I can't tell you how many times I've driven around a parking lot, shaken my head and said to myself, "HOW many handicapped parking spaces could one place need? There aren't this many handicapped people in the whole city."
Well, shame on me. Because I'm handicapped now -- temporarily, anyway -- and I can't find a parking space to save my life. More importantly, I'm so much more aware of how a physical ailment, even a temporary one, impacts not only a person's mobility, but the way others view him or her.
And let me tell you, it's not fun.
A month ago, I had my right knee replaced. My recovery has gone well, but I'll be walking with a cane for another couple of weeks. The looks I've been getting bother me the most; I'm not young, but I'm not elderly, and when I'm in public, people look at me as if they're wondering, "What sort of dreaded disease could she possibly have?" Either that, or they look away.
It's all I can do not to roll up my pant leg, show them my incision and say, "It's not that big a deal -- don't look at me as if I'm sick." But then I stop and think of how often I've been guilty of those same looks.
I think it's human nature, when we see someone whose physicality is outside the norm, to think, "Uh-oh. I wonder if whatever is happening to him or her could happen to me." And it could, of course, so we'd just as soon avoid the person altogether.
But that's pretty hurtful, actually, and here's why: I'm in pain. My knee is stiff and swollen. I can't move very well. My activities have been curtailed. I miss my work and my friends. I spend a lot of time in the house, and I'm not an in-the-house person. And for someone to look at me as if there's something wrong with me makes me feel even worse about myself.
The night before Christmas Eve, my husband, Kevin, and I were at Target. I was headed for the restroom and had stopped at the door to figure out how to smoothly navigate my cane and the door handle. Out of the blue, a little boy of about 6 came up to me and demanded, "What's wrong with your leg?"
His mother promptly apologized, but I assured her it was OK. I sat down on a nearby bench and explained that I had had surgery. "Do you want to see my knee?" I asked him. He did, so I rolled up my pants and he looked at my incision and my bandages for a long time. Then he looked at me with big eyes and said, "That looks like it hurts." I said that it did, sometimes, and he said, "That's too bad." And he gave me a sad look, and his mom dragged him away.
And I thought, how awesome. I wish everyone reacted that way. What's better than a little bit of honesty to stop the stares?
In the overall scheme of things, I am dealing with very, very small potatoes. War heroes return home having lost limbs. People lose eyes and ears and breasts and colons. They'll have to deal with the looks a whole lot longer than I will.
So maybe this can be a reminder to me, and to you -- stop staring, but don't look away, either. Look the person in the eye. Smile. And if you're really all that curious, ask.
And the next time you wonder if Des Moines really needs all those handicapped parking spaces, rest assured that it does. In fact, if you see an open one, call me, please, and tell me where it is.