If it weren't for the angelic medical school student sitting behind me on my flight, I might never have made it out of the airport. When I arrived in New York City, no one was prepared to help me de-board with my luggage. I was abandoned in my wheelchair three times before being rushed by impatient airport attendees through customs. My late arrival in a New York taxi ended with a curbside drop-off at a hotel, with no luggage assistance for crippled me as I hobbled back into an awake and well-lighted yet indifferent city of taxis and pedestrians with no regard for a woman on crutches crossing the street.
This week I realized how heavy being can be when you are totally reliant on the charity of others.
The Pain of Leaving
I love you, America, but it's quite shocking that in the streets that brought me my temporary handicap I found infinitely better hospitality than a nation with ADA accommodations galore. The evening of my injury, my friends had to practically carry me through the streets of Rome back to our apartment. I couldn't put any weight on my right foot and had to crawl around the apartment, finding an umbrella to help offset the weight from half of my body. After spending nearly the entire Saturday in bed, I decided to take the risk of leaving.
I crawled on my hands and knees down the three flights of Italian marble stairs and through three sets of doors to the restaurant right outside in the Piazza Risorgimento. Between the pain in my foot from the fall and the pain in my heart at missing an entire day in the eternal city, I felt ridiculous to be on the verge of tears at a cafe in Rome.
Hopping on one foot from the door to my chair, I must have appeared a fright to my fellow patrons, my face and eyes so swollen from lying in bed all day that I looked like an alien. Yet neither injury nor vanity was going to keep me from appertivo hour in Rome. I covered my bed-head hair with a scarf and, having put on a layer of red lipstick and my dark Italians sunglasses, I sat down.
When a table with a better view of the piazza opened up, one of the Italian waiters noticed, offering me his arm for me as I hobbled over. This small, helpful act was one of the most significant yet small acts of charity I had experienced in my life. I thanked him, glad that my sunglasses were obscuring the tears welling up in my eyes.
The men in Italy were men of chivalry. Even before I was on crutches, I struggled to carry my suitcase up the long flights of stairs on the Roman metro. On two occasions, a man noticed and without saying a word, grabbed my suitcase and carried it for me to the top. The first man looked upset that I was attempting to carry it myself. I have never seen such intuitive responses to a woman's need in Washington, D.C. Perhaps we are too shy or too distracted to make ourselves truly available to others.
Stepping Into the Shoes
My wound in Rome was a gift from God that opened my heart to a sensitivity to others with disabilities. It is a sensitivity I may never have attained without literally stepping into the slippers, wheelchairs, and crutches of a person who cannot walk on his own. I will never again walk through the streets, especially across crosswalks, looking down at my phone. I can't tell you how many times tourists bumped into me while I was texting or taking photos. Keep your eyes open. There could be someone struggling around you at any moment, and you could be their guardian angel. Or the person who knocks them down.
Teresa of Avila once wrote: “Always think of yourself as everyone's servant; look for Christ in everyone and you will then have respect and reference for them all.” Small acts of reverence can make all the difference in the world. Take notice if someone approaches you in a wheelchair or on crutches. Offer to hold the door or help her with her luggage. Smile at a woman as she struggles down the cobblestone roads of Rome (or the sidewalks of Washington, D.C.) instead of giving her strange stares.
When my full mobility returns, I pray that I will never again take for granted the luxury of the lightness of being for people who can live either partially or entirely independent of others. I will also never cease to be amazed by the acts of Christian charity both small and large from friends and strangers on my trip who may or may not even believe in God.