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The first weeks of school, I walked a tightrope, afraid of a long fall. Always a step behind, my goal was to function without crying in front of anyone. All the while, Beth set unnecessarily high standards for herself. Weak and exhausted, she didn't want anyone to push her wheelchair. She tried to get dressed and attempted zippers, buttons, and shoelaces with uncooperative hands. Her battles were physical. Mine were mental.
Nothing was easy.
Beth continued to surprise us, but not by wanting to go to her first football game in a wheelchair or her first high school dance. At the game, there was no way to access the student section, so she and her friends stayed on the track near the cheerleaders.
She didn't ask to go to any more football games that season.
For the Homecoming dance, John and I dropped Beth off at school with Maria and her friends already inside. Her shoes fell off during the transfer from the car to her chair. I put them back on and adjusted the sleeveless black dress several times, then again. An elastic strap under the dress held her knees together. She refused our help to wheel up the long sidewalk to the main entrance of the school, even though she couldn’t begin to open the heavy glass doors.
From the car, John and I watched Beth’s slow, labored ascent up the long incline, another small action of life turned into a grueling challenge. John expressed amazement at her tenacity and how easily she took the leap of faith that someone would let her in. I worried more about social aspects than physical details. At home, waiting for her phone call, I braced for a negative outcome.
How much vulnerability could she carry, as a new quad and as a new freshman at her first high school dance?
Afterwards, my youngest wheeled to the car with barely-worn shoes on her lap and her three best friends alongside. Bursting with enthusiasm, the beaming girls talked over each other nonstop. They all wore the HOPE rings; Beth never took hers off. I drove her friends home, then I asked Beth if she had danced. Silly question. She loved the new experience of dancing in her wheelchair. I had stressed needlessly. With the crisis of the moment averted, I pushed my pessimism down the road.
When Maria arrived home later that evening, she told me how her sister danced most of the night. Maria and I had shared tears over the shock of the accident, survivor’s guilt, and the cruel limits of a C6-7 injury. The night of the Homecoming dance, after Beth’s pure joy in life, we hugged and cried again.
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