What’s the best Christmas gift that you can imagine for an eight-year-old girl?
You’ll never guess what it was.
I received it at the big Christmas party in the Manchester armory where the other MDA kids and their families were celebrating. In my burgundy boots and my green plaid dress, I remember listening to the live band performing Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree, Rudolph, Frosty and other songs that make any kid want to dance and sing, giddy with candy canes and the promise of an appearance from Santa Claus. I don’t remember Santa’s visit. Nor do I even remember my amazing Christmas gift being unwrapped.
What I remember was flying in my gift.
I flew up and down the length of the armory in my brand-new Abec power wheelchair. Yes. A wheelchair. It was the one that I had chosen at school when my occupational therapist had arranged for three electric wheelchairs to be brought in for me to test. Although the grown-ups had tried to talk me into the bigger, more traditional chairs, I wanted the Abec — minimalist design, low to the ground, polished aluminum, with burgundy seating and four small wheels. I wanted this one because it was little. Little like me. After choosing, I had thought that I would have to wait eons before it would be mine.
And then came the Christmas party surprise.
What I felt for my new gift wasn’t possession, as in the owning of a toy, but rather transformation. That present changed my life.
It changed me.
Although I had never been able to walk, my mother hadn’t been able to bear the thought of me being in a wheelchair, so I was pushed about in a stroller when I wasn’t being carried. Then, when I was four years old, I received a manual wheelchair that I called “Wheelie,” in which I had never been strong enough to go far. As my progressive disease relentlessly weakened my arms, I couldn’t turn the wheels at all. I had to wait patiently (or impatiently) for someone to come and move me.
After that Christmas when I was eight years old, I could finally move myself.
Just the little act of being able to turn toward a person that my family had stopped to talk to in a store was transformative. I no longer had to sit facing away from the people conversing because my loved one had forgotten to turn me. Now I could face the stranger, make eye contact, smile. I was still too shy to engage in the conversation, but it was a beginning.
My life out-of-doors immediately blossomed with my new wheelchair. Thankfully, our front storm door was broken (or perhaps I had accidentally broken it?) so I could burst out of my house in my power chair and race down the ramp, make a big sweeping turn to the left while leaning into the curve, and then another to the right, up the hill of the paved driveway and then back down again, trees seeming to whiz by me, the air moving like a breeze on my face. Or maybe I was the breeze.
Venturing over the lawn with my neighbor and best friend, Mary, out into the big field beside my house, I’d become surrounded by the tall, golden grasses, daisies, and black-eyed Susans. Across the road and into the woods, we traveled down the amber path carpeted with pine needles and ridged with roots as far as I could go to see the brook bubbling by, overhung with fallen trees and bushes hiding birds. This was my experience of the deep forest, with only the quiet sounds of water and the whispering of wind through the pines.
Schoolyard play was opened up to me as well, as my friends figured out ways for me to play hopscotch and kickball on the hot top. I could freely visit this friend or that one during recess or free time, go to lunch, the nurse’s office, or the library, no longer dependent upon someone to bring me where I wanted or needed to go. Even unpleasant times became more pleasant, when, at home, I could “walk away” from an argument or an annoying person and close myself into the privacy of my own room to sulk, as every teenager must.
By adulthood, I was a little less rambunctious, no longer taking two mile walks or plowing through the snow with Mary’s help to skate on the little icy marsh of the field. But I walked the hardpacked beach of Long Sands in solitary communion with the sea, and I traversed the Rhododendron Forest, able to pause whenever I wished to enjoy a crashing wave or a particular bloom because of my chair.
When I was 29, my first nephew was born, then two years later came my second. My body had become far too weak by this time for me to hold each baby in my arms, but my wheelchair was strong enough to support a little toddler sitting on my foot rest and a preschooler standing on my back motors while holding onto my handlebars. When the youngest one became a superhero, “Swiffer Man,” I was the transport/sidekick who helped him heroically sweep the floors as I dragged him behind me. I took my little ones everywhere, individually or both together, as I carried them, upon my wheelchair, through zoos and shopping malls, down church aisles, around the yard or in the house. One or the other of them would climb up on me anytime they wanted, as comfortably as if they would curl up on my lap, sometimes just to be close to me.
I remember teaching one of them about centrifugal force when he was just four years old. His warm chest pressed against my knees and his two little hands holding onto the front frame of my chair on each side of me, I would spin in a tight circle, first slowly to enjoy the dizziness, then faster once I was sure that he was obeying me to hold on tight. He felt himself being pulled back by the force and gripped even tighter, a wide open smile across his face. “Centwifugal force,” he repeated after me, quite pleased with what he had discovered. As we became more practiced, he would put his head back and squeal out his “whoas” as I delighted in every inch of that little boy whom I swung around with joy.
When my oldest nephew was less than two, he called me by his name for me — Tante — for the first time, wanting to play with me in his little playroom. We were both in the living room at the time, so he started off down the hallway but then stopped, turned back, and motioned to me with his hand. “Tante, follow,” he said.
And I could.
So if you ever hear someone say “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound,” pay no attention to that ignorant person. There is nothing confining or imprisoning about a wheelchair that the user can move. For proof, just ask the eight-year-old girl at that Christmas party in 1982, because even she can tell you.
A wheelchair is freedom.
A most powerful gift.
© 2022 Christina Chase
As I know now, Christ, divine love in the flesh, is the first and greatest Christmas gift. To share the love given to us by God, perhaps you’d like to consider giving the gift of a wheelchair to someone in need, or a modified bicycle to help a disabled child discover greater mobility and get to school. Every year, I like to purchase gifts through Catholic Relief Services, a trustworthy, international charity. Join me! (I get nothing from endorsing CRS, just the joy of sharing!)
To give a wheelchair, go to https://gifts.crs.org and select the category of health.
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.