A Wheelchair in Paris

True confession: I hesitated about renting a wheelchair in Paris, because that would put me literally beneath Parisians, and yes—I’d been gullible enough to believe all the hype about Parisians being arrogant snobs. This misconception evaporated on the bus ride in from the Charles de Gaulle airport. I looked around, and saw people who reminded me of another slandered tribe, the New Yorkers. I was born a New Yorker. I’d always laughed at people who were too chicken to visit New York City. Oh, my. It was time to laugh at myself. I’d been as terrified of Paris as any Manhattan-fearing yokel from upstate.

My early years in the Bronx were replete with lectures about how to appear street-smart. I’d known since before I could walk by myself that you were never walk around a city street with an open map. Before we left for Paris, I read the warnings about gypsies attacking tourists near metro stops. When my more trusting, Midwestern-raised husband opened a map near the bus terminal at Charles de Gaulle, a woman with a head scarf approached us…and offered to help us find our way to the correct stop. My pocket was not picked. But my false pride was pricked.

I would put off renting a wheelchair until after a side trip to visit my friend Laura in the French Riviera. There I found I was able to walk most of a mild 2k loop through the glowing inner sanctum of gorgeous Nice.  My legs went all heavy and numb before we’d quite made it to the parking lot just past the gazzillion dollar yachts, which left Laura in the uncomfortable position of having to dash off for her car, and pull up for me in the middle of a very busy street. After that incident, my husband asked Laura for translations of a few handy phrases. How do you say “multiple sclerosis” in French? How do you say,”wheelchair”?

Once we rented the wheelchair, we were able to see much more of Paris than we would have if we’d constrained ourselves to my current level of mobility. One of the many charms of Paris is that it’s a walkable city. As it turned out, Paris is also fairly wheel-able. There are cut corners at nearly all the intersections in Paris, and not nearly as many cobblestones as I had feared.

The sidewalks weren’t much of a problem with a wheelchair. What about the Metro? That wasn’t too tough for us, either. If I’d been on my own, I would have taken advantage of the law that states that taxi drivers are required to assist the wheelchair-bound. But since I had my husband and son to carry the wheelchair up and down the Metro stairs, we went that route, instead. I decided not to worry about what Parisians thought of me getting in and out of the wheelchair at the staircases. As it turned out, Parisians did wave and shout at us—but only to gesture us toward the subway elevators. So as not to paint too rosy a picture, I admit those elevators smelled of piss. But they were there. Not on all lines. But on some.

As it turned out, a wheelchair in Paris became something of a perk. My husband and I were shown to the beginning of every line at every museum, and qualified for free admission, just like our 15 year old son.

My favorite wheelchair moment occurred on the Eiffel Tower. After we took in the views from the platform, my husband, son and I waited on line for the elevator back down. It looked from my humble, wheelchair bound vantage point that elevator was full by the time we got to the door. My husband waved the elevator on. Then the nicest thing happened. The people in the elevator shifted, and stepped back, forming semi circle just big enough to include the three of us. My husband went ahead, and wheeled me on. I wished, at that moment, I could be eye-level with all the grownups, to thank each and every one, but it was nice enough to just be eye level with the kids.

The city I’d always assumed would snub me was instead a place of welcome and accommodation. Yet another useless fear discarded.

(This replaces “Ms. Lab Rat Loves France.” Sorry, subscribers: I don’t know how the final draft emerged with a headline, and no text. One clumsy move on an unfamiliar cell phone?)

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Visualization 3.0

My third draft of the Visualization essay, with thanks to Jeff Groh for coaxing out another thread:

For all my adult life, I’ve done my best not to be defined by multiple sclerosis (MS). It’s easiest to escape other people’s pity, and other people’s judgments, if they don’t know I’m disabled in the first place. Because I have relapsing/remitting MS, most of the time I can still get away with passing for a Normal. But only to the untrained eye.
No matter how gracefully I walk into a neurologist’s office for my annual evaluation, the dreaded heel-to-toe test invariably punctures my façade.
As soon as I place one heel directly in front of the other foot, I start to sway. My arms float up, like a gymnast…a gymnast on the Titanic. I tilt toward the left. I regain my balance…for one brief hopeful moment. I tilt toward the right. My legs start to buckle. Then twist.
It’s all very suspenseful.
Inside my atrophied little brain, I’m reminding myself of all these tricks I’ve been taught at yoga. I press into all four corners of my front foot. I root down into my tail-bone. I lengthen my spine. Oh yes. I breathe.
I lift my back foot. Gently swing it around my front foot. Start to set it down…
Not again.
I tilt toward the right. A little too far. I break my fall…by breaking out of heel-to-toe.
Inside my atrophied little brain, I’m thinking that losing my balance is all my fault. I wasn’t…yogic enough. I didn’t make the right mind-body connection. Of course! Mind-body connection! Why didn’t I think of it sooner? What I should have done was visualize myself walking down the hallway.
Visualization. That’s the ticket.
I request another try.
This request typically inspires a panic.
“Oh, no, no, no. That’s fine. You don’t have to do that one over. I’ve seen enough.” And I wind up feeling like an out-of-work actor who has just asked for a re-try on a crappy audition.
The first time I took the heel-to-toe test, I made a lame joke. “I guess my tightrope walking days are done.” The joke fell flat. My stand-up comedian days were dead-on-arrival. Fine. I don’t want to play the role of the wisecracking patient with multiple sclerosis. I don’t want to be in that sitcom. Or even on that channel. I’d rather be on the yoga channel, floating two feet above the gleaming wooden floor without even noticing, a tiny, enigmatic smile on my placid face.
Yeah, right.
As soon as I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I got it into my head that I could fight off the disease by learning yoga. My first yoga instructor told me I was being unrealistic. That was sixteen years ago. A lot of people with MS don’t last this long without ending up in the wheelchair. Maybe I’m still walking because I have a more mild form of the disease. Or maybe I’m still walking because of yoga.
I wish I knew. I just can’t say. I don’t have a control group; a clone or a twin sister with multiple sclerosis who thinks yoga is a complete waste of time.
What I can say is that my expectations for my balance are consistently higher than my performance in the heel-to-toe test.
My performance in my normal daily routine can be fairly convincing. I pass for a relatively fit healthy woman at least 90% of the time. In public. Before 8 pm. But still. I’ve got a good façade going. I’m fond of it. I don’t want that façade punctured. Which is why I don’t like the heel-to-toe test. Not one bit.
I never thought I could ever meet a person who could make my objections to the dreaded heel-to-toe test seem petty. That was before I met Dr. X.
I wasn’t supposed to be meeting Dr. X in the first place. My appointment was with Dr. Y. It so happened that Dr. Y was running behind, so she sent in a resident. Into the examination room wheeled…a black man…in a wheelchair. To see me: a white woman who felt irked every time she was asked to take the dreaded…never mind.
The instant I saw him, I realized I was operating on a cruel assumption…the assumption that losing my balance was a failure of my willpower, rather than just a manifestation of a cruel disease. I would never assume that this neurologist was a failure for being in a wheelchair. Why then, did I consider myself a failure for flunking heel-to-toe?
When Dr. X had me take the heel-to-toe test, I failed it, as usual.
But this time, failing the heel-to-toe test felt fairly privileged. At least I wasn’t stuck in a wheelchair. Dr. X would trade places with me in a flash.
Or would he?
Was Dr. X’s life really all that bad? Is mobility, or lack thereof, the decisive factor in anyone’s quality of life?
As we chatted afterward, I came to see that Dr. X’s life was actually pretty good. He was nearly done with medical school. He was on the verge of a lucrative career. He had a job lined up for him in his home state, where he could live near his beloved family of origin. His upcoming move wasn’t all he was looking forward to; he was getting married in a few weeks. His honeymoon plans included snorkeling in the Caribbean.
My atrophied little brain thought it appropriate to mention a book I’d just read, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. I enthused about the data showing that visualization could improve sports performance, and shared my plans to visualize walking down my staircase without using the banister.
Dr. X’s response? “Use the banister.”
I take it Dr. X doesn’t visualize leaping out of his wheelchair. Or passing heel-to-toe tests. Dr. X is more focused on what his brain and his body can actually do. I’ll be the first to concede, his brain and his body can do quite a lot. So much for visualization. Maybe there’s something to be said for looking around, and seeing the world clearly. The world is a beautiful place, from any perspective. I bet the world looks spectacularly beautiful while snorkeling in the Caribbean.
Altogether, I left my examination with Dr. X a little less fearful, and a lot less judgmental, about the likelihood of my ending up in a wheelchair. I figured I was done freaking out about flunking heel-to-toe.
The funny thing is, the next time I took the heel-to-toe test, I did pretty well. When it was time to begin, I looked down the hallway, and thought, screw visualization. But some habits die hard.

I automatically deployed those tricks I’ve learned at yoga. I rooted down into my tailbone. I lengthened my spine. I breathed.
I pressed into all four corners of my front foot. I lifted my back foot. Gently swung it around my front foot. Set it down…
I didn’t tip.
I just kept on going.
One step. Two steps. Three. Four.
One foot in front of the other. Like any Normal would do it. Five steps. Six. Like any Normal moron. Seven.
My legs buckled. I swayed.
I had to break out of it, or fall.
Old habits die hard. I called to my neurologist, “Sorry!”
And felt instant self-loathing.
My neurologist tilted her head. She looked puzzled. “What do you have to apologize for?”
Would Dr. X apologize?
I don’t think so.
“You’re right.” I agreed. “I have nothing to apologize for. So I flunked the heel-to-toe test. I have MS.”
She was still looking at me funny. “Actually, you didn’t flunk it this time. Your score was perfectly normal.”
Normal! Precious Normal!
That was just what I wanted, right?
Instead of feeling satisfied, I felt chagrined. I will only truly pass the heel-to-toe test when I don’t define myself by the results.

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