|Morningside Community Garden, 111 & Amsterdam|
The world looks different once you’ve fallen into the ditch I’m now post-surgical and recovering from my herniated disk, but still walking slowly, with crutches or a cane, still getting no farther than the end of the block. One thing I’ve noticed standing there in the autumn sun is how much company I have. We live two blocks from a big hospital, in a neighborhood with many elderly people, so along with the parade of students, tourists and busy people in the prime of life, there are always the sick and wounded, getting around with canes, crutches and wheelchairs.
Like most healthy people, I tended to ignore these people before, or wince when I looked, thanking God or good luck that I had been spared their pain. Now that I am one of them, I try to make eye contact, and express some sympathy. Misery loves company.
But even among the wounded there’s a hierarchy. We tend to look away from the dying and the horribly maimed, leaving them alone to suffer in their own world. On our block there is one woman who has learned not to look for sympathy. She has little more than half a body, cut off just below the waist. She rides around the block in her motorized wheelchair nearly every day, her lower torso tied up in a shawl, staying out for hours to take the air and the sun. Her face is deeply lined, deeply tanned, and she looks straight ahead with an unchanging, stoic expression. The sight of her is painful to others, and she knows it. Even my pastor wife, turning the corner and seeing a half-person coming toward her, gasped under her breath. A moment later she said -- "that was quite a sight.”
I admire this woman, because her demeanor says that regardless of what other people think or feel, she is determined to live. She knows that when she goes out she will be ignored, shunned, ostracized by her neighbors. But she refuses to be homebound, to limit her human contact to those who by family or profession are bound to be sympathetic. The block belongs to her as much as anyone. She may be an outcast, but she will not sacrifice what’s left of her life.
Like most people, I used to look down on this lady with horror, and avert my eyes. But in recent weeks, as I stubbornly took my daily walks on crutches, once even passing out from the pain, I decided we had a lot in common. People didn’t like the sight of me, either. So a few days ago I looked at this lady openly, intently, and she looked back. I nodded, and she returned the greeting with a barely perceptible movement, as if to say I’m not sure you meant that, but if you did, OK.
Today, feeling better, as I stood near the corner leaning on my crutches, she suddenly rolled around the corner, and looked up. I smiled and nodded. She smiled and said, “Hi.”
Now we are what you call “nodding acquaintances.” I’m not sure I want to push it. One thing I don’t want to do is to play “journalist” and find out her story so I can use it. But I’m not averse to making a friend in the ditch. I’m only there temporarily, it seems, but I could be back, any time.
-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips