My motorcycle crash showed me that more people than I ever dreamed are living with limitations and with broken dreams. The beautiful thing is that since disabilities and shattered hope are such common phenomena, solutions, or ways to keep one’s attitudepositive in these circumstances are also quite common. The following situation involves the comfort found in relating to other people who happen to wake from comas to find themselves in similar circumstances.
I hobbled into the crowded waiting room at Harborview Hospital’s outpatient clinic. Walkers, canes and wheelchairs cluttered the floor. Speech impairments filled the air. I smiled. These were my people.
The waiting room was large, but only a few chairs were empty. I never felt as ok about my disability as when I went to the rehab clinic. I don’t know if this is sick and wrong or not, but seeing other people dealing with situations similar to my own, helps my attitude. I sit in a hard plastic chair beside a suntanned girl chewing gum with her mouth open. She wore faded jeans and a tie-dye tank top. A walker stood beside her chair. She looked mad and bored.
I plopped down beside her. “What’s up?”
She popped a bubble.
“If you’re talking to me, talk slower so I can hear you right.”
“What’s going on,” I said carefully. I liked how simple and respectful she’d been in telling me she couldn’t understand me.
“I don’t know what they’re doing,” she said, glaring at the door. “All I know is I’ve been sitting here for way over an hour. The doctors are probably out playing golf.
“They’re usually late, but not this late,” I said.
She sighed noisily. “I hate this place.”
“How many times have you been here?”
“She popped another bubble and crossed one ankle over her knee. “This is my second time. How about you?”
“About a million. I’m Al. What’s your name?”
“What happened to you?”
“I was visiting my dad in Hawaii and tried surfing. His stupid girl friend and I caught the same wave. She ran into me.”
“She must have been monster-big to put you in the hospital.”
Pam smiled. “She is but what happened is I hit my head on her board. By the time the lifeguard pulled me out of the water, I’d been under more than two minutes. What happened to you?”
I describe my crash.
“Motorcycle’s are death machines. I used to have a boyfriend who got killed on one.”
I looked at the clock on the wall. “Talking to you has made the time fly. I’ve been here more than a half-hour already. They usually call me before this.”
“I don’t wanna sound mean, but I’ve been here an hour and a half. I better get called before you.”
I laugh. “Don’t worry. You will.”
Pam and I talked for almost another half-hour before she got called in.
“Well I guess this is it,” she said, grabbing her walker. She looked over her shoulder at me. “I’m glad we talked.”
“Yeah, me too. Would you like to do it again sometime?”
She smiles. “Sure. Give me a call.” She handed me a playing card.
“The queen of hearts.” The name Pam was written over the picture. A phone number was under it.
“Cool,” I said, putting it in my pocket.
After Pam left, a guy sat in the seat where she’d been. His speech impairment was even worse than mine, but he was interesting to talk with. Anybody watching us would have wondered if we even knew what we were talking about. Of course we did, most of the time. He said he was a cat burglar who fell on his way to work. I figured he was joking but I didn’t ask again. He had less patience than I did. By the time I got called in, 45 more minutes had passed and he was so impatient he was cussing like a one legged pirate with his good foot caught in a bear trap.
The first thing I asked the examining doctor, when he finally came into the tiny examining room was “What took you so long to see me? Why do we even bother making appointments?”
He didn’t bother giving me an answer. He might have not answered because he didn’t have an answer. Or he might not have answered because he didn’t understand me over my speech impairment. And then there was the chance that he didn’t think brain damaged, physically impaired people needed to be answered, unless they asked something he felt like answering. However remote this possibility was, it made me fume, just to think about it. I asked again.
Speaking loudly enough to be sure he heard me, I said, “What took you so long to see me? My appointment was almost two hours ago.”
He looked me in the face. For the first time I noticed how tired and worn he looked. Deep lines cut grooves in his forehead. “The clinic is two doctors short this week, and it’s our receptionist’s first day,” he said.
So there really was a reason behind my long wait. I didn’t need to let my attitude get all bent out of shape, after all. Ok, so I overreacted, or did I? If we’d been told they were two doctors and an experienced receptionist short, the wait would have been more tolerable. Not being told anything made it seem like how we felt or what we thought didn’t matter. Would we have been told if we were a room full of white collar professionals instead of people with disabilities? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I think the lesson to learn here is that, “No matter who your circumstances inconvenience, but especially if your inconveniencing someone who may have an impaired ability to handle inconveniences, it is important to be considerate and tell folks what’s going on. Why let an honest inconvenience be mistaken for a purposeful slight?
Riding the bus home after my appointment, I realized that at my last counseling appointment, my counselor suggested a helpful way to deal with situations like the one I had just encountered. I forget how we got to the point where he made this suggestion, but the suggestion he made is self explanatory. “It helps me,” he said, “to practice an attitude of acceptance.
Most of the methods of behavior that were supposed to somehow help my interactions run smoother sounded feasible in the psychologist’s office, but when the time came to use them, I either completely forgot them or if I tried to recall them, it’s like I heard a recording of Charlie Brown’s teacher.
The four most important things I remember discovering through the counseling that I had 30 years ago when I first began living with completely different circumstances than the happy ones that got snatched away are:
1. “I can’t think my way into a new way of living, I have to live my way into a new way of thinking.”
2. “Time takes Time.”
3. “I’m not in control of my life. How can I be in control when I don’t know what’s gonna happen until after it happens?”
4. “The attitude I choose is THE determiner of how happy, sad, productive or lonely I am.”