On Being an Athlete

I had to wrestle a jar of spaghetti sauce open once. Those lids are hard enough for anyone to open but especially impossible for someone with chronic muscle deterioration. I sweated and pounded on the lid with a variety of kitchen implements, like can openers and knives, and then moved on to the real competition of me against machine-sealing technology. When the softening power of hot water failed to separate lid from jar, I realized only my strength could overcome the hunger that was deepening as the moments were passing. Even the wrench I sought to employ failed to get a grip. Things were getting dramatic and intense as I knelt on the floor, my whole body wrapped around this ridiculous jar of Extra Thick and Zesty. This was supposed to be one of those thrown-together meals and there I was, spending 40 minutes wrestling on the floor with a jar of heat-and-eat sauce. But then — when I strained my arm forward, I felt my feet cross the finish line as that little safety pop-top popped. As I sat breathing hard over that pasta I was just about too tired to eat, I thought, That was quite a work-out.

I climb stairs to get to my apartment, to get into the community clinic where I work, to get on buses. I climb them like a mountain-climber scales Half Dome. I have to figure handholds, double-check my footing, sometimes pull my body up one step at a time, sometimes lower myself carefully on the descent.

I plan chores like they are small-scale marathons, with calculations, negotiations, to get food from the store to my door, move laundry to the laundromat and back home again, upstairs, downstairs, again and again. Decide if I can get that free cup of coffee that comes with the pound I just bought because carrying it home’s more of a hassle than it’s worth and getting it home up the stairs is another decision, another hurdle to clear.

I realize I’m not everyone’s image of an athlete but that only speaks to the inadequacy of our vision.

When I am loaded with the usual gear people haul around for daily life and I plop myself into a seat on board a MUNI bus, I feel like I’ve climbed an elephant. As I drop breathlessly into a seat I know I’m conspicuous, with my cane and way of moving. What I see in the faces of those who look at me has changed, grown more accepting and encouraging. Part of the reason for this lies in changing attitudes. The most important change, however, has been in my own view of myself.

Once upon a time, I would have seen pity and sometimes heard an outright “Tsk tsk,” from a fellow rider, shaking her head in dismay at my obvious plight.

Once upon a time, I would have seen the distaste and impatience on another face, that I was slowing up the works.

Once upon an earlier time, I would have seen someone stare straight ahead when I asked if I might please have his seat.

But now, because I know I have just successfully completed one obstacle course in a series of daily obstacle courses, I do not see the pity, do not see the anger, do not see the denial that I exist. I see respect for what I have overcome, I see some concern that I may yet fall on my face, I see wonder at who I am and what I do to get where I want to go.

I give myself these honors of the athlete.

1996

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