The sun glared in through the window enticingly and the birds were singing. The temperature was down to a relaxing 18° and a slight morning breeze was blowing – a perfect day for Toronto citizens to engage in sport or hang around in the open air and chill. Mathew lay in bed, inside his crammed apartment, eying the sun with a bitter _expression on his face and narrowed eyes. How he hated the day! He heard the gay laughter of children somewhere in the distance and he despised it, wished he could block it all out – he didn’t want any of it.
Mathew was bitter; he had been bitter ever since the accident a couple of months ago, it was an unlucky incident that was going to shape the rest of his life and like everything else, Mathew wanted to forget as soon as possible. Yet he was plagued by reoccurring scenes – the scorching sun, the orange ball, the black pavement, the hoop, his sneakers and all of a sudden – the skateboard, the feeling of being whirled violently into the air and, last of all, the hard pavement. He woke up in the intensive care unit to a white room and his girlfriend holding his hand. He could see that she had just cried and that she was about to do it again. Then the doctor and the news – he had fallen unluckily and his spine was severed leaving him paralyzed from his waste down – paraplegic. He remembered the doctor and his girlfriend exchanging sorry glances and he felt like puking. Later he heard the two of them talk. They agreed on the fact that it’s a tragedy that such a young and handsome man will be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
These thoughts always overwhelmed him and Mathew sat up with a jolt, his eyes widening – as if the upper part of his bed had suddenly given him a brief electric shock. He rubbed his head and sighed, breathing heavily. He looked around his apartment – it was a mess- Clothes were lying everywhere and food wrappings littered the floor. His girlfriend had left him a couple of weeks ago, ever since she noticed that nothing was cheering him up, that he was sinking in bitterness and self-pity, something he had not known before. This discouraged Mathew – who declined his parents’ offer that he could move in with them – and he continued to indulge himself in his misery.
Now he was living alone, trying to master a situation he wasn’t well prepared for from the start. Nurses and rehab specialists tried to teach him how to cope with his wheelchair but his progress was always disappointing. He never accepted it, never wanted to believe the fact that he would never walk again. He would ignore what nurses told him to do, perhaps take a half-hearted attempt and fail, which got him even more depressed. He was introduced to various self-help groups and discussions but he refused to convert the misery he felt into spoken word. Instead, obscenities came pouring out of his mouth and he was soon banned from all the groups. After a couple of weeks, his healthcare team decided there was nothing to be done, at least not for the moment, and released him, hoping his parents would be able to knock him out of his negative emotions. This had not happened up to now and so a broken and miserable Mathew was left to do his own thing back in his small but wheelchair accessible apartment.
He took another glimpse out through the window and started boiling. He knew that, would he have been fully abled, he’d have stood up a long time ago, gotten into his trainers and shorts and would already be on the basketball court playing. Now it was high time to get up!
Mathew propped himself up against the wall and pulled the blanket back over his deteriorating yet beautifully formed legs. He looked down at the catheter, from the place the tube emerged from his penis to the place the tube connected to a bag that collected his urine.
“God,” he told himself. “I’m an incontinent cripple!”
He had to keep himself from a strong outburst of emotion when he said these words but when he glanced over to his wheelchair standing beside his bed the emotions got the better side of him and he reached out and shoved it violently away. It couldn’t roll away because the breaks were on but it tipped and half skidded away before it finally landed on its side. Somehow this act had calmed Mathew, and he was able to think rationally again.
“Damn, that was stupid,” he muttered.
The wheelchair was now a couple of meters from the bed and he shook his head at the thought that he would have to make his way over to it. He detached himself from the catheter and laid it on the bedside table. He was about to take hold of one of his legs and swing it to the edge of the bed when he stopped and simply looked at his legs. How he wished he could simply stand up, stand up and walk over to the wheelchair. His stare transformed into a gaze and his hands, ready to grab his legs, slumped down beside him limply. A tear rolled down his cheek and he made no effort to wipe it away. Not only did he go over the fact that he was never going to be able to walk again, he also reflected on the way he had acted towards everyone he liked, everyone he loved. They left him alone now, finally got it fixed in their brains that he did not want their help. But was this what he really wanted?
He shook his head, a symbolic physical gesture indicating he wanted to clear the thoughts from his mind. That was past. Now is what he should worry about and right now his wheelchair was lying on the ground. He decided he better get moving before morning turns into midday. He took hold of his right leg first – and placed it so his foot was touching the ground. He repeated the procedure with his left leg until he was sitting on the side of his bed. He had to crawl over to the wheelchair and heave it up so he could get into it. Mathew straightened his legs out so as to have a little room for his butt on the floor beside the bed then he heaved himself down. His athletic biceps moved under his skin sexily and the muscles on his back twitched and strained, complimenting the perfect v-shape to his back. Mathew had to be careful not to hit the floor too hardly with his butt – it was getting bony back there. When he was on the floor he twisted so he lay sideways then formed a fist with one hand and gripped it with the other and started heaving himself over to his wheelchair. Although he was very strong, it was tedious work. He moaned at the slow progress. His legs trailed behind him limply, the momentum twisting them slightly. What made it extra hard for him to crawl was the fact that his genitals were touching the floor – he slept naked.
He finally reached his chair and reached out for the wheel with one hand, wanting to tip it over but the wheels where slightly slanted and instead of tipping the right way around, all that the chair did was slide a little in his direction. Mathew moaned again, banging his fist against the ground in distemper. Propping himself up, he eyed the chair and decided to make a dive at it. He tried it with both hands and it worked – the chair was all ready for him to get into it now. He crawled to the front of it and put the footrests up. He then twisted around so that his back was facing the chair. His legs were awkwardly twisted now and he had to fix them so they were straight. He felt for the armrests with his hands and heaved himself up into the chair. It tipped forward slightly but gladly Mathew was able to transfer his weight into it before it tipped. His legs were still stretched out in front of him and he fixed them into an orderly sitting position. He bent down and set the footrests in place then lifted his legs into them.
When all was accomplished he let out a loud sigh. He played with the idea of showering but that meant more tedious work and he had enough for now. Besides he had showered yesterday night. He wheeled over to his catheter and fixed it on him. It pained him to have to do that, he felt a little like a baby that could take care of himself or better, an adult with half the body of a baby.
Upon looking around he found reasonably fresh boxers lying on the sofa together with a black turtleneck. He gathered them up, set them on his lap and wheeled over to the closet, where he found clean navy green pants. He wasn’t very good at dressing yet, he lacked the routine but he managed fairly well- Mathew threw in some nearly artistic moves while dressing and his hands almost slipped from the armrest when he was heaving his body up in order to pull the pants up from beneath him but otherwise it worked fine. He checked his watch; 9:30. It had taken him a little over 5 minutes to get dressed. Now that everything was accomplished he noticed that he was very hungry; he wasn’t eating much lately, he had never had the appetite, but now he was hungrier than ever.
He maneuvered his chair from his bedroom over to the kitchen (which was just next door) and opened the fridge. He groaned when he saw frozen remnants of a pizza he had eaten a couple of days ago, some cheese that was on the verge of getting moldy and half a pepperoni - he would have to go shopping. Before the accident he would always shop in the little store down the road but it was not wheelchair accessible so he had to settle for the giant chain-one two streets down. He slammed the freezer door shut and wheeled to the front door. He grabbed his purse from the shelf next to the door and off he went.
While waiting for the elevator his misery came over him again. He stared down the flight of stairs; no more than about 15 of them. He could see the open door to the street. The elevator was right at the top of the building and it was slow so he had to wait. He would have been out of the building in nothing flat, before he had the accident. He pictured himself hopping down the stairs, out the front door, humming a sweet tune. None of it anymore. The fact that everything he looked at reminded him of how things used to be got him frustrated. Finally the elevator came to his floor and stopped. He positioned his wheelchair so that it was parallel to the elevator door – this was so that it wouldn’t roll when he pulled – and opened the door.
An old lady was in the elevator and when she saw him she held the door open for him and made space. Mathew mumbled a “thank you”. Although he didn’t know the lady he knew that she must be the person who moved in a floor above him. Normally Mathew would have greeted his new neighbour but this wasn’t “normally”, this was cripple time. He didn’t care for much nowadays and if there’s something he cared least about it would be his new neighbour. He glanced up at her. She had thick white hair and a thin neck that looked younger than she was. She was wearing a red pullover and she held a purse in hands. She smiled down at him sweetly. She looked cheerful and her smile invited Mathew to smile back but instead he turned to look at the wall, staring absently. He didn’t want to smile.
“So you’re the man who lives in the first floor apartment,” she said. Her voice was merry, exactly as cheerful as she looked.
Mathew looked back up at her, surprised she was talking to him after his rude behaviour. “Yes,” he told her bluntly.
She was still smiling gorgeously and Mathew had to try very hard not to smile. Why should he smile? He had suffered a great loss. Should he be happy? He didn’t want to reflect on this further. The elevator arrived on the ground floor and the lady, quick and gracious in her steps, squeezed past the chair and opened the door for him. “Thank you,” Mathew said, managing a thin, forced smile up at the lady.
“It’s a beautiful day today,” the lady said when they arrived outside.
Mathew nodded. He hated it. Days like this, days so obviously perfect for a good game of bball reminded him more than ever of the fact that he was disabled. “Going left?” the lady asked him and Mathew nodded again. “Mind if I accompany you until our ways split?” she asked him, beaming down at him.
Mathew figured she must be desperate for somebody to talk to. In fact, he didn’t mind her accompanying him, she might be able to cheer him up a little. Although his self-pitying self didn’t want company, wanted to brood over the tragedy alone, his conscience told him he needed someone to talk to. This time his conscience got the better of him. “Sure, I could use a little company” he told her, smiling up at her and this time, looking a little more sincere about it.
The old lady was pleased at his change in behaviour for the better. She had heard about Mathew from the other neighbours. They had told her he used to be cheerful and friendly, humorous and charming, that he had possessed a genuine lust for life that made his mood contagious. They told her that after his accident a couple of months ago he had changed completely, that he had driven all of his friends and even his family away with his bitter, cynical and self-pitying behaviour. Upon hearing this she had wanted to pay him a visit and try to cheer him up but all the other neighbours warned her. They had tried to be friendly and had gotten insolent remarks in return. She decided that talking about something, anything may cheer him up a little. She decided to pretend to want somebody to talk to, although this was by far not the case – she had many friends who she came to visit often and she was quite happy. But she figured that’s what Mathew must be thinking and besides it made talking easier. “I’m always glad when I have a reason to get out of the house” she started, eyeing Mathew who was wheeling alongside her. “I’m going shopping.”
Mathew nodded. “I am too” he told her, looking straight ahead.
Mathew hesitated. “K-mart,” he answered with a frown.
She shook her head. “I don’t like those big chains. I prefer the smaller, more sincere ones. I support them although that won’t stop them from dying out I’m afraid.”
Mathew stopped for a second and looked up at her, nodding. She was glad she had got his attention, she was hoping to strike up a good conversation with him. “I prefer little shops too, I hate giant supermarkets. I used to shop at the ‘corner shop store’”
“Why did you stop?”
Mathew gestured at his wheelchair. “It’s not accessible”
The old lady nodded solemnly. Then, all of a sudden she brightened up again. “I was about to go there to do my shopping and I think it’s about time you started doing that too.” She could see Mathew frowning in frustration.
“I told you, it’s not…”
“Nonsense!” she interrupted. “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Mathew didn’t quite know what that meant and before he could question it the lady had already grabbed the handles of his wheelchair and was pushing him along. Mathew was dazzled. He was amazed by the old lady’s spunk - he wouldn’t have expected it and somehow, he liked it. He couldn’t help but smile now. “Where are you taking me?”
“Shopping,” the old lady answered, speeding up her pace. “I hope you don’t mind but I’d hate to see you shove money up the evil guys asses, which you would be doing if you when to K-mart by the way”. Mathew laughed at her colourful way of talking. He was beginning to like this woman. It was refreshing to talk to someone who’s face didn’t cringe in pity and who’s vocabulary didn’t seem to consist only of the words ‘hope’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘help’ when around him. It just then occurred to him that he didn’t even know her name yet.
“I’m Shelly, in case you’re wondering,” she told him, as if reading his mind.
“In fact,” Matthew told her, beaming, “I was just about to ask you for your name. Mine’s Mathew.”
“Right, Mathew” Shelly said, maneuvering his wheelchair into a little side street “We’re almost here.”
Mathew could see the “little corner shop” sign coming up ahead of him and nostalgia overcame him. He expected to feel bad – too many memories where attached – but he found himself feeling good – great to be specific. It was good to see the little shop again, he was glad it still existed. Countless times had he come to that shop – he was an outright regular there. Shelly wheeled him to the entrance. The door stood open – it was just broad enough for his wheelchair to fit through. He could see Martha – the lady at the counter. She was counting money and looking a little concerned. When she heard someone entering she looked up. Upon recognising Mathew her face broke out into a large smile. He could see that she was shocked to see him in a wheelchair but she hid it well.
“Mathew!” Martha exclaimed, getting up and opening the flap door of the counter. She came up to them, shook Shelly’s hand and ran through Mathew’s hair playfully. It just then occurred to Mathew that they used to have a very good relationship - sometimes he would come in to buy some milk and would end up sitting down with Martha and talking for hours. He wondered why it had never occurred to him to invite her.
“Long time no see,” he told her, smiling.
He could see that she was staring at the wheelchair. She had a bewildered , almost sad look on her face and it seemed like it had just occurred to him that he was actually in a wheelchair, as if she hadn’t noticed when he had come in. “What happened?” she asked him, looking very concerned and touching his shoulder.
“It happened when I was playing basketball, I didn’t see a skateboard blocking my way and slipped.”
Martha cringed. “Ouch” she told him.
“It hurt,” Mathew agreed.
Martha looked up at Shelly, who was still standing in the entrance of the store and beckoned for her to take a seat on one of the couple of chairs that were standing next to the counter. “Make yourself at home” she told her, smiling. “Mathew’s a good friend of mine,” she added, like she needed to explain their conversation. Shelly nodded sweetly and sat down, looking around the shop as if deciding what to buy.
Martha turned back to Mathew. “Must have been a bad slip,” she told him, running a hand along the sides of his wheelchair. “So for how long are you bound to this thing?” she inquired.
“Forever,” he told her, without show of emotion. He wanted to bring it across to her in a nicer way but he couldn’t think of anything to sweeten up the bitter truth. Martha jerked up, alarmed. A couple of seconds silence followed. It was like she was processing the information and running it over and over in her brain as if she was looking for something she had missed but there was nothing to miss. “Forever”, although a relative term, couldn’t have hit the nail more on the point.
“My God,” she uttered. She looked down at Mathew, who was looking up at her sincerely, studying her reaction. “My God, Mathew…” she started. “I had no idea!”
Mathew shook his head slightly. “Don’t worry yourself,” he told her. Mathew looked around the shop, nostalgia taking over completely. “Forgive me for not coming earlier,” he told her. “I should have done so”.
Martha shook her head indicating that there’s no need to apologise. Immediately she set about moving a little stand displaying rice away, allowing Mathew to wheel himself further into the shop. “It’s my turn to apologise,” Martha said. “It never occurred to me that the shop isn’t wheelchair-accessible.” She turned to Mathew and smiled sincerely. “It will be from now on,” she told him, eyeing the broad shelves and the narrow lanes critically. “Even if that means getting new shelves and setting the products lower.”
Mathew smiled up at her. “Thank you,” he told her. He couldn’t quite explain the sensation that was taking over him. He felt like he no longer needed to hide.
Martha looked down at him, smiling too. “For what?” she asked him.
“Just for being here,” he told her. “For making me welcome.”
Martha shook her head again and ruffled through Mathew’s hair. “That’s the least I can do”.
“My sister’s good at working with wood, she’ll make you suitable shelves for this store in nothing flat, at no cost to you.”
Martha looked down at Mathew in surprise, she looked happy but she was still considering. “At no cost? Boy… I can’t accept it!”
“Course you can,” he told her. “I like to do my friends a favour,” he exclaimed. “That would be the first time in a long time I’m doing someone a favour,” he mumbled to himself, disgusted at his past attitude.
He could see Martha beaming. “You’re here to shop?” she told him and he nodded. “Until it’s all accessible you’ll have to make do with telling me what you want, I’m afraid,” she said.
“No problem, I can stand the service,” Mathew joked and started telling her what exactly he needed.
“This might sound strange to you,” Mathew told Shelly when they were out on the street again, “but I’ve never felt so content in a long time.” Shelly smiled.
“I’m glad you feel that way… it seems like you’ve been cut off from the social life for quite a long time now, it’s time you started integration.”
Mathew felt like he couldn’t agree more. “Time I give my life a little more sense again,” he told her.
“My granddaughter is coming over from Montreal to stay with me for a couple of weeks, I think you would enjoy hanging out together,” she said, guessing at Mathew’s single life.
For Mathew, all of this sounded too good to be true, he was a little worried. He hadn’t really been together with a girl since he had the accident, he didn’t know if he was going to manage to be casual, hell, he didn’t even know if he could get it up, he hadn’t tried. “I wonder if your granddaughter will want to hang out with a cripple”
“Nonsense,” Shelly argued. “She’ll like you a lot and will you stop discriminating yourself by your use of vocabulary!”
Mathew had to smile at that. “If you’re granddaughter is as cool as you, I’m a happy man.”
“She’s a terribly cool girl,” Shelly agreed. “And now I’m taking you for a ride in the park, I’m not going to get you home so you can wither away in your apartment!”
Mathew had a feeling that this was going to be a great day.
to be continued.....