Shortly after we returned from New York City, I got a notice from the Michigan Secretary of State’s office that I needed to renew my driver’s license. “That’s funny,” I said to myself. “Why didn’t we get a notice for Priscilla’s license earlier in the year?” I looked into this a bit and discovered that they hadn’t sent her a renewal because she had a permanent handicapped placard. As a result, she’d done half the driving to New York and much of the way back with an expired license. Oops.
In order to renew her license, Priscilla would need to show that she didn’t have a condition that would make it unsafe for her to drive. At this point that would mean learning hand controls. This would require a doctor’s prescription, special driver’s education, and either the modification of our car or the purchase of an already-equipped one. All of this, people who’d done it themselves were saying online, would cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars, and take at least a year’s time. By then, we were pretty sure, Priscilla wouldn’t be able to drive with her hands, either. We concluded, reluctantly, that the disease might have just taken something away, despite our best efforts not to give anything away.
A few days later, as Priscilla was lifting a large skillet off the stove to put the leftovers in the refrigerator, her legs collapsed under her from the weight. Her shrieks brought me running from the other end of the house. I was able to lift her into the regular wheelchair we’d gotten a few weeks before and use it to get her into bed to recuperate. But she kept asking me, with great animation, “Why did you put the skillet back on the stove?” I explained that I had to get its weight off her, and I couldn’t have opened the fridge to put it in there because she was on the floor in front of the door. But she was still upset, and we finally figured out why. The short distance she had been able to move the skillet towards the fridge represented an achievement, but I’d undone it by moving the skillet backwards. Disempowerment comes in many forms.
That weekend we attended an art show where a new friend was displaying her watercolors. It unexpectedly began to rain. The paintings were under a canvas awning that had sides, but even so the wind was gusting, the sides were flapping, and rain was getting in. You definitely don’t want rain on your watercolors. They become abstract art in a hurry. A couple of family members were also present and we all rushed to protect the paintings. Priscilla, a watercolorist herself, joined her friend in directing us how best to put them away safely. In the end none of the artwork suffered any damage. “It’s a good thing you were all here,” the artist told us. “Maybe I can still do something,” Priscilla said to me afterwards.
Though she could no longer drive a car, there were other vehicles she could drive. Earlier she’d been using shopping carts as a sort of walker when we went to the grocery store, but lately this had become too tiring, so she’d moved into electric “mart carts.” She was actually pretty experienced with these already. About a dozen years before she’d needed to use them while recovering from a badly broken leg and ankle that she suffered in a car accident. It dawned on me that the accident had been a sort of “dress rehearsal” for some of the other challenges we were presently facing as well, including sorting out vast and complex medical bills. (The only difference was that after the accident, Priscilla got better and better, while now she was getting worse and worse. But we were still grateful for any experiences that made us better equipped.)
About a week after the watercolor episode, we went shopping at a discount store. Priscilla gratefully used one of their mart carts to get from department to department. She wanted to visit the beauty store next door, but knew they weren’t set up with carts. Not a problem. “I promise I’ll bring it right back” she called out as she drove her cart right out the door of the first store (as she would have done anyway to get to our car in the parking lot), turned left down the sidewalk to the next store, and drove in their door as I held it open for her. I had to slide some tables and displays out of the way so she could negotiate the narrow aisles, but she found what she was looking for and drove with satisfaction up to the cash register, to the astonishment and admiration of the sales clerks.
Empowerment comes in many forms, too.