Stride: How I Walked Away from Trauma Toward Healing
Memoir in progress
I needed a new winter jacket. The EMTs had cut through my old one in order to attach the IV to prevent me from going into shock. Now it was September, and I had been out of the hospital and rehab for a few months. I had made it through the spring and summer, and, even though it was still warm most days, I was looking ahead.
I was on my way to Paragon Sports in downtown Manhattan. The huge store boasts clothing, footwear, and equipment for every activity from swimming to ice skating, badminton to bocce, in addition to its selection of premium down outerwear.
Growing up in an apartment in the Bronx in New York City, I was not exactly the outdoorsy or sporty type. My notion of a wildlife adventure was feeding peanuts to squirrels in Van Cortlandt Park. So I had never been to Paragon before. I asked a sales person where women’s coats were. He indicated the second floor and pointed to a wide, high staircase. Now, I could do stairs, but the way a young child does. I needed to lead with my left leg and then pull the right up to the same step—and I knew, although I was better, I didn’t have the strength to make it all the way up, shop, and go down again.
“Is there an elevator or escalator?”
“No. Only a freight elevator. “
“Can I use it?”
“No, it’s not for customers.”
I made a face, nodded and began to walk away. But the moment he saw me limping toward the exit, he hurriedly called me back, apologized and led me to the elevator.
In 1990, the only thing unusual about this encounter was the chagrin of the store employee. Businesses, public places were not required to be accessible. But that July the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been signed into law, hard-won legislation that heroes like Judy Heumann, one of the stars of Crip Camp, had been fighting for at least since the 1977 month-long sit-in at the federal Health, Education and Welfare office in San Francisco. Judy, who is just a bit older than me, contracted polio as a child and for years was denied the right to attend school in New York City. Judy’s last name is a perfect reminder of what people with disabilities are often not thought of as being.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services. My timing, unlike Judy’s, was pretty good: I became disabled in March, just four months earlier, when a car jumped the curb and rammed into me. I lost my right leg.
Of course, the world had a lot of catching up to do once the ADA became law. A couple of years after I was at a gala at Lincoln Center where several toilet stalls had been specially designated for “handicap use.” But the attempt at compliance fell short—the flush was foot-activated. Fast forward to a Broadway theater in 2019 when I was directed, in December, to the accessible bathroom—in an alley outside the theater. I applaud every curb cut, every ASL interpreter at a conference, every chatty traffic signal that tells you that the light has turned green. But we have a long way to go. I hope the necessity of going virtual during COVID made people aware of how many formerly inaccessible situations were now open to people with disabilities, and that online options will continue to be offered.
Right after my accident, though, I was not thinking about what it meant to be disabled. I was focusing on being disfigured. I saw my injury as a manifestation of something interior that was “off,” wrong, ugly, about me, a feeling I have had since childhood.
I had to jettison that negative view of myself in order to literally get back on my feet—even if one of those feet was a metal, energy-storing flex foot made by the German manufacturer Ottobock. I had to have the will to get better, to learn to walk again, to appreciate the value in what I had—which was a lot—a loving husband, two healthy children, supportive friends and family and my writing—and to be able to anticipate whatever joy was yet to come.
One thing that helps me is the example of my grandmother, who died when I was nine, who had gone blind from glaucoma. I understood as a child that she couldn’t see. But I never thought of her as limited. She was proud, intelligent, capable, caring. A woman who had emigrated from Belarus to the United States as a teenager, raised three children, managed a store with her husband, helped care for her grandchildren and didn’t need much help taking care of herself. In fact, when I was little, I thought all grandmothers were blind. And I loved mine fiercely.
Grandma was a proud woman. One afternoon I was waiting impatiently for her and my mother to stop chatting with some neighbors in the courtyard of our building. A woman passed by and greeted my mother and the other people gathered there, but didn’t acknowledge my grandmother. When the woman left my grandmother hissed, “The fool! Did she think because I couldn’t see her I didn’t know she was there?”
I know the strength I found to continue on after the accident was inherited from my bubby.
Another empowering source has been the connections I forged with others with disabilities. I have led a writing workshop at The Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY) since 2009. My members have a range of physical and mental disabilities and each week they create beautiful, meaningful work. And I have found a renewed appreciation for my body in its current state through online classes offered by NYU Langone’s Initiative for Women with Disabilities (IWD). My favorite class is Zumba.
The music runs from Mas Que Nada to La Bamba to Volare to Fireball. Aimi, our instructor, takes no prisoners: midway, no matter the season, I need to turn on the overhead fan in my room.
I was never any great shakes as a dancer, in fact, I was pretty bad, but I had been taking dance classes at least once a week since I was 21. I loved the classes, even when I got the steps wrong, even when my form left a lot to be desired, even when I could feel the pitying stares of the others as I clumsily crossed the floor attempting to get the sequence right. But no one judges anyone in the IWD class. I am part of a gallery of women centered in squares on my computer screen, in their living rooms or bedrooms or porches or backyards. Most are in wheelchairs, doing the movements with their arms, or one arm because the other has been paralyzed by a stroke, or, like me, standing, sometimes unsteadily.
Each week I challenge myself to keep up as Aimi moves faster and faster. I step and sway and turn and shimmy and forget everything else and dance.