For obscure reasons, since seventh grade, I’ve given every wheelchair I’ve used the same name: Fred. Recently, I acquired a new Fred. It’s lightweight, handles beautifully, and was a bargain besides. As happy as I am to have it, though, the changing of the guard from one Fred to another is always a bittersweet transition.
All Freds must retire eventually, and my previous one had a good run of eight or nine years. A while back, the vinyl on his armrests started to crack and peel, so I gave them a makeover with leopard-print duct tape—an embellishment that garnered compliments from strangers almost daily. By the end of his term, Old Fred was in pretty rough shape—torn seat, bolts that wouldn’t stay tightened, rubber tires beginning to crumble.
I wonder how many miles I put on him. Besides routine activities like going to work and running errands, Old Fred and I had countless adventures together. We wheeled across the Golden Gate Bridge, explored Mayan ruins, and tackled mud season in Vermont. Many, many times we off-roaded over terrain he wasn’t built to handle, and he always rose to the challenge.
We went to rock shows as well as rocky outcroppings. We twirled around the dance floors of Nashville honky tonks, a Mexican disco, and weddings and reunions from coast to coast. We once modeled for a book about style so I could school folks on the challenges of dressing for a seated lifestyle (spoiler alert: high heels won’t make you look any taller).
Old Fred also rolled with me into a Tennessee hospital room to say goodbye when my father-in-law passed away. On another terrible morning, together we held Nacho Kitty in my lap as she was euthanized.
A wheelchair is just an inanimate object, right? Except it’s not. It’s a tool, and an extension of the user’s body. Transitioning from a familiar wheelchair to a new one feels strange at first. I don’t know what comparison I can make, to explain it to somebody who doesn’t use one. It’s kind of like a new pair of shoes, or a new car, but also like a new…I don’t know, roommate? Pet? This new…entity…becomes your constant companion.
This isn’t the time for a lecture about why expressions like “confined to a wheelchair” and “wheelchair-bound” are outdated, insulting, and generally just plain inaccurate. But I will say this: using a wheelchair has never made me feel restricted. The barriers and obstacles of the able-bodied world have often made me feel restricted, but to me, the wheelchair itself represents freedom. Without it, I’d be limited to…what? My house? The constant pain and frustration of trying to make my body do something it can’t do—namely, walk?
As I write this, Old Fred has been parked in a closet for about a month. Although I’m not using him anymore, I can’t quite bring myself to let him go yet. Soon I’ll donate him, maybe to a non-profit that needs him for parts, or to someone who can use him in an art project. (A previous generation of Old Fred went into show business when I retired him, becoming a prop for a local theater company.) He’s earned some rest.
Another era has begun, and my new Fred will be with me for whatever experiences come next.