It was Shawn’s first day of group therapy. He hadn’t wanted to go. They had lifted him from the bed into his wheelchair and he blew frantically to try to change directions. Luckily for the nurse, Shawn wasn’t very adept with controlling the chair yet, so he was able to twist the blowing mechanism out of the reach of his mouth. The nurse strapped him into the chair: a belt around his waist to keep him from falling out of the chair, a belt around his chest to keep him from falling forward, and supports for his neck, because he could hold his head up but not very well. The nurse also placed a blanket over his legs in case he got cold. Shawn’s arms were positioned in his lap, and he looked down at his hands curled up with disuse.
As the nurse pushed him to therapy, Shawn thought back to a few months ago, when he had been a normal, twenty-four year old graduate student in anthropology. He had a beautiful girlfriend, Angela, who was definitely a party girl. The two of them went to parties every weekend, got drunk, flirted with other people, then drove back to Shawn’s apartment to have sex. Then one night, Shawn had been a little too drunk. He fell asleep at the wheel and the car flipped over twice, throwing him eighty feet. When he fell, his spinal cord snapped and that was that. Angela was barely hurt.
Now Shawn would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, unable to move or feel anything below his shoulders. He couldn’t feed himself, bath himself, or even scratch his nose. Angela had visited him a few times, but the premises were quickly dropped and she explained that she wasn’t really up for a long-term relationship with a guy in a wheelchair. Big surprise.
He was in a rehab center now, getting mental and physical therapy. He’d be here for a while, then he’d stay with his parents until he felt ready to move out on his own. That would probably be a very long time. The thought of being all alone in an apartment scared him. The doctors were trying to use biofeedback on his hands, hoping he might get some motion back in one or two fingers. So far, no luck.
There were days when Shawn wanted to die. He heard about lawsuits, where people had sued to be taken off life support. Many of those people couldn’t even breathe on their own though, and Shawn could, so his case was weaker. Plus he knew his parents would fight to keep him alive, no matter what he wanted. The doctors said the best return he could hope for was motion or sensation in a few fingers, but perhaps there would be a miracle cure. Hey, you never know, right?
Shawn felt people staring at him as he was pushed along. He knew he looked odd, with his motionless hands and feet. His face was still very good looking, but the muscles in his body had turned flaccid. He was forming a bit of a gut already, and he guessed it would only get bigger.
The therapy session was run by a woman in her forties. She greeted Shawn with a wide smile. “I’m Maria,” she introduced herself. “What’s your name?”
“Shawn,” he answered in a low voice. He surveyed the circle of people. Many of them seemed to be paraplegics, who had use of their arms. Looking more carefully, he could see that he was the most handicapped person there. Not too surprising. If he were much worse, he’d be dead. He wondered if they had brought him here to make the paras feel better.
“Hi, Shawn,” Maria said. “It’s good to have you here. Would you like to tell us what happened to you?”
“No,” Shawn said.
“Well, it might make you feel better,” Maria encouraged him.
“I don’t even want to be here,” Shawn told her.
“But you’re here,” Maria said.
Shawn looked at the people around him. “You’re all so lucky. You can move your arms, at least. What can I do? I can blink and wiggle my tongue. I’m completely helpless.”
“Now that’s not true,” Maria objected. “There are lots of mechanical devises that can help you be almost completely independent.”
“Mechanical devises?” Shawn laughed. “Great. Just tell me how the fuck I’m going to get into my chair in the morning with these mechanical devises. I’d really like to see it.”
“Or maybe I can use these mechanical devises to feed me, huh?” Shawn said. “So I don’t have to open my mouth for the choo-choo like a little baby. Or maybe I can get a mechanical devise to change the tube sticking out of my dick, how about that?”
“I think that’s enough,” Maria said quietly. “Everyone has been through the same insecurities you’re having. That’s why this group is here. To show you that you’re not alone.”
“I used to be really humiliated by the catheter,” one man spoke up. He was a para with a beard. “It used to always leak and I’d piss all over myself. But I have it under control now and it isn’t so bad.”
“Yeah, but at least you can wipe up the food that dribbles down your chin when you eat,” Shawn said. He thought of this morning, and the humiliation when the nurse put a napkin to his chin to clean off the drool. “Look at me. I’m a freak.”
“That’s not true,” Maria insisted. “You still have your mind. And that’s the most important thing.”
“Sometimes I wish I didn’t have that,” Shawn muttered.
“Hire some broad to give you sponge baths,” one guy called out with a grin. Another para. “That’ll make it all worthwhile.”
Why was everyone so damn cheerful? “Great, a sponge bath,” Shawn said. “It’s not like I’ll be able to feel it. And it’ll just be frustrating to look at some girl I can’t have. I’ll never have a girl again.”
“Now you’re being silly,” Maria said. “Do you know how many men in wheelchairs get married?”
“Yeah, but not quads,” Shawn said. “Who would agree to spend the rest of their life with a guy who can’t even feed himself? Not to mention, can’t have sex.”
“Lots of women…” Maria began.
“Listen,” Shawn said. “I accept it, okay? Why do we have to dwell on this stuff? This meeting is making me sick.”
“Would you prefer to leave?” Maria challenged.
“Yes, I would.”
“Well, why don’t you?”
Shawn blinked, surprised at her answer. “Well, I can’t reach the blow controls.”
Maria reached out and twisted them so that his mouth could reach. “Now you’re free to leave, if you choose.”
Shawn lowered his mouth onto the control and inhaled to back up. Maria didn’t offer him any help, but she didn’t try to stop him either. As he continued backing up, he realized this was the first time he had maneuvered the wheelchair without a therapist present. He suddenly felt exhilarated with an independence he hadn’t felt since he had found out about his broken neck. He could do this. He could make it back to his room by himself.
He carefully turned left. Luckily, the extra-wide door to the therapy room was open. He moved forward and realized he was going to miss the door. In a series of steps, he backed up and turned slightly to be even with the door. He went forward again and realized too late that he was slightly too far left. The front of his wheelchair crashed into the wall. He tried not to be discouraged. He backed up again, turned slightly, then gave it another shot. This time he got through the door without a problem. As he passed through, he realized the whole therapy group had been watching and they let out a round of applause when he finally succeeded. Shawn grinned to himself, proud with his achievement.
The road to the elevator was not as difficult as the door. The wheelchair moved rather jerkily, but he didn’t bump into anyone. A few kids had to jump out of his way, but he was pretty good with the controls. He noticed some people staring at the curled, motionless hands in his lap, some with expressions of horror. He knew nobody here would trade places with him for anything.
By the time he reached the elevator, Shawn felt pretty good about himself. He had thought he’d never be able to get from point A to point B without assistance, but he had done it. Maybe someday he would be able to move out of his parents house. Sure, he’d need some help, but there was still plenty he could do on his own. He bet Maria was shocked he’d made it all the way out here on his own. He grinned at the thought.
Until he realized he had no means of pressing the button to call for the elevator.
The button was positioned at about the level of the arms of his wheelchair. He stared at the motionless hands in his lap, willing them to move. Move, damn you! They would not obey. If he had his stick, which they had taught him to hold in his mouth, he might have had a chance to hit the button. As it was, he had no chance. He would have to ask for help.
“Need a hand?” asked a voice from behind him.
Shawn backed up his chair. A pretty girl was standing in front of him, wearing black fishnet stockings and a tight black dress. She was wearing a lot of make-up. Shawn thought that in the old days, he could have gotten a girl like that easily. Now it was just frustrating to look at her. “Could you press the ‘up’ button?” he asked.
“No problem,” the girl said. “By the way, I’m Erica.”
“That’s nice,” Shawn said. “You really don’t need to wait for me. I think I can manage from here, believe it or not.”
Erica smiled sweetly. “Well, how are you going to press the buttons once you get into the elevator?”
Good point. He felt a sudden surge of resentment toward this beautiful, able-bodied girl. A few months ago, he would have swept her off her feet. Now he had to depend on her to get back to his room. He caught her staring at his motionless hands and his face flushed. “What are you looking at?” he demanded.
“Your hands,” Erica replied, to his surprise. He had thought she’d turn away in embarrassment. “You can’t move them or feel them at all?”
“What does it look like?” Shawn said. “You think maybe I can really walk too, but I go around in this blow chair for fun?”
“No need to be rude,” Erica said quietly. “I was just asking.”
Shawn didn’t know what to say. She was right that he was being rude, but so was she. Didn’t she know that questions about his body parts were taboo? Why would anyone be interested in a pair of lifeless hands?
The elevator arrived. Once again, Shawn misjudged his path and slammed into the wall. He was about to try again when Erica seized the handles for his chair and directed him into the waiting elevator. The people inside the elevator seemed shocked by the whole scene and Shawn noticed how they averted their eyes.
“What floor?” Erica asked.
“Five,” Shawn replied. He hesitated. “I could have managed myself.”
“I don’t have all day, you know,” she said.
People tried so hard to be positive around Shawn that Erica’s candid attitude surprised him. He let her wheel him out of the elevator. He noticed that she didn’t look at him like everyone else. That is, she didn’t try not to look at him.
“I can manage from here,” Shawn said.
“Are you sure?” Erica asked. “If you need me to open the door to your room…”
“That’s okay.” Shawn bet a million dollars that a nurse would spot him before he traveled five yards and bring him back to his room. He wanted Erica to leave, because he didn’t want her to watch him being carried into his bed, his arms and legs lying limply in his sweat suit. And he had a feeling that if she got as far as his room, she’d stick around to watch.
“By the way, I’m Erica,” she said.
“I guess you’re not into subtle hints,” Erica said with a grin. “And you’re…?”
“I’m Shawn,” he said.
“That’s a cute name,” Erica said.
A cute name. He wondered what that meant.
“Shawn, how long have you been paralyzed?” Erica asked.
Her direct questions were so jarring. How did she have the nerve to keep asking him this stuff when she barely knew him. “All my life,” Shawn answered.
He stared up at her, those cherry-red lips pressed together. “Okay, three months.”
Erica’s eyes softened suddenly. “Only three months? My god…you must really feel awful.”
Shawn felt like screaming at her, but instead his eyes just dropped down to the motionless hands in his lap. He thought he was going to cry. He hated to cry, because someone else had to wipe away the tears.
“Will you ever gain any movement back again?” Erica asked.
He didn’t answer. He knew that if he said a word, he would definitely start crying. Erica didn’t press him further. She just walked over and put a hand on his shoulder, which he could feel a little bit. Soon enough, a nurse came over and wheeled Shawn back to his room.
To be continued...