Sunday, November 20, 2011
Others are not as lucky as me. They have to work harder for less. They don't get to take things for granted the way I do. This was driven home tonight (in spades) in an unlikely place - my local gym.
I go to the gym about 3 times a week. I may not look it, but that's the honest truth. It's hard and it hurts and I sweat a lot. I'm not even sure I could keep it up if not for the gentle prodding from my family and the long list of podcasts that keep me distracted while I lift, squat, and lunge. I don't always like going to the gym, but I like what it does for my health.
There's another fellow I see at the gym from time to time. I don't know his name or anything much about him. All I can tell you is that he's younger than me, and he lives his life in a wheelchair. And if that weren't enough, he has some manner of motor impairment - a severe palsy shake that reminds me of an serious stage of Parkinson's or the like.
Whenever I see him there, he's hoisted himself from his chair onto a treadmill, where he wills his legs to walk in their herky-jerky fashion while the rest of his shuddering body wants to do otherwise. His face is always the first thing I notice - lips pulled back over gritted teeth, eyes just fixed on something I can't see. He is pure effort and concentration, all to keep his muscles from the atrophy that his condition seems to prefer.
Back to last night. I was mid-way through my workout when I noticed him on his treadmill. As usual, his presence was a gentle nudge to my conscience that I could, indeed, finish my weight routine even if I was tired and sore. As is my habit after finishing my circuit, I went to the reclining bikes to do 10 or 15 minutes of cool-down pedalling before hitting the showers.
Immersed in in my podcast, I paid little attention at first to the movement beside me. Then I noticed it was That Guy, still sweating from the treadmill and now trying to pull himself from wheelchair to bike. I tried not to notice him and yet I was fascinated by his efforts. Blind willpower seemed to be the only thing propelling him onto the bike seat. All the while, every part of his body, every limb, trying like hell to launch into random orbits around him.
Somehow he made it onto the seat, with his next goal to aim his toes under the straps on the bike pedals. Again, severe palsied shudders tried to make the task impossible and, again, somehow he did it with almost infinite patience. I remember thinking that he must perceive time differenly than me, just because every movement was such a deliberate, lengthy negotiation with his muscles.
His right foot in place, his left foot defied the straps at first, but after a few tries he seemed to have it. And then the left strap gave way. The fellow lost concentration as his left leg shot forward, then backward, again and again. He uttered a cry of frustration that I could hear even through the drone of my iPod.
I noticed the problem and paused a second as I wondered if I should help, or maybe that would be taken as a patronizing gesture. The split-second argument in my brain ended the moment I realized I wouldn't think twice about helping someone without a disability. To keep the idiocy momentum in my brain, I quickly pulled out my earbuds and started gesturing to the fellow that I could help - like somehow he was foreign and wouldn't understand me speaking English.
He knew exactly what I was asking him. Even though he had trouble speaking himself, of course he could understand me. So I asked him again, one guy to another, if he wanted me to help. He nodded wildly and gestured towards his left leg. So I knelt and helped him put his foot on the pedal as I snapped the strap back into place. Once he let me know that it was tightened enough, I got back on my bike and finished my ride.
I watched him some more while the remaining minutes of my routine ticked towards zero. He willed his legs to pedal while his hands, fingers tense and twisted, pawed at the controls so that he could set the time and speed of his ride. He talked some more as he tried to hit the correct series of buttons. Truth be told, I couldn't understand his words, but I imagined he was just barking orders at his unruly hands as they negotiated the control panel before him.
A few minutes later I was done and getting off my bike. I silently cursed myself for not introducing myself, getting his name. Would I have done any differently for someone else? (Probably not). I thought about him for the rest of the evening. I imaginied every small task requring Herculean effort. I imagined the grim reality of knowing that, for all the hours spent sweating on a treadmill, it might never make a difference.
I will wave at him next time I see him. Or maybe just nod my head the way guys do. But he'll probably never know that he inspires me a little bit every time I walk into the gym. And that's kind of a shame.