From the corner of my eye I saw our patio umbrella catch the wind and pirouette off the deck. No big deal. It was March 2020, and this had happened before. Later that day, however, my husband J.P. and I discovered that our table had galloped along with it.
The bent metal table laid on its back in a field of sparkling glass. The tempered top mostly crumbled into harmless pebbles, but a few jagged crystals glittered ominously in the sun. “If one of those got into your foot,” said J.P., “it could be with you for a long time.”
As we carefully picked up the pieces, I wasn’t thinking of the table. Instead, I thought of another incident entirely. Something that would indeed be with me for a long time.
In early February, I sat around a table at a local pub, the site of a regional writers’ gathering. “I’ve been to that conference before,” said Suzanne, the president, a tall, garrulous woman who spoke of a yearly gathering for an association of mystery writers. She paused, then added: “But there were too many walkers there for me.” The breathy laugh that flew out of her mouth only contributed to the miasma of disquiet in the room.
I hadn’t paid full attention to everything that had been said so far, but this was discrimination, no doubt about it. Discrimination against either age or physical impairment. Or both. Coincidentally, I actually knew someone who had won the annual grand prize awarded by the same association for her first novel. Margaret is in her early eighties and doesn’t use a walker, but this fact was irrelevant. She is a talented writer, and I count her as one of my most cherished friends.
I knew only two people, writers from my monthly circle, at the meeting. The rest of the fifteen writers were strangers, hailing from other towns in the region. Suzanne now appeared to remember that someone else there, a woman in her seventies named Ivy who sat catty corner from me, had walked in with a cane. “Ivy,” she said. I held my breath. This would be the perfect time for an apology.
“You just have a cane. That’s okay. That’s not a walker.”
A prickly heat crept up my neck. Suzanne may have hoped to ease the tension, but her latest remark only exacerbated it. I bristled with anger, thinking of both Margaret and Ivy. But I just sat there.
Now, as I picked up the glass around me, I wanted to kick myself again and again. Why didn’t I say something? It would have been the perfect opportunity to stand up against a clear-cut case of both age and ability discrimination.
Not long after this incident, desperate to understand myself, I had called my level-headed friend Erin. She’s pursuing her master’s degree in mental health and social work and knows far more about human behavior than I do. She attributed my silence to shock.
“You were too stunned,” she said. “Being caught off guard is completely normal. You weren’t ready to take in something so hurtful. Nevertheless,” Erin cautioned, “it never hurts to have something prepared in case this ever happens again.”
While on my knees among the broken glass, I thought again of all the things I wish I had said. “Hey, hey,” I could have said. “There’s a reason that Alice Munro won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature at 82. She labored her whole life to earn it.”
Before I began writing full time, I worked for years as a communications director at the admissions office of a local university. As a manager, I regularly stood up for my staff and made sure they received both credit for their accomplishments and raises for increased skills. I also stood up for animals, and I was proud of the fact that all of our three pets were rescues. Standing up for others was important to me.
That didn’t happen at the pub. I had done nothing. Nothing at all.
Maybe, as Erin said, that was normal. But there was a reason I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. There was something deeper going on.
As a twenty-year warrior of multiple sclerosis, I know firsthand what it was like to have a disability. I also know what discrimination felt like. Five years ago, when I was still working in the admissions office, I ducked into an accessible restroom, one that bore the sign reserving it for disabled persons. My physical impairments, such as wobbly legs and the occasional imbalance, aren’t always noticeable, but they are very real. The accessible restroom was next door to my office, but even with my bladder incontinence, another side effect of M.S, I rarely used it, because most of the time I could make it to the public restroom downstairs. But on that day, I had no choice. And when I finished, I opened the door to meet the glare of Carl, a fellow employee now standing outside. “Handicapped bathrooms are for the handicapped,” he snarled, gesturing to the cane he was using as he recovered from a knee operation. Embarrassed, I had just slunk away, wanting that moment to end as soon as possible.
Now, after what happened at the pub, I suddenly wished I had stood up for myself back then. It could have been as simple as saying: “Carl, you shouldn’t make assumptions about other people. Some impairments aren’t as obvious as others.” Carl wasn’t a bad person, but his reaction revealed that he suffered from another condition more serious than a knee injury. Two actually: ignorance and insensitivity. The same went for Suzanne. I didn’t know her, but as tactless as they were, I doubted if her remarks were maliciously motivated. Nonetheless, because of my silence, both Carl and Suzanne may since have gone on to say things that hurt other people. I hated this more than anything.
Over the next few weeks, scouting for glass below our deck became an act of redemption for me. Tossing the pieces into a bucket one by one taught me it was never too late to right a wrong. It made me happy to know that every shard I found would never lodge in someone’s foot one day.
I had missed the opportunity to speak out about what Suzanne said, but it wasn’t too late to chart a new course of speaking up for myself. Perhaps, I told myself, if I did a better job standing up for my own impairment, I’d feel more confident defending others in similar situations. A new opportunity soon arose.
Sorry to drop this on you, said the email from Diane, a woman at my church. But someone needs to handle the college care packages this year.
I enjoyed my work on the missions committee very much, but for the past few months the requests for my assistance exceeded my ability to fulfill them. Instead of grudgingly giving in and raising my anxiety, I decided to take the initiative and picked up the phone.
“Diane,” I said, as soon as she answered. “There’s something I need to share with you.” I then told her that I had struggled with multiple sclerosis for years. Something that very few people at my church knew. And that I had retired from my job in an effort to take charge of my health and reduce the stress in my life. Then I drew a deep breath. “For this reason, I’m not able to help at this time.”
As I spoke the words, no thunderbolt from God shook the house, and Diane appeared to understand. “Of course, of course,” she said, and we ended the conversation on a friendly note. After I hung up, I didn’t feel ashamed at all. I felt empowered. Not just for myself but for the others I would defend at my next opportunity.
“When things like this happen,” Erin explained to me later over tea, “we’re so quick to beat ourselves up about what we could have said, or what we could have done, but in reality, these are great internal conversations. Taking the time to process what happened led to a wonderful exploration of deeper thoughts and inner conflicts you had yet to discover.”
“The process can be uncomfortable,” she added, “but if you are not uncomfortable, you’re not doing the work.”
The work. Aha. I knew that I’d probably be walking over a field of glass for the rest of my life. I might never find all the pieces. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Every fragment I found would remind me that I had a choice in how I wanted to spend my time. That I had a responsibility to be fully present in those moments. To not be ashamed of my illness. To give myself permission to speak my mind. And to always be on guard for thoughtless remarks before they gather wind, like the umbrella, and take flight.