Learning to be in a wheelchair was one of the toughest parts of my recovery from near-death.
Not only did it mean losing my independence, it meant loading up a piece of hardware every day with my whinging body and foisting it on the world. Not, I assure you, a pretty sight.
I overloaded that wheelchair with all my anger, and all the stigma society teaches us about wheelchairs.
Take pity, for instance. If I pitied myself for losing mobility, losing my career, losing self-esteem … you don’t want to hear the full list; it was far too long … then the pity of others was even more unbearable.
If I was left alone in the chair in public for minutes, strangers would march right up and grab the chair and ask where I wanted to go.
I was annoyed every time. This is assault, to start. (Touch my wheelchair, you’re touching my body, the exoskeleton that gives me mobility.)
Second, it was insulting. Did I look incapable? Did my arms appear useless? I was a woman in a chair that required hand-propulsion, not the heavy-handed help of some misguided “good samaritan.”
Obviously, I had enough anger to spread far and wide.
Stanley Park helped me make the transition from resisting disability to embracing it.
Hadi and I politely declined an offer to live at a rehabilitation hospital after I was released from almost two months at Vancouver General.
I was too impatient to stay in hospital; I was too impatient for in-hospital rehab and physiotherapy; and I was impatient to return to fresh air.
We had one request of social workers and others helping us leave hospital: Please find a temporary home close to Stanley Park for our own made-for-two rehab plan.
We loved the park’s deep forests and accessible seawall, tracing the Vancouver shoreline from protected bays to open ocean. It offered hope.
We made a deal that only couples who have survived death together can make: We promised each other, no matter what, we would “do” Stanley Park every day, together.
Since Vancouver is known for its rain, and we were at the edge of the rainy season, this promise seemed daunting on wet days.
Yet we discovered quickly that no amount of rainfall, or rain-slicked, steep hills in the neighborhood, could stop us.
Although I hated to be in a wheelchair at first — seeing it only as limitation — Hadi would wheel me along the seawall every day.
Some days in the park were shorter than others, given oceanside wind and rain.
But Stanley Park was revelatory, for both of us.
While I was healing and couldn’t move much, I would try to stay warm in the chair, and ask Hadi to recount all that had happened in Afghanistan, before, during and after the attack.
I was astonished at how much I didn’t remember. (A coma will do that.)
Hadi was astonished that I remembered anything at all. It was a relief to share a few moments that we both recalled, such as the blaze of stars in a dark, clear sky, appearing like a canopy, when U.S. Special Forces medics carried my near-dead body on a stretcher across desert sands.
I soon saw the wheelchair as liberation.
It helped us find our way again as a couple, rising above the daily routine of physio, and doctors’ visits that were a painful lesson, for me, in dependence.
The wheelchair helped me escape, for a few hours each day, the physical and psychological pain, and the monotony of being confined mostly to bed in our temporary apartment filled with other people’s stuff. (Our belongings were still in a shipping container in India).
The walker was worse. The pity of strangers toward me in a wheelchair was nothing compared to the ostracism I felt using a walker. But then, I joked with everyone that I was just learning “how to be old” before my time. (Seemed funny then; not so funny as we all age.)
I used the wheelchair as a walker in Stanley Park instead, because I could struggle and fume (OK, there was a lot of that!) without much attention. I could move faster too, and this was far more important than the reaction of others.
I learned a wheelchair is also a solid, safe place to rest a whinging body, and often, even more petulant mind.
Hadi and I became such fixtures around the seawall that we chatted easily with fellow walkers and cyclists. We became friends, for awhile, with another woman walking through Stanley Park for recovery from cancer. Tragically, it was only in remission.
The trials of others are lessons for our lives. It lifted our spirits to meet her friends and family — a real lift, when we didn’t know many Vancouverites and were wary of burdening our few friends there. Our walking buddy said she was lifted by meeting a couple so devoted to the recovery of one.
Other neighbors walking in Stanley Park encouraged us too. There was one elder who passed us most days on the trail (it’s divided in two, for cyclists and walkers).
Seeing that I had graduated to a cane and was struggling (“walking” would have been too generous a description), the cyclist pumped the air with his fist one day and yelled, “You go, girl!”
I’ve never forgotten his encouragement. We learned later he was the father of my ever-so-patient physiotherapist.
There’s one solid measure I can offer to show the restorative effects of Stanley Park: In hospital, I set a goal of one year to learn to walk again, unaided.
Those daily walks helped me reach that goal, one year after the Afghanistan attack. That was almost 10 years ago.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of Stanley Park’s restoration from a near-hurricane-force storm that destroyed blocks of forest and parts of our beloved seawall.
My recovery convinced me of the restorative power of nature. Stanley Park’s own recovery has been more powerful proof of that.