Eye to Eye
Psychologists say that when you dream about being naked in public, it’s because you are feeling vulnerable or embarrassed. Well, three nights in a row this past week I have dreamed like that. Friday morning I woke up greatly relieved that indeed I was not going out on stage to perform with my former band members in my birthday suit.
Why was I feeling vulnerable? I’ll tell you. I was planning to go to a conference on Saturday — an all-day conference on “Christianity and the Arts” — where there would be sessions on leading worship (which I do) writing (which I do) poetry (which I do) painting, photography, etc. I would hob-nob with fellow worship leaders and writers, many of whom only see me at events like this. It’s a great chance to network, be encouraged, and fellowship with other people like myself.
Except… I’m different. I was going to the conference in my wheelchair.
I’ve only had a wheelchair for a couple of months, and I don’t use it all the time. For the last decade I’ve used a cane along with my leg braces to help me walk. But this unyielding neuropathy has been crawling slowly up my leg muscles during those years. And now, being in a crowd of people means that I may get jostled or even accidentally knocked down. (Yep, it has happened.) Besides that, I can’t get up and down out of chairs very easily anymore, and who knows how many times I would sit and stand at this conference, walk to a different room, sit, stand… You get the picture.
My beautiful friend, Tia, also signed up for the conference, and when I told her I was thinking of bringing my wheelchair, she didn’t bat an eye. “Of course,” she said, “It should fit in the back of my car, no problem.” And even though she didn’t say it, I knew she also wouldn’t mind pushing me up the ramp to the front door of the building if needed. That’s the kind of friend she is. My husband wasn’t planning to go to the conference or certainly he would have been my escort for the day, but with Tia and a couple of other dear friends there, I knew I would be okay.
Still, when we pulled into the full parking lot my heart began to flutter. This was a bigger crowd than I expected — lots of strangers who would meet me today and know me only as that woman in the wheelchair. But surely, I would also run into some of my favorite Vermont people who only see me once in a blue moon. How would they react when they saw me with my new wheels?
I put on my best smile and sat up, business-like, when a stranger held the door for us and Tia rolled me through the front door. “Good morning.” I spoke in my most professional voice to the gentleman at the reception table. He politely asked my name and then found my name tag among the other pre-printed, plastic-coated tags.
And then, the first greeting from an old acquaintance: “Suzanne!” I looked up to see a face I had not seen in years. “It’s so nice to see you!” he said. “Tell me how your writing is going.” He spoke to me as if I was standing there in patent leather heels. We had a comfortable, intelligent exchange before realizing that the opening session was about to begin, and he followed Tia and I into the main room to find a seat. Tia found a chair next to the outside aisle, so that I could roll up next to her.
I breathed a sigh of relief. He had treated me like anyone else.
An hour later, Tia and I were out in the foyer looking through our brochures and chatting about which small-group sessions we were choosing, when a familiar smile caught my eye. “Jeff!” I set the brochure down in my lap. A fellow community choir director, Jeff and I have known each other for years. We’ve often compared notes on choral ideas and attended each other’s concerts.
Jeff was walking toward me. “There’s one of my favorite people!” he beamed. And then, without hesitation, he dropped to one knee beside me — as if this was what he did with everyone. “How are things going with your choir?” he asked. We talked about pieces we were working on, how to include the message of the gospel in our song choices, and writing “Notes from the Director” in our concert programs. We chatted for a lovely five minutes, at least.
He never asked me about the wheelchair.
He had asked me about my choir, and he had knelt to converse with me eye-to-eye. That simple gesture meant the world to me.
We ended with “So good to see you.” Then he stood, and I wheeled away, encouraged and uplifted. I wasn’t just the woman in the wheelchair, as I had feared. I had been recognized for who I really was, beyond my disability, as a professional person of worth.
As the day continued, I enjoyed reconnecting with more old friends and made new ones. I was inspired to write poetry, challenged by new ideas, and brought to tears by fellow artists who read aloud or shared their gifts of music. It wasn’t a day of Me and the Wheelchair. It was a day, as titled, of Christianity and the Arts.