It was about 10 p.m. on a weeknight, at the arts center in my town, and it’d been a big night for me. Just moments earlier, the final guests had left my very first book launch party, and I was preparing to head home with my family. The event had been lovely, thanks in large part to my husband—who’d helped with much of the planning—and the many friends and family members who’d come by to wish me well.
Everyone was tired, though, and we were trying to clean up the space and get the car loaded as fast as possible so we could get home to bed. But when I went to pack the serving dishes, I realized that a few of them needed a quick washing. So I grabbed them and hurried down the hall to the women’s bathroom.
Now the local arts center is a busy place. It contains many rooms, and it’s used for all types of art-related activities on a daily—and nightly—basis. Throughout the evening, I’d seen plenty of people coming and going around the building, so I wasn’t at all surprised when I reached the ladies room and found a man attempting to push a woman in a wheelchair through the door. Of course, I held the door open and followed the two of them into the multi-stall restroom. “OK?” said the man to the woman, who appeared to be about sixty years old. She nodded and he exited.
It seemed to me that the woman had the situation under control. After all, the man had left her there quite confidently. So I opened the door to the handicapped stall for her, expecting her to wheel herself in.
“Would you push me?” she asked. I noticed that her speech was slurred and she seemed to suffer from some sort of muscular disorder.
“Oh sure,” I said, laying my dirty dishes on one of the sinks. A bit of guilt crept into my exhilarated brain. I mean, there I was: an agile, healthy woman, who’d spent the better part of the week stressing out about a book launch—would I forget something important? would I say something stupid?—but all of that suddenly seemed so trivial when looked into the face of the disabled woman. Gripping the wheelchair’s handles, I pushed her into the stall and over by the toilet. Then, assuming she could take it from there—and also assuming that she’d want some privacy—I said something like, “There you go,” and exited the stall, closing the door behind me.
But just as I turned on the water to wash my dishes, the woman called to me. “Ma’am,” she said, “could you help me in here? Please?”
Now I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve never helped a stranger use a toilet. In fact, the last time I’d helped anyone use a toilet was when I’d potty-trained my kids. If you’re a nurse or healthcare worker, you’re probably shaking your head in disbelief, but that’s the truth. And I was a little frightened. I wasn’t sure what to expect. “Oh sure,” I answered.
When I went back into the stall, I saw that the woman was still seated in the wheelchair, facing the toilet and looking distressed. “You’re having trouble getting out of the seat?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with a sigh.
I took her arms and helped her get on the toilet, then looked away, feeling very self-conscious as she peed. “Do you…do you still need help?” I asked. I was pretty sure she did, but also felt like I was really violating her privacy.
“Yes, please,” she said as she wiped. “This is so frustrating. I can’t do anything for myself any more.”
I nodded, trying to wrap my head around the unfairness of her situation. This lovely woman: why did she have to suffer like this? “I’m so sorry,” I muttered, the words sounding useless and lame.
She ignored that. “I need to get back in there now,” she said, pointing to the wheelchair. She pushed herself up off the toilet seat with all her strength and I grabbed her arm again, trying to keep her balanced. “Should I pull up your pants?” I asked.
So I did. Then, together, we got her settled in her chair again. Silently, I wheeled her out of the stall and over to the sink where she washed her hands and dried them. Then I brought her back out into the hallway, where the man was waiting.
“Thank you,” she said, as the man pushed her away. The expression on her face was calm and serene. She looked dignified, strong, and beautiful.
Knowing my husband and family were waiting in the other room—and probably wondering what the hell had happened to me—I ran back to the sink and finished washing the dishes. But my whole perspective on the evening had changed. No longer was I thinking about the book reading, and how well it’d gone.
All the way home, as my family chatted about the party, I thought about the woman’s courage. After all, she hadn’t been at a hospital or the grocery store. She’d been at the local arts center. In other words, she’d gone out that night, not because of some necessity, but because of some cultural event or activity that was important to her. Perhaps she was taking a painting class, or had gone to view some sculptures in one of the galleries.
And of course, when she realized she was going to have trouble with the toilet, she could have chosen not to use it. In which case, she probably would have been uncomfortable, and may even have wet herself. Instead, though, she’d spoken up. She’d seen a person capable of assisting her, and had asked for help. I got the sense that I wasn’t the first woman she’d enlisted. And that can’t be easy—asking people to help with what is generally considered a very personal task.
In the end, then, I came away from my first book launch with so much more than I’d expected. After witnessing firsthand how difficult it can be for someone in a wheelchair to deal with basic human needs in public, I have a whole new respect for the handicapped and the obstacles they face every day. I also realize more than ever the importance of the arts in all of our lives. After all, it would’ve been so much easier for the woman to have stayed at home that night, but she’d gone out instead—knowing her limitations—because of some art event that she’d wanted to experience.
Finally, I developed a true respect for that particular woman. She demonstrated—in a graceful, dignified manner—how connected we humans really are, and how beneficial it can be sometimes to put aside our modesty and reach out to other people. If I’m ever in her situation, I hope I’ll have her courage. May she stay safe, and keep getting the most out of life.