You watched me walk in with three young children; we had a soccer game later that evening which meant the best I could do after work was to drive to the town where our game would be played to first have dinner. A third one was thrown in the mix as his mom, a hard-working single parent, needed to be out of town for a work responsibility. My husband Geoff would meet us at the restaurant after picking up lightbulbs we needed at home as almost every single light in our house had burned out.
You did not have the back story to our chaos that day, yet you kept throwing me glances, which communicated clearly, “We are annoyed by your presence along with those giggling, popcorn eating, drink slurping hoodlums.” I smiled and tried my best to deflect your irritability with chatting with the kids about their respective days. Mind you, it was only 4:30. Not like I had them out at a bar at 10 pm! (Side note: for you parents who do that– no judgement here, not from me– not ever!)
I ordered our food quickly and felt some relief when Geoff wheeled through the door and headed our way. Geoff is solid when it comes to the re-direction sometimes needed with our son when in public places. So, anyway, your ENTIRE demeanor changed when you saw my husband’s wheelchair pull up to the table. You suddenly sighed to one another empathetically as if his arrival at the table was something to feel bad about. Your heart was most definitely in the right place, I’m certain of that, but I was the one, the mother of three in that moment, who AFTER a long day of working and remembering to pack the soccer crap and the hats and the mittens as winter had finally arrived in time for this game, I was the who could have used the gentle smile and the patient glance, “Wow, you have a lot on your hands” kind of look. Yes, me. My husband had it easy that afternoon after work. He went to Lowe’s or Home Depot or the hardware store ALONE, by himself, not with one, two, or three children, for LIGHTBULBS, and, yes, he uses a wheelchair to do these things.
Our dinner arrived, and we ate quickly given the time we needed to be at the field. The boys needed to use the bathroom so Geoff went with them, and I let our daughter go alone because I could actually see the door from my seat. As soon as he was out of sight, you actually turned around in your seat to ask, “How was your husband paralyzed?” These words came out before “Hello” or “Quite a family you’ve got there” which is another phrase heard frequently when people see our “dynamic” family in action. You were very sincere, I know, in your need to know what had put this handsome, young, strong looking father in a wheelchair. I thought briefly about responding, “Oh, he’s not my husband– he’s my lover.” Or, “Oh, he’s not my husband– he is just the sperm donor.”
These responses would have stopped you in your tracks, but that would not have been fair of me. However, you were not being fair to me either from the moment I walked in and was seated next to you. The sudden arrival of a dad in a wheelchair should not be the factor that draws you away from your chicken pot pie to chat with a stranger. A nice mom with three kids who clearly looked haggard and at wits end could have done the same.
You felt pity for him when you said, “I’m so sorry to hear that” when I told an abbreviated story of how Geoff became paralyzed while snowmobiling with friends. You don’t need to feel sorry for him because he uses a wheelchair. He made the decision to be good at being paralyzed a long time ago and your pity doesn’t really help our situation. A smile? Now that would have done the trick for me. A “hang in there, young lady, your children were great in this restaurant” would also have gone a long way, because they really were being good. More importantly, when our children or their friends see their dad, they don’t feel sad about him being in a wheelchair, and neither should you.
Heather Krill is a writer- wife- teacher-mom who lives in the White Mountains of NH with her husband, Geoff, a paraplegic and professional skier, and their two children, Carver and Greta who are 7 and 6. Please check out her novel True North, website http://www.heatherkrill.com, and @heatherkrill1 on Twitter.