One week remained in my first year of teaching at Baltimore City College High School. Unlike my gullible 6th graders at Morrell Park, my sophomores knew that my gradebook was closed, so planning a structured and scintillating lesson on the United States Government was about as lucrative as the crunches I once thought would give me washboard abs. Instead of agonizing over lesson ideas, or grading work that I had no intention of recording, I threw a few student-written current event summaries into the recycling bin and drove to Frederick, MD with Jim for the weekend. We originally planned to camp, but opted for the Travel Lodge instead, and substituted a Friday night canoe trip for a minor league baseball game. If my memory serves correctly, the Frederick Keys (Baltimore's minor league team) were playing the Nationals. By the fifth inning, the score was still 0 to 0 and my attention started to wane. That's the problem with baseball: there are too many innings and not enough action. I like hockey or lacrosse games and (even though I'm biased) a good fast-moving track meet. Baseball is only one small step above picking the lint out of my dryer vent, so I don't buy season tickets.
On this particular evening, though, I went to a game. I also, for whatever reason, went with a moderate level of enthusiasm (which had something to do with Jim). I drank an overpriced beer and watched the people around me. I tried to concentrate on the first few innings of the game and learned that the letters KKK stand for more than a white supremacist organization founded in 1865, they also represent strike-outs (I was relieved to learn this, but still confused about the absence of African Americans in Frederick, Maryland). Then I lost my focus again and had to pee.
Jim was engrossed in the game and I had my wheelchair, so I wheeled away without discussion. I got about three feet from the bathroom when I passed a girl and her mother. As the girl was approximately six years-old (and thus at eye level), I smiled - I like to convince small children that people in wheelchairs are normal and nice. In this particular instance, it must have worked; rather than gape or walk by me (her mother was literally dragging her back to their seats), she stopped, pulled her mother to a halt, and looked me straight in the eye.
"Hi." I addressed her as non-threateningly as possible so as to avoid having my wheelchair tires slashed by her mother. The girl had thick glasses and stringy blonde hair all attached to a beautiful rosy-cheeked face.
She was literally pulling against her mother at this point, but I could tell she wanted to talk.
"Umm, why do you use that, that wheelchair?" She sort of pointed at my chair and then put the majority of her left hand into her mouth.
Like I said, she was six, right - she obviously had no concept of nerves or myelin or autoimmune diseases that compromise a person's functionality, so I rejected even a cursory explanation of multiple sclerosis, and summed it up like this:
"Do you ever get colds?" (She nodded) "Well when I was 19 years old, I got a cold in my legs. Only my cold won't go away. And just like your nose doesn't work really well when you have a cold, my legs haven't really worked well since. So my wheelchair helps me get places..."
Her mom stopped pulling her and let her listen, and right as I finished my blatantly inaccurate explanation of my neurological disease, the little girl put her hand on my shoulder:
"That happened to you?" (Now I nodded while her eyes got very serious.) "Well I'm really sorry to hear about that."
Then she walked away. I went to the bathroom and started crying. This little girl still makes me cry, in fact, and I don't even know her name. For whatever reason, when she spoke I felt every disdainful look I've ever received in grocery stores/parking lots/malls/restaurants/churches/pretty much everywhere I've ever tried to go, all come back at once. I remembered bouncers turning me away from bars because they assumed I was drunk, the note I found on the floor of my classroom that referred to me as a "crippled bitch", and Darryl, a kid on the track team that I'd coached, who'd imitated my walk. All at once, I felt the memories of eight years worth of shame and preemptive explanations or apologies on behalf of a disease I never asked for, all land straight on my sternum in the form of 18 cinderblocks. So I couldn't breathe evenly for a few minutes (cinderblocks are heavy) and I started to question why it is that small children are so real and honest and pure, while adults are awkward and scared and meek. I started imagining the past eight years of my life if people just asked me what was wrong, said it sucked and moved on, instead of whispering things and treating me like a three-armed circus freak that earns averted looks, blatant stares or pity. I decided the 18 cinderblocks would have felt far less heavy.
So I cried.
Jim thought I'd injured myself in the bathroom (which is, sadly, highly possible). But I don't cry when I'm hurt, or even when I'm sad. I cry when someone acknowledges that concrete blocks are heavy, and that MS (or a "cold" in my legs) does suck. I cried then because a six-year-old, with genuine concern, and innocent inquiry, validated two things: what I felt on behalf of a debilitating disease, and what I want from the people around me. Neither of which I know how to get, and both of which I think I need.
The Keys won that night, but I don't remember the score. I do know, though, that if baseball were more interesting than dryer lint, I never would have gone to the bathroom in the middle of an(other non-scoring) inning. I would have spent one more day with the cinderblocks that I try to forget about, instead of remembering, and receiving, what I need.