Warning - Politically incorrect terms will be used in this exposition. If you are easily offended by words like gimp or cripple, well, know that I am allowed to call myself whatever I wish, and when last I checked, we were still allowed some limited use of free speech in our grand country.
Many people take the simple act of walking for granted, and why should they not? I have no memories of my infancy, no recollection of the moment at which I clutched a table leg or the seat of a chair and hauled myself into an erect position, probably so surprising myself that I most likely fell directly back onto my ass. I’m certain that my mother faithfully recorded, in one of those too-cute-for-words baby journals which invariably depicted flossy clouds and pastel bluebirds and blurry, grinning cherubs, every feeble longitudinal attempt and ass-landing, and the glorious occasion when I let go the support and toddled perhaps two steps before finding myself polishing the floor with my face.
The world is filled with people walking, strolling, trotting, ambling and shambling, and flat-out running. I tried out for track and field in high school because I was too scrawny for football, a mediocre southpaw at bat, couldn’t for the life of me learn how to successfully dribble a basketball, and loathed hockey and Greco-Roman wrestling. (Oh, and despite my parents’ insistence that I visit the YMCA weekly as a stripling, never mastered the art of swimming. Do you remember the dead man’s float? I sank to the bottom like an anchor.) I was a pretty decent runner, and the coach encouraged me to attempt hurdles, which to my lasting astonishment, I discovered that I was eminently suited to.
As I have written in my unkept journal, throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I (accompanied by Bonnie and various neighborhood pets on many occasions) enjoyed lengthy walks in the woods. I am gratified to have those clear memories to sustain me, now that I am compelled to stay put.
I was blissfully unaware of what the near future held when, in the winter of 1993-1994, someone I know well was hospitalized for 6 months. I spent hours nearly every day (I missed only two days of visitation, both due to massive snowstorms) negotiating the seemingly endless corridors of the hospital, many as long as six city blocks, some even longer. I could walk with no difficulty and was not considered an impediment or obstacle to others, not then. I shopped for groceries in a megamart (Wegmans), visited the numerous area malls (Lori, you’ll remember Marketplace and Eastview, among others) and was able to mow the lawn without taking frequent breaks to calm my twinging leg muscles.
Then, almost unnoticed at first, as I would walk for long distances, my legs would begin to ache as if they were starved for oxygen, and I found myself having to search out benches at which I could sit and wait for the aches to subside. I began to slow noticeably, the rest periods perforce became lengthier, and I caught people glancing at me in perturbation as I slowed their rapid advance through a narrow passage or aisle. It was increasingly borne in upon me that I was an unwelcome presence in places where speed was desired.
When I last held a job, back in 2002, I called myself a gimp. I was still able to walk, albeit not at a rapid pace and not for a prolonged period of time, but I could negotiate most obstacles and sets of stairs, and I remained upright virtually constantly. I used my cane only when necessary, when the pains in my legs prevented me from moving about freely enough to accomplish my job, because I preferred not to relinquish what dignity I had managed to preserve.
I have since learned that false dignity is subjective, and true dignity arises from within, untouched by what others may think. I was taught this by my father, who, although lying in a coma, unresponsive and perhaps unfeeling, appearing to be nothing more than a thinly fleshed skeleton, mouth open and eyes staring at the ceiling, unmoving and slowly dehydrating, displayed as much dignity in his final hours as I have ever seen anyone - president, religious leader or corporate executive - manifest.
I have been a gimp. I am now officially a cripple (disabled, differently-abled, mobility-challenged, whatever the latest faddish terms are in vogue at the present moment). My latest contention with a virus has seemingly sapped whatever small reserves of energy or motive power my legs possessed. The muscles are unable to hold me upright without assistance, and were it not for the cane and a walker, I would be dragging myself from room to room like a dog with an ass-itch. This alteration has necessitated some adaptations to my more limited circumstances. As I have written to some, I was accustomed to carry numerous objects with me from room to room to save myself excess trips. I became quite good at it, somewhat like Dagwood Bumstead with his armfuls of sandwich fixin's. With a cane occupying my right hand, my ability to tote is vastly reduced (although, now that I consider it, many items can be placed in a plastic grocery bag and hung from the grip of my cane ... to write is to think.)
Whatever. Now a trip from bedroom to kitchen must be carefully planned as if it were a long vacation. I must think what to carry and in what way it should be packed, I must leave earlier than usual so that I don’t arrive late, and I seldom enjoy the trip.
(To be somewhat indelicate for just a moment, you may imagine that, in my altered circumstances, a bout of diarrhea raises the suspense level of "Will he or won’t he?" to the outer membrane of the lower stratosphere.)
If I were an engineer, I would attempt to design a pair of bionic legs that would encase my own poor limbs and power me along with alarming rapidity. Alas, such is not to be (they would probably be prohibitively expensive, if they were to exist.)
This is not just about me, of course. It affects Bonnie fully as much as me, because she must deal with the consequences if I happen to fall, and there are many times when she has left the house to go shopping or accomplish some other necessary errand, even when she was not feeling well, because I cannot. Without her support and caring, there is no chance that I would be able to live what life I still can. She tends to me unstintingly and unselfishly, and there will be in heaven no better angel than she.
I have not allowed myself to get angry or bitter about this new circumstance, because those emotions solve nothing and can only hurt Bonnie and me, were I to give vent to such. This infirmity is what it is, and no amount of denial will alter a whit of it. There is occasional frustration, but it is momentary and of no account. It is simply another reminder that existence is much more than just what we make of it, and I have always adopted as one of my mottoes, "Try or die." I do not intend to die just yet; I still have so much to learn.