My grandmother passed away very late at night on September 25, 2011. My grandma was an awesome woman who occasionally made me want to scream, and I was occasionally the heavy with her in the past few years. I came into my identity as a hard ass crip chick and she became more and more stubborn. We were deathly ill at the same time and then we had significant needs at the same time. There was not often enough of my mother to go around as she is an only child. My grandmother had help and love from other family members and friends, and I could not be any more grateful, but we had some rough moments. We also had some great moments. She would usually stay with me while my parents would go on long trips out of town. Grandma loved seafood almost as much as I, could make a fantastic hamburger, and she loved my golden retriever Jenny and always made sure she was well cared for. We would go to the movies, shopping, and out to eat. We would sit on the back deck enjoying the summer air. She would ask me, repeatedly, to tell her the name of the class I was teaching, or what my thesis was about, or the latest news on my friends and caregivers and co-workers – former and current. She would tell me all about her friends’ goings-on. I called her every Sunday afternoon to check in. If I forgot, got caught up, or was a little late, she would call me. Her friends knew more about me than I probably tell most people, but that was Grandma. She did love to talk, in person or on the phone. So at her visitation and funeral, I did my only granddaughter thing and chatted with her friends. She was a popular woman, there is no doubt.
I also chatted with some of my parents’ friends, people who have known me my entire life. On the drive from Marietta to my grandmother’s family home in an incredibly small town outside of Savannah, I thought, for maybe the first time in a long while, about the people in my life who have known me forever and the people who have known me for a little less time. How are those relationships different? What about the people who knew me pre-paralysis and post-paralysis? What about the people who have only known me as Laura, the chick in the chair? They do not necessarily know less of me—they may, in fact, know more. But they don’t know it all. But neither do the forever folks, if only because they see me far less than the newer folks.
These thoughts did not stay with me too long. I was rather busy. However, after the visitation my father told me that a couple of his and my mother’s friends had found some old home movies of me and their daughter when we were small and worried whether it would be okay to share them with us, whether we would be all right to view me pre-paralysis. My dad assured them it would. Little did most folks know at the time that just one day after my grandmother’s funeral would be the 21st anniversary of the onset of my paralysis. It was actually a busy week of these special days because my other grandmother’s birthday was the 28th (who passed a few years ago), the day of Grandma’s visitation. October 1st was my great-grandmother’s birthday (who lived to be just a few months shy of 100, passing when I was 23) and her son, my grandfather’s, birthday was October 2nd (who passed many years ago), with my father’s birthday rounding us out on October 6th (he’s still truckin’).
I have gone through many phases of my reactions and approaches to disability, as I imagine most people have. However, I have never been averse to reminiscing or seeing pictures of my body pre-paralysis. The depth to which I share my feelings is not equal for all who may join in these endeavors, but it is never a sad or distressful occasion. While at my grandmother’s home, we found some old home movies of us as kids, with pre-paralysis and post-paralysis videos. I’m rather partial to the pre-paralysis shots because, although they do highlight my obnoxious first child personality of the late ’80s, they were fun and they remind me of a time when I was free and innocent. The next few years’ videos, which document the first few years of my body and personality post-paralysis, are difficult to watch for reasons nearly too numerous to recount. The most prominent reason, though, is that I had lost a lot of weight and had not yet mastered wearing clothes that, at least from my vantage point, accentuated the positive and downplayed what I believed and society has deemed, less attractive. My wheelchairs were giant and I needed more accoutrements than I have used in quite some years. Yes, my name is Laura and I have internalized ableism. I was weak and unaccustomed to this new form of my body. I seemed younger in this huge wheelchair than I did only months or years before. I was still cute though. I still had childish thoughts and interests and acted like I was 11 years old. But I looked fragile and awkward, and I still would rather not see myself this way, at least not with others in my presence.
We watched a few of the old home movies on Christmas night. The original purpose was to see all the cute things my youngest brother, Edward, said and did when he was a small one. When we started watching, though, my social media brain began twitching to my fingers and snapping photos of paused shots of my family, those that would be the most fun to share on Facebook. My favorite is of me riding my bike. I had a deep and abiding love for riding my bicycle anywhere and everywhere I was allowed. This originally only included the street in front of our Savannah home and then extended further and further. Given that I have almost no sense of direction and an (un)healthy dose of fear, I kept closer to home than most kids might have, but I was relentlessly happy to ride and ride and ride and ride.
I posted the pictures to Facebook and had a blast. So very many good memories. Then I recalled my thoughts on the way to Grandma’s services and afterward. Who among the people in my life that have only known me post-paralysis know much about my life pre-paralysis? I can think of but two people with whom I have really, really talked about that time, only two people who have been inquisitive enough to seek my past and cherish it with me.
I recognize and affirm that life does not fit into such dichotomous boxes as pre- and post-paralysis. I have plenty of people in my life who have known me for many years and have significant overlap. Each person, no matter where they fall on the continuum of my life’s timeline, is important to my story. But there is this past, this person I once was, who has differences and similarities to the person I have become.
When disability was new to me and those in my life, it was often the center of my thoughts, curiosities, and emotions. Then I moved to a new city, almost 300 miles away from my home, from the people who had always known me. Things changed. I was suddenly always crip chick in the chair. My past was mine and not important to the new scene. No one had to process anything. Fewer people in general were curious about disability in this new place and I was glad. It had been a negative in the old place and in the new place it was an accessory, part of me but not all of me.
A week or so ago, I heard Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on the radio and it reminded me of another song that is rarely played but that I love far more, “Baby Don’t Go.” I have been playing it incessantly since I purchased it on iTunes, especially as I have mulled over this post. The lines that seemed to inspire a breakthrough for me:
“When I get to the city
My tears will all be dried
My eyes will look so pretty
No one’s gonna know I cried
Yes I’m goin’ away
Maybe I’ll be back someday”
When I moved from Savannah to Marietta, I’d cried many tears and hoped they would subside in a new place with new people. It took a couple of more years, a strong will, quite a bit of self-confidence, and then no one knew I cried. But, now I wonder, what’s so bad about people knowing you cried? Truth is synthesis, not compartmentalization.