Taking the First Step

The bright colors of the television danced across her pale, listless form.  Her eyelids slowly drooped downwards as the murmuring of an unknown infomercial soothed her into a drowsy state.  She let out a long exhale as the remaining dregs of tension slowly leached out of her body, and sagged bonelessly in the recliner.  The peaceful mumble of background noise suddenly cut into silence.  Her eyes snapped open, the muggy drowsiness that had flooded her mind instantly gone.  She groaned, rubbing her eyes as she hauled herself up into a vertical position on the chair.  

“What did you do that for?” she grumbled, giving an annoyed look to her father as he gently set the remote on a table beyond her reach.

“You’ve been in front of the TV for hours, Bri.  Don’t you think you should do something else now?” her dad replied.

“Like what, Dad?  What could I possibly do with these?!” she exclaimed, gesturing angrily at her legs.  A soft blanket was draped across them in an attempt to disguise how limp and heartbreakingly motionless they were.  She huffed angrily, digging a pair of earbuds from her pocket and stuffing them in her ears.  She quickly picked an aggressively angry playlist on her phone and turned up the volume as high as possible.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her dad’s expression crumple as he gave her a mournful look.  Briana sighed.  “I don’t want to talk about it, alright?  It just hurts, you know.  I just got out of college and was living my own life, but now I can’t even walk, let alone live by myself!  I hate this.  I hate this so goddamn much!”  She kept her gaze stubbornly fixed on her phone, her eyes damp with unshed tears.  She watched out of the corner of her eye as he reached out hesitantly, before pulling his hand back and slipping out the door to leave her alone to her brooding.

~ ~ ~

Briana still remembers the suffocating terror she felt when she first woke up with paralyzed legs.  Her ears were filled with a disorienting mixture of beeping machines and murmuring voices.  She remembers the shock and misery that flooded her veins as she was informed by a doctor that she had been in a car crash, and was now paralyzed from the waist down.  A hit-and-run, apparently, when she had been driving home from work.  No matter how hard she tried, all she could remember from that night were faint echoes of terror and agonizing pain.  Perhaps it was better that she couldn’t remember.

~ ~ ~

Somehow, Briana’s mom convinced her to come ride in the car with her while she ran errands.  The windows were rolled down, and Briana enjoyed the way the wind played with her hair as they drove along.  When they turned off the main road to go to the grocery store, however, the parking lot was packed and there was a car in the handicap space.  The car, idling and lacking any sort of handicap permit, was clearly not supposed to be there.  There was a young woman in the front seat, her shoes propped up on the dashboard as she tapped away at her phone with long, sharp nails.  Briana gave the oblivious woman a dirty look, before glancing back at her mom.  Her mom’s face showed fierce annoyance for a second, her fingers holding the wheel in a white-knuckled grip, before quickly covering her expression with a hasty smile.

“It’s alright, honey, we can just go to a different store.  There was something else I needed there, anyway,” she said, giving Briana’s shoulder a reassuring pat.  The car kept moving, slowly leaving the grocery store behind them.  The sharp-nailed woman obliviously continued tap-tap-tapping on her phone as they drove away.

~ ~ ~

There was a disappointing lack of notifications on her phone.  She had expected that, but it still didn’t stop her from checking every five minutes.  Or from being hurt every time she saw no new messages from her friends.  She tried not to be too mad, since most of them had been very sympathetic after the crash, but there were so many things she couldn’t do now.  There were so many outings that she now only heard about through social media posts.  There were so many pictures of her friends laughing and smiling in places that she could no longer go to, or places where the hassle of getting there wasn’t worth it.  By the time Briana had healed up enough from the crash that she could spend time with her friends, it felt like they had already moved on with their lives.  She checked her phone, envious and feeling completely, hopelessly alone.

~ ~ ~

Briana used to love hiking out in the woods behind her house every day, sometimes walking for hours on end.  Hiking was one of the things she missed most about her old life.  Before the crash, walking alone in the woods was the best way for her to clear her mind and set her thoughts in order.  Now, it was difficult to summon the energy to pull herself out of bed, let alone go out and try to live a normal life again. Briana desperately wanted to live like she had before, or at least get out of the stifling boringness of her childhood home, but fear and anxiousness ate her alive.  She didn’t want to be seen like this, she didn’t want others to see her struggle, and she knew she was often too proud to ask for help.  Even her parents’ help, although compassionate and very necessary, chafed at her dignity.  She hated it.

Eventually, Briana’s dad told her that she needed to do something, anything, different each day, and wouldn’t leave her alone until she had done so.  At first she did little things, like drawing a picture, watching birds through the window, or trying a different hair style.  They took barely any effort, but her father would always smile at her like she’d done something extraordinary.  Her mom also started encouraging her to leave the house more.  Whenever her mom had free time, she would offer to take Briana out to different places.  At first, Briana was very reluctant to go on these excursions, and at the end of every trip she felt drained and sad from seeing people walking everywhere and seeming so happy and carefree.  At the end of each trip, she swore to herself that she wouldn’t put herself through such a miserable and stressful experience again.  But she would always break that promise the next time she saw her mother’s pleadingly hopeful expression.  Slowly but surely, with her mother by her side, she started getting more and more comfortable navigating the outside world from this new perspective.

Her biggest and proudest step forward was when she felt confident enough to start going outside by herself.  She visited the park, wheeling along the paved path and petting people’s dogs as they walked by.  She visited a local café, breathing in the soothing aroma of coffee grounds and typing away on her laptop.  She visited the oldest library in town, running her hands across smooth pages and looking upwards to watch dust motes float softly through the air.  And, as the soft golden light from the window danced across her face, her lips slowly lifted in a small, content smile.


Artist’s Statement

In this creative piece, I wanted to explore the life and mindset that a person may experience if they go from having an average life to suddenly becoming disabled.  I don’t have any disabilities myself, so this was a way to put myself in someone else’s shoes to try to see how their life would be different.  The sudden shift from one identity, being an able-bodied person, to being disabled highlights the differences in how disabled people are treated by others.  Although this story is fictional, there are many people who become disabled later in life either due to injury or a worsening illness/condition, so it is important to consider how their lives and mindsets would be shaken and altered by this massive change.

I chose to write a short story because I’ve never really used this genre before, so I wanted to experiment with it.  I have read some very powerful and beautiful short stories over the years, and I wanted to try to harness that same method of conveying a story and message.  The class’s other options for this assignment, personal narrative and poetry, didn’t call to me the way that the short story did.  I don’t feel strongly enough about any of my bodily identities to write a compelling personal narrative about it, but short stories are able to showcase that same human element while also allowing the author to write about anything they could imagine.  While I would have probably enjoyed writing poetry about bodily identity, I already have some experience writing poetry and wanted to try something new.  Also, short stories allow for much greater detail and much fewer limits in the writing, and for this assignment I wanted the ability to have a more detailed look at one particular person and their experience with a new major bodily identity.

In order to more fully explore what the life of a person with paralyzed legs might be like, each scene is meant to show a different aspect of Briana’s life.  They are loosely connected snapshots to show some problems that she struggles with as well as the support she receives.  In the first couple scenes, I delve into the depression one would feel from suddenly losing the ability to walk, as well as being largely isolated while they recover from such a terrible accident.  I’m a pretty active person, and Briana was too.  Being able to walk, run, swim, bike, etc. gives me something fun to focus on and helps to clear my mind.  I would be heartbroken if I lost the ability to use my legs, and I wanted to illustrate the emotions that a person may go through after they become disabled.

In the next two scenes, I wanted to show how even when people aren’t necessarily trying to hurt someone of a specific bodily identity, their lack of respect or care is still detrimental to those people.  This is especially a problem for disabled people, since a lack of care leads to a lack of accommodations and inclusion.

In the last scene, I try to convey that with the support of others, which for Briana is her parents, those who are disabled can be happy and included in the world around them.  It is through her parents’ care and determination that she first starts going outside, and it is with their support and love that she feels comfortable enough to start reaching out and enjoying and experiencing things outside the bubble of misery that she’d made for herself in her house.  She does not let her limitations define her, but her new identity is a part of her now.  In the end, she is finally starting to accept this identity and enjoy her life as it is.

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