I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet —thought to be an old Persian proverb.
It was at the local fitness center where I saw him. He was around six feet tall, a young man, perhaps in his late 20s. I had just entered the exercise room to start my regular routine when I noticed him on the treadmill, fully covered in sweat pants and top, walking rapidly but quite awkwardly, perspiration full upon his brow.
This was a quick impression that faded as I began the first part my regular regimen, pushing or pulling weights at several stations. Then I saw him coming down the aisle to pass me as he headed toward his next exercise.
He had an odd gait, something that immediately, if faintly, stimulated childhood memories of certain monster movies that the ancient part of my brain found disturbing.
As this handsome young man thrust each leg in front of his trunk, his arms were bent and also swung awkwardly and alternately forward from his shoulders. I brushed off this primitive response by reasoning that he might be one among the many badly-injured people I have seen in this fitness club at certain otherwise slow times, most of whom come here with trained attendants to assist them. These were, by my reckoning, people who had suffered traumatic injury to their spinal cord or had had a closed-head injury (as distinct from a stroke). I felt qualified to make these observations, having managed an acute rehabilitation hospital in my professional work.
As I spent the usual 1½ hours going through my eight routines (3 sets at each station), I saw this fellow at various other stations exercising his upper body, but he eventually disappeared from my view and I thought no more of him—until I entered the locker room to shower and dress.
Next to my locker were resting, upright, two black artificial legs, seemingly made of hard plastic. They were just like two whole legs, from toe to hip, resting side by side. I didn’t connect my observations until I entered the shower and saw a naked man walking on two stumps of legs, amputated just below the knee. It was the same fellow, of course, but I just hadn’t put everything together until this moment. I was stunned.
Here was this formerly tall man, now no taller than a 10-year old child, confidently stumping around the communal shower, finishing up his ablutions. I underwent a bout of cognitive dissidence as various thoughts and feelings flowed over and through me. I felt sympathy, mild disgust, admiration, curiosity and other, nameless emotions. I wanted to reach out to him, but this I immediately dismissed as condescending inasmuch as he was doing quite well without anybody’s help.
I took a rather long time to wash my hair and body, enjoying the warm water and the process, now that I am retired and not usually on anybody’s tight schedule, except when I make one for myself.
When I emerged from the shower room into the locker room, here was this man, now fully-dressed and once again tall, still seemingly confident in his awkward motions. We were close together as we managed our personal tasks and I became more comfortable with him. We maneuvered easily around each other, as attentive and considerate people do in a small and crowded locker room. He left the room and the club before I did. I was still processing, however, the memory of him on his stumps in the shower room.
Before returning home via a short bus ride on this warm and sunny afternoon, I stopped at the nearby ICA grocery store for some provisions. Here was this young man yet again, with a friend, possibly a slightly older brother. I ended up in the checkout line immediately in back of him. Perspiration was still forming on his brow, giving testament to the enormous exertions he had undergone in his disabled state. My admiration for him increased. He and his friend then walked away toward the bus station, talking and seemingly relaxed and familiar with each other. It made me feel good.
I later went to the Internet to look for pictures and information to put into this journal entry and found a wealth of information about regular people and athletes who get past the label “disabled” to lead satisfactory, even marvelous lives.
This young man’s determination, in the face of barriers most of us will not encounter, provides us with valuable material for positive life lessons, similar to many I had already encountered during my career in hospital management.
It was good to be reminded of them.