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When I Struggled to Admit I Needed a Disability Parking Permit

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It’s an epiphany when you realize for the first time that the white stick-figure on a disability parking sign is you. That’s you. Now you may park in that fat sirloin of a spot. Now you are “the disabled.”

This leap to disabledhood is as much a mental process as a physical one. And I fought the knowledge, down the line, tooth and nail. I always do, with every new adaptation or assistive device, fight, fight, fight. It sounds courageous, but it’s really ridiculous. I have a thick head.

I can’t remember the moment I resolved to pick up the disability parking permit application. It must have been some watershed event, perhaps my 3,000th fall, the one that rattles your very teeth. Falling itself was no big deal, and I might do it a dozen times in a day. After a while, my body looked like Keith Richards’ after a bender, but big deal, you dust yourself off and get back in the game. But maybe that 3,000th time was the one to slosh my brain in its comfy bath of cerebrospinal fluid: Wake up, you green-gray piece of fat!

I used a walker then. I would go to the grocer for a few items, forgetting half of them by the time I reached the aisles. No browsing, no price-shopping, just in and out, wobbling at the checkout while fishing for money, and dragging my Frankenstein feet out again to the parking lot, cars politely navigating around me — although the occasional Einstein would honk, not that I could turn around to see him, much less flick him off.

As my legs exhausted themselves, each step became smaller, until my energy was expended and my limbs locked like jointless boards due to muscle tone. In the middle of the asphalt, I stood stock still, resting.

To make life easier, the walker had wheels on the front legs, so I could push it along instead of lifting and planting it with every step. However, once fatigued, I lost the strength to hold the walker in place, and the wheels assumed a more insidious role, creeping forward slowly. As they gained momentum, I thought, no, no, this can’t be happening. Unable to lift my feet, my upright posture would deteriorate into a wider and wider triangle as the walker rolled further away from me. As my angle increased, I could hear Carly Simon singing “Anticipation.” I couldn’t let go to break my fall, so I would take a deep breath and bail, turning my face as best I could, because I don’t need to be any uglier.

On the way down, I’d think: That Chef Boyardee in the bag had better be worth it!

This happened once on a frigid winter’s night, on a solid sheet of ice. I straggled toward my car, up the slight incline of the drainage built into a bar’s parking lot. I rested, talking with my patiently shivering friend, while we waited for my legs to unlock.

I detected motion. I was sliding backward atop the ice, in the direction of the drain. I was unable to move or resist; like a Gemini astronaut, I was only along for the ride. Now I knew what it felt like to be one of those electric football players, frozen in one pose, vibrating along at an improbable trajectory unrelated to the direction of my face.

My comrade circled nervously around me. “Hey, Tin Woodsman, what do I do?”

I picked up speed. “AAAA-AAAH!”

Jim dug in behind me and attempted to check my movement with a full-body push, but he just scraped along backward until he wasn’t even pushing any longer, just trying to brace against my inexorable onslaught to save his own hide. We were a runaway train, and I was taking him down with me.

That’s when I started laughing.

Convulsive laughter generally defeats body tone. In the next instant, we were a giggling heap of metal and man sprawled on the dark ice. In leather dress shoes, we were stranded on that slick parking lot for a long time. For the life of me, I don’t remember how we ever got up.

Lucky were the times when there was a friend around and frictionless ice to fall upon. More often, it would occur on a sidewalk or street or crosswalk, and hopefully, one or more concerned onlookers would drag me out of danger and stuff me in my car. After I’d rebuffed their umpteenth offer for medical help, I would fall asleep on the front seat, sometimes for over an hour, sometimes with the engine running.

Somewhere in there was magic No. 3,000, the one that knocked some sense in my noggin, the one that made my broken capillaries howl, “Get the blue sign, already.”

Until then, I was more concerned about “cool.” I soon learned that crossing that thin blue sign was much easier, much better than being cool.

Getty image by Lea613.

Originally published: December 17, 2020
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