“You need to make friends with your wheelchair,” said Rob. “It doesn’t limit your freedom. It gives you the freedom to move.” Large and bearded, Rob was the pipe smoking, guitar playing chaplain at the university where I was now a sophomore. As usual he challenged my assumptions, and as usual, I heard him even though I didn’t want to. A few months later, a rite of passage ideally suited for a 21-year-old student with a disability threw itself across my path: the need for a new wheelchair. For the first time in my life, I, not my mother, would tell the vendor what kind of chair I needed.
“It needs to be low to the ground,” I told him, “because I’m short. And I want blue upholstery.” I had no idea why. For weeks I anticipated its arrival. At some point, I gave it a name. When the chair finally came, I sent out birth announcements:
“BABY BLUE BUGGY HAS ARRIVED!” And so began my first friendship with a chair.
Fast forward a number of years. I’m the chaplain now, working in a large urban medical center where I ride around on an aging three wheeled power scooter that breaks down every other day. The students and staff in my department listen as I rant and swear through each new ordeal, and haggle with my insurance company over what portion of the cost of a new scooter they will cover. The basic model won’t do. I need something built to endure. I tell my colleagues that will be its name: Blessed Endurance. The morning after it arrives, I emerge from our elevator looking like a queen on her throne. Everyone gathers in a circle around me and starts to sing a song they have written in honor of the occasion:
This scooter is mine;
O what a joy
Now I look so fine!
Racing through hallways
We turn on a dime;
Look out O world
It’s my time to shine!
Blessed Endurance lived up to her name. She served me for almost a decade, until surgery drastically reduced my upper body stability, and I needed a power chair, not scooter. What would its name be? I wondered.
In the darkness of a winter’s night, I sat in my apartment listening to John Denver sing on the radio:
The places you’ve been to,
The things that you’ve shown us,
The stories you tell.
I sing to your spirit,
The men who have served you so long and so well.
Calypso—The ship on which Jacques Cousteau went adventuring across the ocean. . . Calypso—A chair in which to go adventuring across my world. . . Calypso was my new chair’s name!
It’s been almost nine years since she came into my life. We’ve careened down hallways, peeled rubber around corners, and yelled, “W-E-E-E-DLE!” as we raced in sheer joy. Her paint is chipped. Her arm pads are worn. Her joystick has tape around it. Like the woman she holds, she has soul. And I have to say good-bye to her. In a few days, I’m getting a new chair. . . And I don’t know its name. And a chair without a name is a collection of steel and rubber; not a companion for the journey. And in this year I’ve had to part with so much that was part of my soul that sometimes I wonder if my soul still matters. Everything seems about what’s practical. I’m grieving this parting like no chair I’ve ever said good-bye to, even as I know this is part of life, and I do need a new chair. Please God, tell me her name.
Tonight in a new apartment, in a place I did not choose, I listen again to John Denver sing. In tribute to my companion, I change the words:
The places we’ve been to,
The things that you’ve shown me,
The stories I’ll tell.
I sing to your spirit,
The ways you have served me so long and so well.