A few years ago, a friend of mine died unexpectedly at 39. We were volunteer board members at an independent-living center for people
with disabilities. We both used motorized wheelchairs and needed assistance with
tasks such as washing, dressing, and eating. But his disability came from a motorcycle accident 14 years earlier.
Mine is from birth, the result of a congenital neuromuscular condition. So I'm
used to being quadriplegic. He wasn't.
He would sometimes ask, with startling frankness, "How do
you do it? How do you manage?" I
never knew how to answer.
One morning my friend's attendant found him dead--with
"a smile on his face," we were told at the packed memorial service. A young minister
explained that he'd been a "free spirit trapped in an unresponsive body.
Now, that spirit is truly free." We were told he'd gone to
a place where he could walk again. His dad added, "Walk? He's probably playing basketball--in the nude!"
The words stung. Mourners
need to believe their loved one has gone to a better place. Yet what was the
message here? Death sets you free--and cures disability. Was he better off dead than disabled?
I realize I'm biased.
I've never ridden a motorcycle or done half the other physical things my friend used to love, and
had to give up after his injury. But I do know one can live a pretty full life
with a disability. Indeed, some people find life after disability
more intense, more deeply appreciated, than it was before. I've only known one way of being. But my lifelong experience
with disability has made me a creative problem-solver and, ironically perhaps, a diehard optimist--if only
because I've had to be. It's taught me a great deal about patience, tolerance and flexibility. My disability is part of who
Why couldn't my friend's family
value the disabled man he'd become? So many years after his injury, his
closest sources of comfort still couldn't fully embrace his new life.
How limited is this vision of life, and of the afterlife! Are there no
wheelchairs in heaven?
I'm not buying it.
For me, if there is a heaven, it's not a place where I'll be able to walk. It's a place where it doesn't matter if