Randy* had been in the hospital for almost a month when I went to give him a massage. This man, a well-known former radio station owner, had fallen in his home and broken his back. His recovery was slow and painful, exacerbated by other chronic conditions.
His wife left as I came in, her arms full of laundry to take home. When she texted me earlier to set up the appointment, she mentioned that he was starting physical therapy, finally, and she hoped the massages would help him get stronger.
Randy liked to chat during his massage. He spent his whole life interviewing people and speaking to large rooms, so his natural habitat was conversation. Knowing this, I asked him how his PT was going. He sighed heavily.
"It's hard," he said, "Damn hard. They have to use this lift to get me up and then I just sort of hang there and move my legs."
I asked him what he hoped would come of all the work he was doing, and he answered with characteristic directness: "I hope it gets easier for me to sit myself up, but I don't think I want to walk again."
I nodded slightly, leaving space for more, if he had more to say. He did.
"I have this brain tumor, you know, and it affects my balance. And I haven't been able to feel my feet for years now. I don't want to fall again. Plus," he gestured to a brand new motorized wheelchair in the corner of the room, "Medicare paid for this fancy chair and I can get around just fine with that thing."
There are so many moments when, if I am listening, I have my every assumption challenged. Of course, I assumed, he would want to walk again. He would want to reach this goal to maintain his independence, surely. I assumed "independence" must surely include being able to walk. As I reflected on what he said, I realized that for him, independence meant being mobile without fear of falling every time he took a step. Walking, for him, was the opposite of independence.
The picture I had of his return to his life was built on my guess at what goals should be. It was built on the ableist assumptions I am just now learning to identify and dismantle in myself. It continues to be a sharp shock to see my own biases right in front of my face like that. I am grateful for it.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.