Arielle was injured at the age of ten, so I have to dig deep to think about how our relationship has changed. She’s eighteen now. The wheelchair has become such a part of our lives that it’s difficult to remember life before it.
Some of the last pictures I have of Arielle before the car accident were of her climbing a trail in the Smoky Mountains, roller-skating and jumping the long-jump during her third grade field day. I look at those pictures and wonder what her life would be like now without the wheelchair? Skating, horseback riding, climbing trails, zip lining would all be accessible to her as well as taxi’s in New York City, all hotel rooms, beaches, and our home. But the wheelchair has woven its way into our lives and has been a constant thread affecting all of our relationships… for the better.
Arielle being the first born and female had a lot of expectations placed on her from birth. She was going to always be at the top of her class and go to college right after high school. Maybe even an Ivy league college. She attended an elementary school that was known for their high expectations and right before the accident I accepted a full time teacher’s position at that same school. The path was set until Thanksgiving Day 2003 when I got the call that Arielle was in the hospital.
During those days in rehab we became very close. Suddenly, the child that was my oldest and most responsible needed me. My focus turned from what I saw her becoming in the future to the now – what she needed in the moment. We laughed together as we escaped rehab. one night to attend a Miami Heat game. I held her hand during her two needles a day and I encouraged her as she learned to use her transfer board.
When we returned home I did some soul searching and realized that first, Arielle was still the same happy intelligent person – she just couldn’t walk. If I changed my high expectations for her, I would hurt her. She had to learn to face the world from the seat of her wheelchair. Second, I didn’t want Arielle to feel as though she wouldn’t be whole if she couldn’t walk. The wheelchair was now part of her and I didn’t want her always hoping for a future without it. I wanted her to accept what is and live a happy life. She needed to love herself now.
Our adventures began because I wanted to teach her to get out into the world and be herself. We traveled to different states and different countries. We visited college campuses. We spent days together in Philadelphia while she saw doctors at the Shriner’s Hospital.
When Arielle decided to join her high school track team and race with a racing wheelchair I faced my biggest obstacle from within. Perhaps the years leading up to high school and watching her have to maneuver through a world that is not completely accessible and deal with people who are not compassionate to others different from themselves gave me the courage I needed to speak up for Arielle. I could not sit back and let our school system tell my daughter that she could not participate on her high school track team because she used a wheelchair. It was uncomfortable for me to ruffle a few feathers and speak out. My nature is to sit alone in a room typing away while listening to the birds chirp outside my window. It was infuriating to hear what a few people had to say about allowing a racing wheelchair into their track program. Arguing with the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) or school district personal was not enjoyable, but it was necessary for Arielle and other students in Florida using wheelchairs.
Eventually, people came together and the change was made. Arielle and I will never forget the day the FHSAA accepted adaptive track into their program. We cried. She could be on her team and wear the schools colors with everyone else.
This is Arielle’s third and final year as a member of her track team. Although she’s had to race alone against her own time for the races we look forward to the day when there are several racing wheelchairs competing against one another on Florida high school tracks. Arielle has opened the door for student wheelchair users all across Florida.
Our travels, the track program, and all of the obstacles outer and inner that we’ve had to face because of the wheelchair have made us better people and brought us closer together. Arielle will graduate high school in three weeks summa cum laude and attend the University of Illinois. That little girl who had all the expectations placed on her at birth has far exceeded anything I ever imagined. Saying good-bye to her will break my heart – half of it will stay in Illinois while the other half returns to Florida. I will return to Florida knowing Arielle is ready for whatever life sends her way because she’s already faced a mountain and rolled over it.
And for students… my fantasy novel, MYSTIC, will be out November 2012.