Here are some conversations I've had in the past two years. Some of them are unique. Some of them are close to exactly the same every single time I have them, no matter with whom I have them.
Stranger: "How did you lose your leg?"
Me: "I didn't lose it. I know exactly where I left it."
Stranger: "What's wrong with your leg?"
Me: "Nothing. It works perfectly well."
Recently Hired Coworker: "How come you're limping?"
Me: "I always limp. I have a fake leg." [Look of disbelief.] "Really." [I knock on my plastic-encased thigh to prove it.]
RHC: "Oh, wow. I guess I'll have to be nice to you then."
Me: "Don't you dare. I'll kick your ass with my little rubber foot."
(Yes. Someday I will be fired from Whole Foods because of my mouth. Oopsie.)
Stranger Child: "Where's your other leg?" [OR, pointing to visible prosthetic] "Why do you have that?"
Stranger Child's Parent: "Shhhh!!!"
Me [to parent]: "It's okay. It's an honest question."
Me [to child]: "My other leg got sick and had to be cut off. But look, it's not so bad; this one works just fine." [I demonstrate how knee works, maybe even do a little shuffle-ball-change.]
Child: "What's it made of?"
Me: "Do you have a bicycle? Well, it's made of the same stuff as your bicycle."
Parent [now openly interested]: "Carbon fiber or something?"
Me: "Yes, carbon fiber exactly."
Parent: "Oh! Wow."
Child: "[Does it/did it] hurt?"
Me: "Nope. It hurt before it came off, and the doctor couldn't make it stop. But now it doesn't hurt at all, and I still get to walk around. Pretty cool, huh?"
[Child nods approvingly, and parent thanks me, usually with a funny look on his/her face. Then they or I leave.]
Stranger in car: "Do you want a ride?"
Me: "No thanks."
SIC: "Are you sure?"
Me: "Yes, absolutely."
SIC: "Do you have far to go?"
Me: "Actually, this is how I get my exercise."
SIC: "Well, God bless you!"
(Now, when was the last time you saw somebody in a car offering God's blessing to a power-walker or jogger? Hmmm... Considering how many get hit by cars each year, perhaps this is a practice that people inclined to give out blessings should adopt.)
Perfect stranger walking in opposite direction up sidewalk, or being passed by me, or just seeing me while I'm wearing shorts or a skirt: [tearfully] "God bless you!"
Me: [confused] "Uh, thanks."
VIII. Personal favorite:
Person in my way: "God bless you!" [Doesn't budge an inch. This was especially fun when I was still in a wheelchair or on crutches during the icy season and needed a ramp in which this person might be standing plumb in the middle.]
Me: "Uh, thanks. Excuse me." [moving forward toward where they're standing]
PIMW: "I mean, really! God BLESS you!"
Me: "Yeah, okay, thanks. Um -- could I please get through here?"
PIMW: "Aren't you something! God Bless You!"
Me: [under breath] [CENSORED (not "God Bless You, too!")]
One or the Other of the Same Two Coworkers: [muscling up to me and totally getting in my way and in my space] "Let me help you with that."
Me: [carrying something heavy, e.g., a case of Gerolsteiner, five steps from the shelf to the customer's shopping cart, something I am well capable of doing -- unless someone gets in my way, in which case I'm likely to drop it] "NO. I'm fine. Thank you anyway."
OOTOOTSTC: "You should ask me for help with things like that."
OOTOOTSTC: "Because. You shouldn't have to [lift that/push that/accomplish the same amount as other team members who maybe get paid even less than you do [because you're crippled]]."
Me: "If I need help, I will ask for it. Please don't interfere unless I ask for help."
OOTOOTSTC: "But I want to help you [because it makes me feel strong and superior, and meanwhile, after having your leg cut off, I can't believe you're still an adult able to accurately assess your own capabilities and ask for assistance if you require it, even though you still have your brain and you do ask for help and state your own limitations quite often, whenever truly necessary in fact, but I don't notice this because I'm really only paying attention to how I feel.]"
Me: "Listen. I have worked really hard to be as strong and capable as I am. I know my own limitations, though, and if I need help, I will ask for it. Meanwhile, what I don't know how to do, I must learn, and where I am weak, I must practice. Sometimes help isn't help, because it prevents me from building skills. On the other hand, sometimes offering to help, especially if you insist when I have told you I don't need it, demeans me by your refusal to acknowledge my competence and accomplishment. Oh, and by the way, when you do it in front of customers, it embarrasses me and makes them nervous."
OOTOOTSTC: "Okay, whatever." (Smiles patronizingly.)
One hour later...
OOTOOTSTC: (muscling up to me and totally getting in my way and in my space) "Let me help you with that."
And repeat, indefinitely.
Man seated next to date in movie theater with stadium seating: "Do you want some help?"
Me: [climbing stairs with crutches, not wearing prosthesis, feeling kind of obvious as many people are already seated, the lights are up, and the movie hasn't started, so I'm the entertainment 'til it does] "No, thanks."
MSNTDIMTWSS: [getting up] "Are you sure?"
Me: "Yes, thanks. Really. It's okay."
MSNTDIMTWSS: "Oh, come on. Let me help."
Me: [rather sharply now] "NO. Please sit down and leave me alone. You're embarrassing me."
MSNTDIMTWSS: [palpably miffed] "Sheesh. I was just trying to be helpful."
What do all these conversations have in common? Yes, you're right. Awkwardness. And I'm not talking about how I walk.
Somedays it's all I can do not to scream, "Were you raised by WOLVES????" And then I remember that wolves are actually polite to each other, in their own way, with a very specifically defined social structure in each pack and clear rules about behavior that everyone must learn or fail to survive.
If I were a wolf, I wouldn't be an alpha wolf. I'd be an omega wolf, the one responsible for amusement of the pack. So instead of screaming, I usually smile and laugh. In the conversations where I answer questions I'm sick of answering (geez, folks, could you get to know me first, before you begin with the probing?), I usually don't leave it at the flip answer, but laugh and wink and then tell an abbreviated version of my story, ending with a true statement about how it's not so bad and I'm glad to be alive. This doesn't keep me from bitching privately to my friends.
A dear friend who is not an amputee and was raised to always be (or appear) nice and sweet, like any good, Midwestern Christian woman, hears me rant and can't help but admonish me. "You have a choice, you know. People mean well. It's up to you to accept their good intentions graciously."
At this point, I begin to splutter.
As I tell my friend, it is not my job to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy about the surgical removal of my leg due to cancer. Meanwhile, people may tell themselves that they mean well, but they don't, not really. People who don't create gratuitous drama around me just because I use unusual equipment to walk -- people who offer help and then politely and respectfully accept my "No thank you," people who get out of my way when politely asked, people who unhesitatingly do help me when I ask them to, in exactly the way I ask them to, and finally and best of all, people who (like my Midwestern friend) treat me the exact same way they treated or would have treated me before my old leg came off ('cause, let's face it, I've been the same person the whole time) -- these people mean well. The same is true of people who let their children interact with me like a human being, not a sideshow freak or a Subject of Great Sensitivity. These folks respect me, themselves and, where applicable, their children (who are naturally curious and deserve an honest answer that demystifies the topic and doesn't frighten them). People who objectify me do not, cannot respect me. People who cannot respect me cannot, by definition, mean well.
Of course, there are different levels of respect, and when I talk about respect in this context, I don't mean the kind of respect which, like loyalty, we have to earn from each other. There's a lot of talk, especially among people who were raised badly for whatever reason, about being due respect just because we breathe. And this is true, but not necessarily the way they mean. I won't look up to anyone just because s/he's breathing -- unless I know this person worked particularly hard to keep breathing. I want to be very clear that the kind of respect I'm talking about here is a respect for boundaries, for personhood, for each being's self-determination. This is the kind of respect we owe each other (and all living things) until one of us does something (like drive drunk or commit a violent crime) to forfeit that respect. This is the kind of respect where we see each other as alive and separate, and maybe even genuinely a little bit holy, as individual miracles happening all around us, but not as objects or, worse, receptacles, projection screens, tools for our own emotional and spiritual ends.
How do I know people are objectifying me? Well, my dears, for decades I have been a large-chested blonde woman in America. People have been objectifying me for a long, long time, and I even bought into and encouraged this for awhile, until I learned better. I have had all sorts of things projected onto me just because of my looks, things which had nothing to do with who I really was. I can recognize certain signs.
One of the most obvious is where people look first when they look at me, sometimes openly, sometimes furtively. I'll give you a hint: It's not my face.
So hallelujah! I finally have something to draw eyes away from my chest, which used to be where people would look first. Yet I have the same thing to tell people now that I used to when I was younger and hotter: My eyes are up here.
Yes. I had a face when you were looking at my breasts. I still have a face now that I also have an artificial leg and you can't decide whether to stare at that leg or my breasts.
The only difference between now and then is that more women and children now recognize me by parts other than my face. It's still the same syndrome, though. And you know what? I expect it from children under ten. I don't expect it from you.
You need to see me, not my leg. It's okay to notice my leg; who wouldn't? It's okay to notice I'm blonde and have big breasts. Again, who wouldn't? It's not like I wear hats and overcoats all the time. The first thing you should notice about me, though, is that I'm a human being. The next thing that should be clear is that I'm not you, not any part of you (except insofar as Gaia theory might apply, but I digress). I'm not a living, breathing love doll, your fantasy come true. I'm not your path to holiness. I'm not something for you to pity or feel superior to. I'm not a naked need walking down the street. The fact that I'm walking down the street, with or without cane or crutch or sometimes sidewalk -- or driving down the street, or tap dancing across the floor -- should tell you that much.
It might surprise you to discover that I don't think of myself as crippled or handicapped. Surgically altered, yes. Getting about with different equipment, yes. But fully able, too. Yes. Fully. As in able to make my own choices. As in able to achieve my own self-determined goals. And as in able to ask for help when I need it. As in able to say no to you all by myself and for perfectly valid reasons which I do not have to explain to you.
As you may recall, the little night job I hold at Whole Foods to support my art career is in Customer Service. Mostly I cashier. Sooner or later, I see and somehow serve everybody who comes through our doors. Several of our regular customers use motorized wheelchairs. I don't know why. I don't ask. I think the most obvious of these has cerebral palsy or something and that he's had it a long time. And yes, I have noticed the wheelchair and the wizened, not completely controllable limbs. But you know what? When I see him, I smile into his face and he smiles back into mine. I have never asked him what's "wrong" with him. He has never asked me about my leg. We ask him how he wants us to pack his stuff and where he wants us to put it, and whether tonight he would like help to his car (because occasionally he does), and we accept his direction, respectfully, without any "Are you sure?" Of course he's sure. He's in his forties. We are pretty sure he knows his own mind by now.
Why don't I ask him about his condition? Because I don't know him. We aren't friends. I only know his name from his credit card slips. I am sure he gets asked all the time by people who don't know him, but I'm not going to be one of them. It's not polite. It's not polite because it's disrespectful.
Why is it disrespectful? you may ask. Here's why. Because it's presumptuous. Because it's nosy. Because it might pop his bubble.
I don't know what this guy's life is like. I can only tell you of my experience, so here it is. Except when I'm creating one of these blog entries or giving advice to someone else, I spend less than ten percent of each day thinking about my leg. I would like to think about it even less, and expect to as years pass. The point of finding, developing and having adaptive tools has been to just pick up my life where I left off and keep going.
Every time you, a stranger, stop me and ask me about my leg, you interrupt the stream of my real life. You intrude yourself upon my progress. Now what entitles you to do this? That's right: nothing.
I don't think of myself as an amputee most of the time. Most of the time, if I'm not down with the plague or being battered about by my female biology or something, I just think of myself as Sara, going about my day, doing my stuff. I usually see myself as capable and strong. Sometimes, when I'm conquering a new skill, I think about how well I'm doing and how proud of my own achievement I am -- and how excited I am by the possibilities this new skill opens up for me.
And then you come along and see me as a cripple and tell me so. "God bless you," you say out of the blue, as though I need this, as though (if God exists) I haven't already been blessed. You see me as broken and struggling. I see myself as repaired and moving on. You pretty much pop my bubble. How dare you!
By interacting with me as a cripple, not a woman, you force me, a reasonably polite person, to see myself for a moment as you see me in order to respond "correctly." You have not thought about how to interact with me correctly, yet somehow it is my duty to respond graciously. You've just called me less than what I am, and yet it's on me to be gracious. This is insulting and unkind.
Don't do it anymore. I mean it. Stop it. I know you think you love me as another of God's beautiful children, and that by offering me God's blessing you are offering me something precious. You're not. You're reveling in the drama of my situation to feed your own self-righteousness. You're also presuming to distribute on God's behalf what has clearly already been distributed, a fact you would see if you would really look at me and not just your own set of expectations and vain desires as symbolized by my fake leg.
If you're not blessing me but offering me practical help, accept my thanks, but also accept my "no, thanks" when that's what I give you. Don't make me say it more than once. Yes, I'm sure. I'm not stupid. I didn't actually misplace my leg. It's not lost, and it didn't house my brain.
If you're just curious about what happened to me, think about why you're curious. Do you know me? Do you care about me? Will you be at my bedside when I'm dying? Will you feed my cat when I go on vacation? Then why do you deserve to know? Why do you deserve this much attention from me? Why should I divert my own attention from my work, my day, my own thoughts shallow and deep? You can find out everything you want to know about amputation on the internet. Look, you can even read about mine! You don't have to ask me! You don't have to interrupt my day, pop my bubble, bring me down from being an artist and a gardener and, yes, a freaking grocery store cashier to the level of being a curiosity. A curio. An object.
Children are different. They get to ask me anything they want, as long as they're not malicious. They are learning the world and genuinely need to know that humans with artificial limbs are still humans, that things happen to people which start out scary, feel bad while they're happening, and look strange afterward but aren't ultimately horrible or insurmountable. They don't know about boundaries or bubbles yet. Telling them the truth about one part of my situation, including that it's really not such a big deal, is a duty I take on willingly, because it will help them when they encounter other people with obvious physical differences, and it will help them if they ever have to go through something like this themselves. Being raised to treat everyone the same, whether pretty or ugly, movie star or janitor, or missing a limb vs. missing a hairline, but as human first has certainly made my life easier, and has helped me as I grapple on my own with the larger concept of compassion.
A beloved ex-boss of mine once told me about something she'd read in the writings of Ram Dass, a popular guru in the 1970s, something about how if you really want to learn to be compassionate you first have to learn to see the "God" in everyone, the divine spark, the thing inside us all which, whether you believe in one god or many or none at all, is undeniably miraculous, bigger than any of us and all of us, no matter who we are, and no matter who we're looking at. Only after this, says Ram-Dass-according-to-Wendy-as-I-remember-it, can you really see another person, and only after that can you learn how to really serve others, which is a worthy goal, one of the very best.
This is a profound basis for learning what it really is to mean well, and from there, to genuinely behave well. I'm no one's Emily Post, but if you are inclined to bless strangers you see as suffering but maybe not get out of their way, to ask people about things you haven't considered that they might not even like to think about, seeing as how there's so much else to think about in the world and in their lives, to feel rejected or like a failure if you don't forcibly remove other people's burdens from their hands even if these are chosen burdens, in other words, to see an infirmity where you should see a human being, I urge you to meditate on the meaning of all this, on what is genuinely compassionate thought and behaviour, on what is genuinely helpful. I think respecting other people's humanity before jumping to conclusions about them, their pain and their needs is probably a great first step.
Go ahead. Try it. If you really mean to mean well, try it. Once you start seeing people -- all kinds of people in all kinds of situations -- as themselves first and then showing them genuine respect and courtesy, they might genuinely start to thank you, and not just to be gracious.
On the other hand, you might never hear a word. Deal with it. Every person alive at this moment has problems and needs help from time to time. Every person, even you. No one, though, has problems just so you can feel good about yourself, so don't try to use them that way. Ever.