Sunday, November 30, 2008

Summer Flashback: About Arlington with Deb Byrwa

This is another piece that should have run over the summer but was cut short by the Great Basement Flood of '08. I'm getting to it now, and am including it under the column title "About Arlington." I used to write About Arlington for the Arlington Connection, and I'm hoping to bring back here at the HeraldTrib. --ST

I walk my dog daily for one-and-a-half hours at a good clip. Even with stops to buy coffee, to clean up after her, to chat with people and let the dogs run around together, I still make better than three-miles-an-hour over 90 minutes, covering anywhere from four-and-a-half to five miles, and I feel fine at the end.

The writer in his borrowed wheelchair. (Click to enlarge the image.)

Despite that, two hours in a wheelchair the other day and my legs were rubbery. I was propelling myself with my arms, mind you, but I felt it in my legs. I felt it as well in my shoulders and neck, as you might imagine.

My forearms, I realized a day later, were incredibly tired and so knotted from two hours of self-propulsion that the knot in my left arm pinched a nerve that cut-off feeling to my left index finger if I carried anything. A few bags of groceries in from the car and I couldn’t feel my fingertip for 30 minutes. This sensation carried on for days whenever I picked up anything of weight.

I ended up in the wheelchair because Deb Byrwa invited me.

She is a Buckinghamster who has a heart condition that makes her blood pressure plummet and a nervous system condition that makes her flail her arms and head at times. She can walk short distances, but is awkward at it, and it tires her quickly, so she rides a scooter everyday and invited me to come along to see what it was like.

Deb Byrwa. (Click to enlarge the image.)

I’ll admit I jumped at the chance.

My story is one of unexpected little annoyances, but I am trying to steer clear of the clichés. I did not have any moment of true epiphany where something I never thought of jumped out at me. My morning spent in the wheelchair was not a moment of self-revelation. I knew people in wheelchairs had it tough before I tried it. But there were moments where I saw more clearly.

I knew my legs would get tired. I knew they would be working to keep my balance and posture, but how tired they were surprised me.

I’ve known that sidewalks tilt toward the road in order to drain water. What I did not realize was how that translated into a dirtier right hand, the hand keeping me from rolling straight in to oncoming traffic.

My dirty right hand. (Click to enlarge the image.)

As we made our way up N. Glebe Road to the Harris Teeter, my right arm ached just trying to maintain a straight course. Manhole covers, uneven pavement, those small, gas-line and water-line covers all bumped and bounced me away from straight travel. Brick sidewalks, squares that have been worn down to the small cobbles beneath the cement façade, and just the roughness of old cement slow any chance of momentum.

And when I did get a little momentum, I could have sprained my thumb because it would get caught between the rubber wheel and the aluminum rim that I pushed to propel the chair. I felt a tug, and twisted my hand out of the way just in time.

Rubber wheel and aluminum rim. (Click to enlarge the image.)

By the time we made it three or four blocks from her house to the Harris Teeter with its large, flat, creamy smooth aisles, I was sweating down my back and pooling into my unforgiving seat.

I could not by myself get up the ramp and onto the bus. The 23A stopped for us near Hyde Park Condominium, the doors opened and that black tongue of a ramp unrolled so I could wheel myself up. No doubt it was designed to be negotiated by a wheelchair driver, but about halfway up—my front wheels just inside the doors of the bus—I needed to roll back, or I was going to tip backward. I saw pictures in my mind of me, staring into the trees from a flopped-over wheelchair.

I could not get a good running start up the ramp because I could not go fast and straight enough at the same time to be sure I would get all four wheels onto the ramp. I tried again, and a stranger behind me gave a helpful, and in all likelihood necessary, push.

But then Deb warned me about helpful strangers. She told me not to put my camera, which I was using to shoot video and stills, somewhere that people could easily snatch it from the chair. People steal from the handicapped.

Strangers might act like they are helping, when really they are getting a better look at what you are carrying that might be taken. She knows people who have lost bags and purses that were hanging from wheelchair handles. She has felt hands pawing around her body looking for her purse after he faux-tripped into her.

The man who helped me onto the bus, I do not believe, had any such intentions, but I never even would have thought of that, and my feeling of helplessness was strong enough just to be thankful for his help.

Getting off the bus onto the sidewalk of S. Glebe Road near the Walter Reed Center was just as bad. I careened headlong over the slick black chute, the pebbly roughness of the surface doing little to stop my chair from skidding; I could barely steer to keep myself on the ramp.

I told Deb that, and she said, “You should try it when it’s raining.”

I’d take the ramp over the lift, though. Our trip from the Walter Reed Center back up to Buckingham had me get onto the 10B using a lift. I had watched Deb do it first. I saw her drive her red scooter onto the platform. When the platform started up, the little ramp at the back lifted into place to form a little gate so she could not roll backward off the platform.

The problem was that I found it tough to see that little gate. And the lift does not lift level; it tips back. There I was hunched forward in the seat, white-knuckling those aluminum rims to keep from rolling backward off the platform and dropping the foot or more back onto the sidewalk. It’s just a platform, no walls, and it bumped and swayed while lifting me.

By the time we were back in Buckingham, I was tired. I was tired of thinking about how to get from one place to another. I was hot, both from the summer heat and the exertion. And I was glad to stand up again.

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