Years ago, when I first became a wheelchair user, Heathrow airport was a frightening place to fly into. We’d have asked for assistance to get from the gate to luggage and out and many times we sat up to 40 minutes waiting for that help to arrive. The terminal has long corridors and long ramps, very long ramps, which made it difficult even for those pushing me.
Heathrow was one of the reasons I decided to increase my upper body strength and decrease my need for assistance. I didn’t want the long waits and I didn’t want the angry service I received after help would arrive and see me, at my weight, in my chair. It was unpleasant and sometimes a little scary. So, I began trying to increase the strength in my arms and shoulders, I worked on my pushing technique, I disallowed Joe from helping me, unless I asked, even when I was struggling.
A long while later, I do have the upper body strength to push myself around and I’ve got a new lighter chair which makes distances in terminals or malls almost irrelevant. It’s nice to feel that I was able to make some changes and work some muscles that would change my experience of the chair.
So on our flight back from London I had been shopping in duty free when Joe came and told me that our gate was now on the board and we had to go a very long way. At a normal walking pace they predicted a 15 minute walk. Ok, let’s go. We found the path and were on our way. Joe was walking quickly and I slowed to keep pace with him.
That is, until we came to a very long down ramp, I said goodbye and flew down the ramp. I wanted the speed of the descent to carry me some of the way back up the ramp on the other side. It did, but then I had to take over. Joe was still way behind me but I kept going, I know my pace was very much slowed by the incline that I was attempting. I was feeling good about it, yeah it was long, but I’d done longer. And steeper.
I felt my body working, I’d switched my push to a climbing push and I was slowly but steadily making my way up the ramp. I was breathing hard, this was real work, not gym work, real work. I was about half way up when it happened. I hadn’t paid attention, I was focused just on getting up the ramp. Someone came from behind and grabbed my chair and began to push. I felt immediately out of control of the chair and I called out for him to stop. He told me he didn’t mind. “WELL I DO!” I responded and he let go mumbled an apology and took off.
We got to the gate and boarded the plane. Once again, Heathrow was taken from me. He pushed me about three feet, that’s all, but he took the whole challenge away from me. He’s now part of my story. I don’t want him in my story.
I want to author the story of my own victories and failures. I don’t want random strangers to become part of my personal narrative. I’ll never be able to tell this story wiithout him. I had wanted to do this, especially the big ramp, on my own. I had wanted to remind myself that I have the strength to take on what I never could have considered a year or so ago.
But he’s in my story.
My story is no longer mine.
The assaultive nature of having one’s chair grabbed is one thing. The theft of narrative is another.
I don’t know which is worse.