I used to spend my mornings with a man I called Mordichai. Much like the character he is named after, he was a long-time outcast in his family and would, no doubt, be considered one by my own relations if they had ever bothered to meet him. I would sneak into his room before classes began and try to warm my hands, wounded from a combination of the harsh Chicago cold, and the reality of living in a wheelchair. Looking to him for a combination of wisdom and simple sanity, I would sit at Mordichai’s desk to write, to read, or simply trying to sort through the inner workings of an eighteen year olds brain. Each year I grew a year older but it seemed as if he did not. Rather, with each passing year we became closer in age and a learned more of his reality and he learned more of my secrets.
Becoming a woman alongside Mordichai and his partner provided me with grace and an added level of support to the already strong scaffolding that my parents gave me. They were a couple with whom I would disagree fiercely and still know that I was loved… perhaps loved even more because I had the strength to disagree. As time went on, our conversations revolved more around big topics, which were out of my grasp when we first met and I was fifteen. Questions of freedom and liberty, morality and common good haunted us some nights as our meeting venue changed from his classroom to the fireplace in his own home. I was now living independently, working part time, and continuing with my education at the university level.
And as questions became easier to grasp, the answers grew increasingly slippery. Until one day it occurred to us both that our America is not limitless, and the entitled freedoms that we were promised in the Constitution have yet to be delivered in full. My world had to stop at the first unpaved road I came upon so long as any wheelchair could not cross it. And for him and Tom, what was everyone else’s private business was still held in court, waiting for a decision that seemed obvious to me.
In many ways, I am jealous of the media’s attention to Mordichai’s issues over my own. And who can blame them, the image of an angered drag queen will no doubt get more viewers then a group of paraplegics crawling up the steps of the Capitol building at an abrasively slow rate. What’s worse is that as a disabled person, my rights are constantly pitted up against other causes, such as the new environmentally-friendly taxi cabs which, in order to save on fuel, have been made so small that no wheelchair will ever be able to fit inside. It’s an either / or society. Where Mordichai’s right to have his partner visit him in the hospital gets debated on national television, and in the same week the American with Disabilities Act gets stripped by the Supreme Court and nobody notices.
“This is why you’re a writer. That’s why you need to always have your pen, and hands that are at the ready” Mordichai’s voice echoes in my ear. To give a voice to a community that it still voiceless sometimes feels like trying to remove barnacles with one’s bare hands. To find my own voice on top of that challenge can prove to be as effective as a screen door on a submarine some days. Sometimes I think we all wish we could finish growing up before the troubles come.
I went back to visit Mordichai a few weeks ago. He is getting older, even though it’s not always obvious. The winter wind is nowhere near leaving Chicago in April and I can feel a film of salt covering my hands as I come inside. He asks me how I am, and I don’t know where to begin. When did life scatter to a thousand different directions? I start with the most obvious, “My hands hurt from this horrible weather. How do you stand it?”
“I’m not in a wheelchair,” he begins. We all have that one thorn in our side, which we wished to have removed. And yet it painfully stays there to shape our world.
Without speaking he gets up and leaves, only to return will a bottle of lotion that smells of sandalwood. He puts some on my hands and rubs it in. He starts muttering about how I should be taking better care of myself, about how I only have so many units of energy per day to spend and I should be more selective in the battles I fight. Sometimes having him around is like having a second father. I argue with him, if for no other reason then it’s my role to do so. It doesn’t matter because we’re both convinced we are right. I need my hands so I can go places and be just like everyone else. He stops me there.
My hands, he reminds me, should be used in a way nobody has ever used them.