So I was at the pharmacy on base today and I was comedically struck by two very distinct groups and the reactions they had to seeing a chick in a wheelchair: the Vietnam era retirees and everyone else.
Let me set the scene:
The pharmacy is this big area in the middle of the local Army hospital. Because military pharmacies are the Walmart of pharmacies, and because they’re government operations, having too few people working and therefore having customers backed up well beyond the waiting area into other office’s seats and into the walkways is an everyday occurrence. Everyone gets a ticket when they arrive and then they wait to be called, sometimes a very long time.
When I rolled in I didn’t exactly come in without some… panache. Friends used to tease me that I didn’t take out the garbage without red lipstick and high heels but what made it funny was that it was so very true. I may be clinically homebound but I put on makeup and dress well everyday, so when I ended up with a surprise appointment to infectious disease about my stump today, I did me:
Not only did I look fabulous, but I also came rollin’ in hot because I wheel my chair not unlike the way I drive. Anyone who has ever been in the car with me knows.
I drifted up to the ticket kiosk.
Black leggings, black and white sweater, a bajillion chains around my long neck, very dangly chain earnings, nose ring, all the black eye makeup…
Drifting in my wheelchair in the Army hospital in front of at least 50 other pharmacy goers.
Cause that’s how I roll.
All this is to say that if being the chick in the chair missing a foot wasn’t enough to make me stand out, everything else about me did.
I parked myself in a spot away from the seats where I could wait without being tripped over and was very much the only person in that area. Every other person in a wheelchair was also sitting around the outskirts, and all save one were wearing Vietnam snap backs covered in pins.
Now, the stage is set!
So I rolled in like a bat out of hell with my high pony whipping around as I went here and there and I was not unnoticed.
On the one hand were the pharmacists and the younger generations of soldiers and their families. The pharmacist at the closest window to the kiosk stood there with her mouth open and even called over other techs to ogle me waiting for me to do something else. The soldiers were the ones who pretended not to see me but would nudge each other or their spouses and point when they thought I couldn’t see them or wasn’t looking. Cause pointing at someone sitting off by themselves isn’t at all obvious. These were also the ones that would stare and then look away awkwardly when I looked back at them. With the spouses there was a fair amount of unabashed open mouthed staring at me, then the stump, then me again.
On the other hand, I got subtle nods and wry grins from all the Vietnam vets whether or not they were in a wheelchair. And when I did, the resting B face broke into a smile that made my eyes crinkle at the corners. What was so different about them that my cold, hard, and effing fabulous face broke?
They didn’t look at my leg once. They didn’t look away embarrassed. They didn’t whisper to their neighbors. They saw exactly what everyone else saw but they looked at my face, and they looked in my eyes. They weren’t shocked by what they saw. They looked at me and saw me, not the missing piece but the whole that was in front of them.
How could I not smile at being truly seen?
Thinking about how everyone else behaved doesn’t make me angry. I get it. They haven’t seen an amputee up close before. When they don’t know how to act seeing an amputee in real life, they sure as hell don’t know what to do when a smokin’ hot one comes rolling past them. (Yes, I said it, and if you’d seen my sass today you’d have said it too.)
To be perfectly frank, I like blowing their minds and ruining the expectations they have of what being disabled looks like.
Let them look. Let them stare. Let them take pictures and discuss with their friends. Let them wonder, “who is this fabulous woman, and how can I be more like her?!” There isn’t a way to normalize all that this is if they don’t look, if they don’t discuss, and if they don’t ask questions, and there will never be a time when being disabled doesn’t come with expectations if we don’t break the expectations that are here now.
Let them stare.
Maybe someday they’ll have grown to where those old vets were and will see me, not my disability.
Originally published 10/11/17.