Friday, April 02, 2010

Radicalism of our time

When Robert was very young, we were given a used side-ramp van--a Dodge Caravan, cavernous, with a dropped floor, raised rear tires, that would 'kneel' when I flipped a switch by the steering wheel. With a whoosh, air would rush out of the cylinders that provided the van's suspension, the back would gently lower, and a large steel ramp would unfold from the side and settle to the ground.

The floor of the van was a knobbly plastic, easy to sweep and keep clean, and Robert's wheelchair was held down with adjustable straps bolted to the floor. When we drove, everything in the van would rattle and hum because the insides of the van had been scooped out and it was nothing more than a giant tin can to put a wheelchair in.

We were grateful to have it. Without the van, Robert's blue wheelchair had to be taken apart. The chair came apart in four pieces: hinged seat, two footplates, and a frame that folded in the middle. The seat was held in place by four points that needed to be loosened. Robert, when inserted in the chair, required a seatbelt and a vest that fastened at four points. So each time we drove in the car, a 13-point disassembly and assembly was required. Oh, yes, and then there was the five-point restraint system of his car seat. So make that 18.

While the van was sometimes hard to park--it required a handicapped spot and an access alley partner who showed basic human courtesy by staying inside their own lines--it offered a certain kind of freedom. A way to normalize circumstances.

Robert was my errand buddy. We shopped, we drove around Bethesda and Rockville, or maybe into the District. We were out and about, two regular kids on regular business. Robert's wheelchair handlebars made fine hooks for shopping bags. And I even figured out how to suspend one of those plastic supermarket hand-baskets between those bars.

But the van, alas, was not long for this world. An inconsiderate and unapologetic woman at the hardware store ran over the ramp when I tried to take a regular spot because the handicapped spots were taken by people without permits. The radiator sprung leaks. The transmission gave out, the temperature gauge lost its bearings. The air cylinders regularly gave out, leaving us to drive 20 miles an hour all the way home in a vehicle without suspension. Finally, the oil pan developed a permanent leak and the engine threatened to give up the ghost.

We gave the van away to whomever could use it for a six-month stint to get them through to whatever might be their next mile marker.

Without the van, and with Robert's increasing weight, heading out on an expedition with multiple stops became physically grueling. Our family life shifted, we got out less, Robert got out less, errands and weekends became exercises in dividing forces and dividing up time. Our lives reduced to the radical of Robert's disabilities. I told a friend last night that I so resented it when people assumed that disability represented a permanent stop, the epitome of limitation. Things change, I said, with a growing child--disability is never quite the same twice. Yet there we were, until last weekend, brought to a halt by circumstances.

But last weekend, we finally bought another ramp van, after working with our finances for a few years. Vans are smaller now and the newer Grand Caravans with their side ramps are like mini-mes of their early 1990s ancestors. Maneuvering Robert's chair in them was, frankly, difficult and irritating.

We bought a rear-ramp vehicle. Now parking lots will not deter us! (Just on-street parking will be our nadir) Take that, you violators of handicapped parking rules! No longer will I stand there, keys in hand, longing to give you your well-deserved $250 ticket in the form of a long scrape down the length of your vehicle!

Robert rolls up the back, down a channel cut into the middle of the van, and pulls in between and just behind two rear seats. Retractable locks with big black hooks clasp his chair to the floor, and a big seatbelt fastens across his lap and shoulders. He can look out the front window of the van. And he sits next to Edith.

This is the most exciting thing that has happened to Robert for years.

This is the nicest stereo system in a car I have ever had. I have been driving very used cars for too long and have never owned a car made after 1998. Our bronze road goddess is 2008.

And we are off today on a spring break expedition on a beautiful day to the Shenandoah.

And I have ordered new bumper stickers for the car (on magnets so we can change them). One is my old Abbie Hoffman favorite: "You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists." One of the others is a quote from the Dalai Lama: "Compassion is the radicalism of our time."


Elizabeth said...

Congrats on the new acquisition! And I hope that you have a wonderful spring break with good weather, good food and lots of laughs and ease. Keep us all posted! I'm lifting the Abbie Hoffman quote and putting it on my blog, if you don't mind--

Rachel Elizabeth said...

How exciting! Yay for a newly restored sense of freedom and togetherness. :]

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