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The Wheelchair Ride at the Airport That Marked One of the Best Days of My Life

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Cabs letting off passengers and disgorging luggage clogged the curb at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. My friend had driven me because she doesn’t believe in taking cabs to the airport when you have someone to take you. Gotta love her.

This was my first time flying in a long, long time because I’d been very sick and mostly housebound. Now I was up and around some. Escaping my everyday world — where my limitations drew tight borders — felt exhilarating.

I managed to pull my little roll-along inside the door where I asked the first official-looking person I saw where to get the wheelchair I’d reserved. Turns out I was right next to the pick-up point.

What a treat for me to watch all the people. Business travelers in crisp attire and traveling light marched past briskly. Entire families in colorful clothes hauling huge suitcases swooshed by.

Ten, then 15, then almost 20 minutes went by. Even though I’d allowed a lot of time, I was getting nervous. I’d never felt helpless like that in public; the only way I was getting to the gate was with a chair.

Then an attendant approached out of the crowd and held my arm as I climbed aboard. She set my bag on the rack underneath, and we started rolling. This was going to be great.

All at once, though, powerful negative feelings slammed me. I found myself quelling the urge to sob. I thought I might throw up. Tears escaped from the corners of my eyes. 

I’m absolutely helpless when it comes to travel, I thought. I can’t do it without assistance.

What was going on? Of course I knew I needed help. I couldn’t walk more than a few yards, had to park right next to destinations like the grocery store, and often used a cane.

But now I felt awkward, self-conscious, angry and helpless. Why me, when everyone around me is healthy and self-sufficient?

Maybe it was sitting down while everyone else was moving along upright. I was looking at people’s belt buckles or craning my neck to see faces. And being pushed in a wheelchair by a stranger felt like such a public acknowledgment of my disabilities.

She was very kind. At security she gently slipped my shoes from my feet, put my bag and purse up on the conveyor belt, and helped me up so I could walk through the checkpoint.

Then she gathered my stuff and put me back together in the chair on the other side. It was all so overwhelming.

Flash-forward two years. I’m on the way to my son’s college graduation. Traveling once again on my own, I pack light so I can manage my suitcase.

The wheelchair attendant arrives almost immediately and flashes me a bright, friendly smile. I smile right back and slip into the chair.

Going through security, I feel relief. No way could I stand in a line without being overcome with pain and sickness. Too taxing. I’m beaming with gratitude and excitement.

The ride was fantastic. Smiling and relaxed on the long trip to what seemed to be the farthest gate, I asked her to take a photo of me in the chair. I took a selfie of us. 

What changed?

I’ve become successful at accepting help. For quite a while, I struggled through many activities alone, wasting energy I could have been saving for healing.

I came late to asking for meals, help with errands, a ride to appointments. Maybe it was pride that kept me from accepting help when offered. Maybe part of me wanted everyone to think I was fine. I hope others can open their eyes to the immense beauty of help a lot sooner than I did.

I’ll never forget that first wheelchair ride. It marked one of the worst days of my life. And one of the best. Because those turning wheels marked a turning point in how I cope with my illness. And ultimately, they set me free.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Share with us the moment, if you’ve had it, where you knew everything was going to be OK. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines. 

Originally published: May 24, 2016
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