Ashley Caveda received her MFA from The Ohio State University. Her writing has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Ruminate Magazine, and the Southeast Review. She works at Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis, telling the stories of others through video production, blogging, and podcasting. Currently, she is writing a YA science fiction novel about a young woman with a disability.
Caveda's nonfiction, “Hail Able Bodies,” was originally published in The Southeast Review Volume 33.2.
Hail Able Bodies
No one likes a disgruntled cripple, so smile. You want others to like you. You need them to like you. You depend on them. As friends and confidants, of course. But, more practically speaking, as an extension of your body. You are at their mercy. These people, who are experts at negotiating a world designed for the healthy, the whole—a world of stairs and narrow doorways and woods and gravel and bodies that work how God intended. Remember, they like you brave. Over the years, people will ask you to recount the car accident that left you paralyzed at the age of six because of a lap belt injury; with repetition, it will become a story to you, easy to tell, and the listeners will shake their heads and marvel, noting what a miracle you are as they touch your face or shoulder or stroke your long brown hair. Keep them happy. Laugh as though your disability is small while you are not. As though your disability is simple. Surmountable. A joke. Remind them with a wink that you put the ‘handy’ in ‘handicapped.’ When a coworker complains of an aching hip over lunch, never miss the chance to say, “Must be nice.” Throw in some theatrics. An eye roll or an old-fashioned stage whisper. Don’t be afraid to pander to the crowd. Everyone likes a funny cripple. The nights your legs spasm incessantly as you try to sleep, contort them any way you can to make them stop: lie at the wrong end of your bed with your heels flat against the firm mattress; sit with your head propped against the window and your legs dangling off the side; manually stretch the tendons in your feet until your wrists are weak from the strain. When these fail, climb into your chair and push yourself back and forth by your bookshelf for several minutes before trying to go to sleep again. As a last resort, strike yourself above the knee. Dig your knuckles in hard. Though you will feel nothing, your legs will writhe with retribution. Don’t speak of the rage that spreads through you. Rather, speak lightly of your spasms, of such a loss of control, as though it were no more than a neighbor’s dog barking at three am. End the story with a shrug. When an emergency room doctor looks at an x-ray of your bowels at the age of twenty-eight and in an offhand, it-might-rain kind of way, says that it’s “pretty much downhill from here,” wait to cry until you’re sitting with your boyfriend in his old Toyota. When he says nothing, and instead watches the windshield wipers cut through the sudden September storm, feel the tears slide down your face. It’s okay not to be okay, but only for a moment. Pretend you aren’t terrified of what middle age holds. Release those fears as unformed prayers. Try never to utter them specifically. Never pray, “Don’t let me become a prisoner in my own body.” You can’t be denied if you never ask. Pray instead with your yearnings. Everyone gets old. Everyone’s body breaks down. You’re not special. Just take your Methenamine. Later that same year, try to articulate how it feels to spend an hour naked in the bathroom on the cold linoleum. The absurdity of being trapped in a room so small you can’t even crawl around your chair to open the door. The lack of leverage, how your chair tipped forward with your weight, your ribcage catching the edge of the seat as you tried to pull yourself up. You’ll show your friends the collage of purple and green on your shins at work the next day, the painless bruises. But they won’t understand the shame such a small amount of gravity can cause. They who carry their bodies, as well as yours, up dozens of stairs as though they were nothing. When they help you into a car, or into a boat, or out of a pool, or when they interrupt their day to drive you somewhere, or when they carry your suitcase, or push you up a hill, thank them repeatedly. Then apologize. Never forget to say you’re sorry. At the age of thirteen, after your mother makes your brother John carry you and your chair and your green travel bag into the house, he’ll tell you that you’re just a consumer, how you take and you take. He’ll say it with a smirk and cold eyes as he checks his hair in the bathroom mirror. You will believe him. From then on, when you sense the faintest whiff of resentment from your closest friends and family, don’t break. This is your fault. You’ve earned their frustration. You deserve it. The economics of disability are precise and you are always in the red. Somewhere, inside the part of your body you cannot even feel, you’ll feel this: You are a burden. Stretch for absolution. Reach for it as though you can stand. As though all of the intangible things you have to offer—your love, your admiration, your gratitude—are somehow enough. Persist even in failure. Reverence is key. Praise God for those who do what you cannot. Praise Him for all of their sacrifices. A dozen Hail Mothers, or Hail Sisters, or Hail Fathers, or Hail Roommates, Hail Coworkers, Hail Strangers, Hail Teachers, Hail Lovers. Hail Able Bodies. Again. Again. Don’t stop.