, have you ever thought of getting one of those robot arm thingies?" she looked at me like I had just stated the most obvious thing ever, "oh yes I have, they are completely unwieldy, most of the time you drop what you're holding, then you have it on the ground and you have to reach it back up. plus I have problems with my shoulders so it's actually not very helpful."
she paused for a second, and then, sensing that she may have found a willing ear she went on, "but you'll be surprised how HELPFUL people are. really, I would say that, 95% of the time people will help me."
"and the other 5%?" I asked.
she looked at me slyly, "they pretend they didn't hear me. but I can tell, people always involuntarily flinch when I ask. I know that they've been watching me and wondering how I go about getting the stuff off the shelves. they flinch and then they hurry away."
"oh, that's pretty sad."
"yeah well, like I said, 95% of the people are very helpful. but..." and at this she started to hesitate thinking that the capital of social interaction between us two had been almost used up, "what's really funny is that, you can tell that they just want to help the once, which I get as they are busy. but it's kind of funny, maybe it's just me, but I think that they go out of their way to go through different aisles when I am in them."
she smiled somewhat fiendishly, hunkered forward and said, "sometimes, sometimes I purposefully follow them, it's an amusing game I play." she finished with a twinkle in her eye.
and with that our social interaction capital had been used up and we went our ways. as it so happens I was behind her in line. she smiled and I smiled. then I followed her out and wondered, 'how does she get the chair back into the car and how does she then get herself into the car?' so I went to her to ask if I could help. she politely decline and, then I shamefully stalked her to see how she did it.
first, she pulls herself out of her chair and into the driver's seat (all he while wedging the wheelchair into the doorframe so that it doesn't roll off). then, once safely seated, she leans over, folds up the chair and heaves it into the passenger's seat.
I wondered how tough her life must be. I wondered if she was poor, given the state of her car and clothes and where we both were shopping (also the small amount she bought). I wanted to feel good about helping, but I just started to feel sad about how tough her life must be. I wonder if she's lonely. I wonder if she has a pet. I assume she doesn't have a spouse or else that person would be with her. Maybe she does have a spouse and he is worse off than she. Children? I wonder.