Category Archives: Lisa’s Story

Tire Pressure

There’s nothing worse than getting a flat tire on Friday at 5:00.

Come to think of it, there are thousands of things that are worse: wasp stings, eczema, incarceration, halitosis, vandalism, corn smut, Milli Vanilli… and that’s just off the top of my head.

So let me rephrase it: A flat tire is a major inconvenience on a Friday at 5:00. Made even more so when you just got on the highway, you’re running late – and you happen to be quadriplegic.

Such was my husband’s dilemma a few days ago. But thanks to the kindness of strangers, he got through it a little less scathed. First, of course, we give a nod to the driver who alerted my husband to the flat tire in the first place, gesturing like mad to get his attention. The guy almost managed to communicate the problem before the on-ramp to the highway. Almost, but not quite.

My husband, of course, began to fret just a little bit, listening to the steady thump of a shredding tire as he crawled along the highway towards the nearest exit. Meanwhile, I called the nearest tire centre – Google helpfully informed me it was “CLOSING SOON!” – to let them know he was headed there.

The woman who answered the phone, Diana, was as compassionate as could be. “Oh no!” she commiserated. “We can put his spare tire on when he gets here, and that will get him home.” Our wheelchair van is secondhand; I wasn’t even confident it had a spare tire. “Now I’m going to cry!” Diana responded. (Spoiler: She didn’t cry. But she was seriously considering it.)

Luckily, my husband made his way to the tire centre before closing time. The workers were prepared to receive him, and one of them even knew where to find the spare tire in its secret hidden compartment made invisible by several magical enchantments.

They got the spare on. My husband was almost ready to set off for home (at the prescribed speed, a.k.a. a snail’s pace, with four-way flashers going). Just one more hold-up: They wouldn’t accept any money. Diana was insistent. “Absolutely not. I’m a hockey player!” she exclaimed.

We’re not sure what that means. Are hockey players extra-tough? Extra-sweet? Extra-resourceful? All of the above, probably.

We’re grateful for the good deed. Sometimes I don’t think people realize what a real difference they are making. You saved my husband in a pinch, Lady Diana.

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Our spare tire. So tiny and adorable.

Up Close and Very Personal

In my line of work, writing freelance magazine articles, I speak to a whole lot of different people. And some of them are vulnerable.

Sure, there are the polished experts – Canada’s go-to spokespersons on this, or the country’s foremost researchers in that. There are even the B-list celebrities (A-listers are out of my reach) whose very living depends entirely on media attention.

But lots of times, I interview ordinary people who have survived difficult, even devastating, life experiences. I’ve talked with women who’ve tragically lost their unborn babies. I’ve spoken to parents whose children have mysterious, unbidden, possibly life-threatening medical conditions. I’ve had conversations with men and women who have been depressed, even suicidal. I’ve questioned people who have endured other hardships large and small that have impacted on their day-to-day lives in profound and lasting ways.

At the end of the day, when a writer is switching off her computer monitor and powering down, she might ask herself: What’s in it for them? Why do these people open themselves up, at times ripping apart metaphorical stitches, to expose their pain to the world?

I know the reason. It’s because they’re convinced they can make a difference. They can show other people they’re not alone. They can give advice, so important and precious, advice that can only come from someone who has walked the same path. They can do their part to lessen the pain for the next person.

I know for certain this is why they do it. Why else would someone who is not a pathological egomaniac reveal such personal details to hundreds of thousands of readers?

And yet I was reminded of it again last week, when I interviewed a woman who had survived a potentially lethal disease. While we talked, she cried a little. But she was candid and honest and answered every one of my questions.

Afterwards, she admitted she had considered whether or not to go ahead with the interview. She’s generally a private individual, she told me. This isn’t like her, to tell her story to a national magazine. But she knew it was the right thing to do.

“If it helps even one person,” she said, “it’s worth sharing what I went through.”

You know what? Her decision may save a life. Or multiple lives. I am constantly humbled by the generosity of the women and men I speak to. It’s no wonder I love my job. I get to see the compassion of the human spirit – truly, up close and very personal.

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We don’t get through everything unscathed, but we can leave a trail for the next person.

Someone’s up to Snow Good

The first snowstorm of the season is a bit like a semi-annual dental cleaning. You know it’s coming and you don’t necessarily look forward to it, but you gird yourself and get through it all the same.

Here in Toronto, our winter’s first storm started Sunday night, and by yesterday morning we had 15 cm of the stuff to clear away. Temperatures hovered around zero because, after all, this is The Six, where the snow that piles up is less often light and fluffy, and more often slushy, joyless and stone-heavy, such that the left side of your chest almost shrieks out loud with every shovelful. I struggled to clear our walkways, but the extra-wide driveway was out of the question.

Since no one has yet invented a snow plow that attaches to my husband’s power wheelchair – as far as he’s concerned, it would have to be one that comes with a domed, self-heated enclosure and a little cup holder for his hot tea, and perhaps the documentary channel on surround-sound while he’s at it – I am the one stuck with the shoveling. And by stuck, I mean that I reach a point where my shovel is left stuck in a snowbank, and I’m back in the house trying to catch my breath.

But like I said, the temperature was rising, and by the time I took the dog out at midday, a quick glance towards the driveway as I left the house suggested to me that the snow had almost completely disappeared. Melted away, or so I thought. It wasn’t until I returned from the walk and grabbed a shovel to finish the clean-up that I realized the snow hadn’t melted at all. Rather, it had been vigorously cleared away, at some point in the morning, by some nameless neighbour.

Again.

It happens every year. The snow falls hard, I struggle to clear us out, someone comes along and lightens my load.

And here’s the thing. I don’t have a clue who to thank. There are so many kind souls around here that, in winter weather, I can’t even be sure who did what good deed. Which is probably why I write about this every year.

The weather is cold, but our hearts are warmed.

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Finders, Keepers? Not This Time

There’s a bad case of butterfingers going around my neighbourhood.

First, someone lost their set of keys. I know this, because a helpful person found them – most likely in an area of long grass where we all walk our dogs – and displayed them prominently on a boulder by the road, where they caught my eye as I walked by.

Then, a guy dropped an important piece of identification inside our local subway station. I’m in the loop on this, too. That’s because my friend picked it up, and contacted me for help tracking him down.

Thanks to technology, it’s not as challenging as it used to be to reunite lost items with their owners. In the old days, you’d post flyers on all the telephone poles in the area, or you’d even pay for a classified ad (remember those?) to run in a newspaper (remember those?). It took considerable time and effort.

Now, you simply go online and Google the name on the identification card. Or you take a quick phone pic of the lost keys, and post it on a community Facebook page.

In the case of the lost ID card, my friend and I did manage to find the guy’s work number. (In the course of doing so, we also learned where he lives, what he does for a living, and exactly when the bid to relocate his home’s air conditioning unit was rejected by the city’s committee of adjustment.) Happily, the card was returned. The owner was grateful.

As for the keys? Not such a perfect ending. After I posted the photo online, someone in the neighbourhood did contact me to say she thought they were hers. She was temporarily out of town, but I offered to go back and scoop them up for safekeeping.

The key ring sat on my desk for a week. That’s how long it took for my neighbour to check with her various family members and domestic employees. And that’s how long it took for her to ascertain that this generic-looking set of keys did not, in fact, belong to her household.

Dejected, I was forced to walk back and return the keys to the roadside rock where I’d first found them. I sincerely hoped that, in the intervening week, the rightful owner hadn’t come back, done a thorough search of the area, and consequently scratched this corner of the neighbourhood off the list of All the Different Places I Went the Day I Absentmindedly Dropped My Keys.

Last time I checked, the keys were still there.

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As noted by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “The waiting is the hardest part…”

Vive la France

I’m back – or should I say, je suis revenue. This year, I spent my summer vacation in beautiful France. It was an epic journey for me and my daughter, as we don’t have the opportunity to travel nearly as often as we’d like. Plus both of us appreciate gorgeous landscapes, love good food, and can get along in passable French. (My accent is cringeworthy and I sometimes flub my grammar, but my vocabulary isn’t bad at all.)

If you’ve visited Paris, you know that in this international city a great many tourists and citizens alike speak English. We didn’t land in Paris until the last leg of our trip, however. Up to that point, most people we encountered spoke little or no English. Our lack of total fluency in French was a minor barrier when we needed help, but not a significant one. There are no language restrictions on acts of kindness.

And people were lovely. They really were. When we were trying to find an obscure museum building in a Lyon suburb, the middle-aged woman who noticed us wandering went out of her way to put us on the right path. When our train at Aix-en-Provence was en panne and we were forced to change routes and we suddenly weren’t sure just where we’d end up, every fellow passenger we spoke to was generous with their assistance. Every day, shopkeepers greeted us with warm welcomes, took time to describe heritage recipes or discuss their handicrafts. Tour guides patiently answered our questions, happy to explain customs and even talk politics. Hoteliers handed out as many maps and directions as we needed.

When your experience is made better by the courtesy of so many strangers in so many strange places, how do you give back to the community? My daughter easily answered that question by passing coins to homeless people everywhere we went. As for me, I’ve just packaged up a couple of Canadian souvenirs to put in the international mail.

There’s a funny story behind that. We were at a large train station with a few minutes to kill before our bus connection. We’d noticed the SOS Station office, but I’d assumed it was for lost children, or perhaps passengers who’d taken ill. That was until an older French woman came barrelling out of the office towards us. “You speak English,” she said. “Let me guess, you are American?” No, we said. “Oh, then British?” No. “Australian?” Nope. She finally pegged us as Canadians on her fourth try, and then entreated us to stay in her waiting room for a few minutes. Apparently, SOS is set up to save the souls of international travellers, a sort of comfort station for the non-French. There were seats, tourism brochures, a water cooler. We spent a few awkward minutes perched on chairs until it was time for us to go meet our bus. That’s when the French woman got to the point: She’d love it if we would mail her a Canadian pin for her collection. Perhaps two? She scribbled her name and address on a scrap of paper, helpfully adding “lady at SOS Station” in case we couldn’t remember, later, exactly why we were holding onto this stranger’s credentials.

So that’s why I’m now sending a padded envelope to France. It’s my small way of giving back to a country that welcomed us and shared with us its culture, its vast natural beauty and its fascinating history. Not to mention its astonishingly perfect cuisine.

Merci bien!

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Remind me again why I came back home?

Large as Life

Last week I was summoned to a government service office to replace my aging provincial health card with a brand-spanking-new photo ID card. (Funniest moment: When the guy taking my picture told me, in this order, to (1) remove my powerful glasses, and (2) stare at the small yellow dot six feet away.)

In this province at least, we’re getting more streamlined systems in place for making our organ donation wishes easily known. After we cash in our chips, there’s a limited time in which our tissues and organs can be actually put to good use. The new health cards have the information printed right on the back. Has a body recently expired? Flip card over. Read donation wishes. Save other lives.

Thus part of my renewal process last week involved filling out a form. The same government agent who asked me to stare at an impossibly small pale spot without my glasses was also amusingly judgy about the form. He nodded with approval at all the places where I ticked off “use anything,” “take whatever,” “party on.” Why wouldn’t anyone want to donate organs, he wondered aloud? Doesn’t everyone realize you can save seven or eight more lives?

Then he told me what had happened just a few days earlier. A woman walked in to renew her own health card, and when the same topic of conversation came up, she expressed her clear and unequivocal support for organ donation.

“I am here,” she explained to the agent, “because someone I don’t even know gave me their lungs.”

When it’s real and right in front of you, it hits home harder.

I’m on vacation for the next three weeks, lovely people. While I’m gone, please take a break, have some fun, spend time with the folks you adore most. I look forward to reconnecting with you again later in the month.

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Oh, and take time to smell the flowers.

Here’s to the Doorbuilders

Do you ever have one of those moments when you’re utterly humbled by the unselfish acts of others?

Yeah, me too.

Last Friday, I gave up part of my afternoon to collect information on wheelchair access and legislation. This was unpaid work. I’m helping an administrator to comply with the law. Full disclosure: My husband, a wheelchair user, stands to benefit from increased accessibility at this venue.

Here in Ontario, we’re in a years-long process of phasing in legislation that will strengthen the rights protection of people with disabilities. It’s a funny sort of situation, because these rights are already protected – have been for decades, in fact, under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

It’s just that no one seems to know about it.

When people with disabilities go shopping, eat at restaurants, go to the theatre, their rights are routinely violated. They can’t browse in a store, say, because a huge promotional display for maxipads is blocking the aisle. Only people who can stand up can squeeze past. Or they’re told they can’t have a table inside a café, even though there are empty tables available, because their wheelchair would be in the way. Or they’re told they can’t sit anywhere but in the very back row of the theatre. Think this never happens in the 21st century? In fact, all these things have happened to our family in recent memory.

Most of the time, it’s unintentional. And by that I mean that the shopkeepers or eatery owners who don’t treat all their patrons equally are completely clueless that they’re breaking the law.

That’s where the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) comes in. While human rights legislation gives a sort of general guideline – “hey, it’s uncool to discriminate and stuff” – the AODA explains exactly how one must go about providing fair and equitable service to people with disabilities.

This was all very useful in my research last Friday. If I’ve done the job right, the next time my husband patronizes this facility, he will (fingers crossed) be treated fairly. But hopefully this work  will also benefit the many others who come after him. And that’s the critical part. Why should these future customers have to experience the humiliation we did, just because they happen to have a disability?

This wasn’t a brief exercise by any means. I got a bit antsy. The other work I’d hoped to complete that day went on hold. Plus I had friends coming over in a few hours, and there was still vacuuming to be done, laundry to be folded, dinner to be started.

In fact, by the time I hit the Send button and looked at the clock, I admit I was mildly resentful of the time I’d devoted to this.

But then I did a reality check. And I was instantly humbled.

How can I complain about giving up an hour or two of my time to look up some laws? The only reason we have rights legislation and landmark court decisions in the first place is because other people, much more tenacious and persistent than me, have devoted hours, days, even years of their time. Not to mention sweat and tears. Possibly even blood. I can’t rule that out.

So, shut my mouth.

Every time we refer to legislation to prove our right to participate in Canadian society, it’s because steadfast advocates have dedicated themselves to fighting for these laws. They’ve fought for enforcement, too, and for awareness.

They’ve done it not just for themselves, but for all those who come after.

We owe them immense gratitude. And the least I can do is blog about it. So for all the David Lepofskys and the Barbara Turnbulls, and all the others who have made sacrifices to make a difference, we’re indebted to you.

And as for all those who don’t consider themselves longtime accessibility advocates… you know what? If you’ve ever made an effort to make a person with a disability feel welcome at your place of business, your restaurant or your theatre, then that matters a whole lot, too.

Milton Berle said: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” I’m grateful to everyone who makes that first cut into the wall.

WelcomeMat

Photo by John Kawasa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net