I am Fine by Cindy Lee

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

    They must think I’m hollow, emptied daily of self-dignity and rebuilt gratefully receiving whatever scraps of humanity I’m given. This sounds melodramatic, even to me when I am in my blackest mood. But I recognize that I have a reason finding myself in a black cloud.
    Every day I call public transit for a ride to work. It’s a nice and appreciated service, but like any charity, it has limits (forget that ADA requires reasonable accommodations and that I pay three times more than regular bus passengers). Every day I’m placed on hold fifteen to twenty minutes. A recording interrupts the silence every thirty seconds with the following security blanket assuring me I’m still on hold: “Your call is important to us, please stay on the line.”
    Seeking sanity, I place the message on speakerphone continuing to work. People entering my office receive the following canned explanation: “I’m on terminal hold. If I interrupt our conversation answering the operator, don’t take it personally.”
    “Your call is important to us, please stay on the line.”
    The operators really dislike speakerphones, but there are perks with delivered annoyance. The operators said my speakerphone sounded like I was in a tunnel. The secretary in charge of the phone system got me a better phone. Now the operators are just annoyed.
    You find perks where you can.
    At my old apartment, I traveled in my electric wheelchair a block to a mini strip mall—escaping the house. You can haul numerous shopping bags and balance larger items on your lap when you’re on a mission. My best accomplishment, so far, was balancing for a block, a box of twelve glass bottles of beer, an apple pie (on top of the beer box), and two large cans of baked beans. The sidewalk was broken and traffic a little heavy being July 3rd.
    The beer lasted a year (there weren’t six packs of that brand), the pie took two of us a weekend to eat and Mom complained I spent too much on the baked beans. Accomplishments are sometimes short lived.
    On a similar outing to the same grocery store, I went in search of a specific refrigerated creamer. Now I give the store credit, when the handicapped/wheelchair accessible security gate broke, it only took a week to repair after other shoppers complained. (I think they complained that I almost hit them making a running start at the common security gate; it required extra pressure to open.) Before I found the creamer, I spied offensive Martha Stewart pre-packaged tapioca pudding cups. Sure, homemade tapioca pudding tastes better, but it would be pretty difficult cooking alone; my normal cooking assistant wasn’t interested in the project and I didn’t want to eat it three days straight.
    The tapioca pudding cups were what I call a height challenge. I could only reach them if I used my arms pulling my body up-right grabbing the object (SPOILER ALERT: innocent by-standers get nervous when I do this) or use the knock down method. A long object nudges the non-breakable container where I can retrieve it. I could only reach the pudding cups if I pushed the bottom of the container off the hook it hung from. I did. The container landed on the floor and I started picking it up extending my right arm over the arm rest. (You never pick items off the floor leaning over the front of the wheelchair unless your trunk feels particularly strong; god forbid you lean too far forward and get ahead of yourself. You also need seat-belted or chances are, you’ll fall out of the chair.) But I stopped, realizing my right arm would be too close to the joystick controlling the electric wheelchair. I turned the wheelchair around 180 degrees, picking the container up with my left hand. When I looked straight ahead of me, I saw two stock boys at the front of the aisle watching. “You know,” I said in their general direction as I retrieved the container off the floor, “you could have offered to help.”
    “We were curious how you were going to do it,” their leader offered.
    “Well now you know. Where there’s a will there’s…”
    “… a way,” the second boy finished. I nodded in agreement and went in search of a rice mix.
    And sometimes I just ask for help. Getting back to the creamer, low and behold there was just such a helper in the adjacent dairy case. I made my request nicely, “Ma’am, would you get a pint of the pumpkin coffee creamer off the top shelf for me?” She did, but when she held it out for me she looked me straight in the eye and stated matter-of-factly, “You know if you can’t be self-sufficient maybe you shouldn’t go out alone, asking for help.” I didn’t bat an eyelash when I looked straight back at her and stated, “Hopefully, Ma’am you’ll never need the assistance of a lawyer, you know self-sufficiency and all. Sorry I’m not carrying my business card.”
    In law school you’re definitely taught two things: its law school not lawyer school and you either have tact or you develop it, quickly. I think I fell in the latter category of the second lesson. The lady, in her late fifties, jaw noticeable dropped. Her friend, standing behind her and out of ‘the helper’s’ eyesight, pumped her fist in the air a wide smile splitting her face.
    While a lack of tact may be my shortcoming, a lack of self-esteem is not. I attended night law school, a female professional seeking training in a traditional male dominated field and the first female in my family graduating with neither a teaching nor a nursing degree.
    I high-tailed my purchases to check out, I wasn’t embarrassed but loathed future possible conflict. The checkout clerk helped me bag the groceries and praised my comment—word traveled fast. “I didn’t know you were a lawyer,” she said sheepishly.
    “Nothing heavy; just contracts, wills and such,” I grabbed the bags before the creamer lady checked out.

    One very nice thing about riding the public bus is the different people you meet. I rarely ride the bus with the same people but when I do I catch up on recent events or continue life stories. Like the woman whom I refer to as The Transportation Director. She has lived in a lot of places and knows many people from the bus, having riders/friends’ phone numbers preprogrammed in her cell phone. She calls them before the bus arrives so the rider is ready, waiting for the bus.
    The Friday before Martin Luther King Day, after we compared notes on who had a three-day weekend, she talked about the outreach her church did when she lived down south.
    Local merchants donated surplus goods (instead of having basement sales) for distribution to the needy. She told how everyone worked together, helping each other. If there was a single mother cleaning at night, someone took in her children so they weren’t alone—did it if they were older teenagers or babies. And Reverend Martin would stop by the church to pep everyone up and remind the volunteers of ‘The Cause’. ‘The Cause’ was why The Transportation Director was asked not to use her new married name—she was told “all the supporters know you by your maiden name.” She was a pretty young thing and ‘The Cause’ didn’t need hampered by men’s egos being checked by her new Mrs. title.
    Another gentleman, The Transportation Director, often rode with she called Reverend. He was an older, well-dressed blind gentleman who made nice with every woman he met. He asked me if I thought he was a womanizer. I told him, “No, sir, just a flirt.”
    “Well, what’s the difference?”
    Without hesitation I told him “the deed.” Both the bus driver and The Transportation Director thought this was funny, they both silently snickered. Fortunately Reverend wasn’t offended he went on to tell me he thought I had a pretty smile. “I can just hear it,” he explained.
    A couple of stops later Reverend escorted another blind lady off the bus to their office’s main door. Usually the bus driver goes with every individual and the driver in training got up to lead them but was shooed off task by the trainer.
    “Reverend will do it,” the bus driver explained.
    The trainee whined, “It just doesn’t seem right.” I thought it odd that she wouldn’t say why.
    The bus driver reassured her, “Reverend does it every day.” And then I thought it humorous that the bus driver wouldn’t acknowledge why it ‘wasn’t right’.
    While the bus driver and trainee squabbled, Reverend led the blind lady to a wall not the door. It wasn’t disastrous—Reverend’s cane touched the wall before they walked into it. The woman shook off Reverend’s arm, unfolded her own white cane and went left, six feet, towards the door. Reverend turned around shrugging at us, like a foolish young boy caught in the act, and followed behind the woman’s tapping cane.
    I asked The Transportation Director later how Reverend got his nickname, was he a minister? The Transportation Director explained that Reverend had an opinion and philosophized about everything so she started calling him a Doctor of Philosophy—Reverend. His personal belief was that when he died and St. Peter asked why he should be admitted through the pearly gates, he’d reply, “I tried to help a lot of people.” And it made sense to me—it needed faith for the blind leading the blind.
    An unspoken courtesy on the bus is that riders act as each other’s cheerleaders or support group. A teacher rode the bus after taking a short-term disability/leave of absence recuperating from a back injury. The injury took her in and out of the wheelchair. “I’ve got to get out of this chair so people quit treating me like a complete invalid,” she told me.
    “I thought it was just me,” I smiled.
    “No, honey, my favorite so far was this young man who shouted at me because he thought I was hard of hearing. Like all people in wheelchairs are naturally hard of hearing.” Knowing that she was in angst I told her this slightly embarrassing story. And she just laughed and laughed.

    There are certain advantages being in a wheelchair; you develop acute situational defenses (like the creamer retort). The first time I left the hospital on a recreational outing (shopping at an indoor mall) started me on my path. (The hospital had a term for all major events—recreational outing, exacerbation, etc.). I waited in the Food Court for Mom to get our lunches. I hadn’t yet mastered intimidating people with my manual wheelchair, herding them out of my way. I liken such situations to my then three-year-old niece moving me out of the open refrigerator so she could get an apple. A three-year-old’s butt action and herding with a manual wheelchair are very similar.
    As I waited for lunch I spied a table of thirty-something male friends. It would have been overkill calling any of the men eye candy. They fell more in the category of what my uncle described me as a teenager—a tall glass of water on a hot summer day. One of the men particularly caught my eye. I still don’t know why.
    Even though I was a table and divider away from him, he must have noticed me watching. He stopped bantering with his friends, smiled and caught my direct attention with his eyes. Under usual circumstances, I’d have welcome the opened door. But after he smiled at me he said in a halting, clear voice: “How are you today?”
    Listening to him with his friends, I knew this wasn’t his typical speech pattern. In that five seconds of embarrassment (because I was caught checking him out) and indignation (because I understood what was being said without attempted clarity) I determined my mantra. Now-today, I would only be embarrassed for him. But at that moment I looked him straight in the eye and replied in a halting voice, attempting clarity, mocking the same tone as was spoken to me, “I●am●fine. How●are●you?”

Photo of Cindy Lee

Photo of Cindy Lee

Cindy Lee is returning to her passion of writing after pursuing careers in legal and environmental regulatory roles. She is finishing a collection of short stories titled Bringing the Pieces Together. The interlaced stories address miscommunication or unspoken issues held tightly together by the characters.  She studied writing in the Pacific Northwest and currently resides in the Midwest.