“I’m excited about the adventure,” Isaac says referring to life after high school, and a life on his own. Isaac sits a little hunched over in his wheelchair, his face a few weeks unshaven, “I’m not afraid at all. I’m more concerned about being a TCK than I am about being in a wheelchair.”
I’ve known Isaac’s family ever since we arrived in Chengdu, almost five years ago. I specifically remember meeting his dad within the first few weeks of our arrival and I had the pleasure of teaching his older son for two years.
But Isaac much less.
Around Christmas, he starred as Puck in the school’s winter drama production. He was confident, funny, and unhindered. He was fantastic, and I wanted to get to know him more.
A few weeks later, we were sitting in the school’s café.
“Do you ever wish you could walk?” I asked, feeling extremely uncomfortable. “I mean,” I stammered to explain, “I saw you the other day, outside the gym while your friends were playing, and I wondered if you ached to be in there with them.”
Isaac shook his head, “No, not really.”
I was a bit disappointed. I was hoping for a juicy story, one filled with tears and longings the I-hope-that-one-day-I’ll-be-able-to-walk-again sort of story. I wanted the kind of story that movies are made of.
But Isaac isn’t a movie and he doesn’t long to one day walk, or run, because he doesn’t want to be restricted. He likes his freedom.
“Pity really bothers me,” he said later on, “because they don’t need to – I’m just like everyone else. I just can’t walk.”
Chimimanda Adichi calls this a “patronizing well-meaning pity,” when people have a default position towards people (or people groups) that they either don’t know, or don’t understand – when they have a Single Story about them. Stories that emphasize how we are different, rather than on how we are similar.
Before sitting with Isaac, I had a patronizing well-meaning pity of those who could not walk and only assumed that they (and Isaac) looked upon me and my healthy legs with envy.
But he doesn’t, because he knows of the restrictions that come with it.
“When I was in middles school,” he says, “I had a dream where I was arguing with God. I don’t remember the surroundings, just that we were arguing, for a long time, and at the end I said that it was unfair that the cheetahs could run fast and that bats could fly, but I couldn’t stand”
Bats I thought really? You’re envious of bats? But I didn’t question, I just typed, to each his own I suppose.
“When I was finished,” Isaac continued, “I looked up to God. He wasn’t angry or mad, he was sad.” He paused for a moment to clarify, “but not sad for me, like he felt bad for me, but because I was unhappy with what He had created.”
“Almost like when a parent gets something for their child, or makes something for them, and they aren’t that excited about it?” I asked.
“Yeah, like He had created this beautiful thing and I didn’t like it.”
I nodded, sipped my coffee, and recalled those moments as the child, and as a father. I know the face.
“So” Isaac continued, “then He said to me, ‘You want to see what it feels like, fine,’ and he turned me into various animals, and when it was over, I understood.”
“What?” I asked.
“I’ve swam in the body of a great white, as the biggest and baddest thing in the ocean, and it was great, but I found that I could never stop, never rest, because if I did, I would die. And that was terrifying.”
“That’s crazy,” I said, typing, envisioning giant Great Whites roaming the deep waters, terrifying the ocean world, and propelling people into cages out of fear and respect. I thought of the iconic images of perhaps the most feared animal on the planet. An animal with seemingly complete freedom to roam and do as he pleases . . . except to rest.
“Then,” Isaac continued, “He allowed me to run like the Cheetah, and I did. I ran and ran and ran, all day long. And it was amazing. Until I got back to my den and heard the cubs crying because they were hungry.”
“Because you ran for pleasure and didn’t feed your cubs,” I said.
“Right. I couldn’t run for fun, I had no leisure time. Everything was a duty – to survive and help my cubs survive. I couldn’t even kill for myself, for fun!”
I laughed out loud, “What a great sentence, ‘I couldn’t even kill for myself,’”
He laughed to, “But it’s true! Everything was a duty.”
Again I thought of all the National Geographic videos of Cheetahs running majestically through the prairies, chasing down their pray, and then lounging in the shade. It all looked so beautiful, so free and simple.
But they never just went for a jog because it was enjoyable. They never had races around the tree, to the far rock, and back again, just for the hell of it. Every time they ran, life depended on it.
“So what did that dream teach you?”
“To be more comfortable with my limitations, because everyone and everything has them.”
“And yours is just that you can’t walk.”
“Yes and no,” he says, almost rehearsed, but not in the way like he’s had this talk several times before, but more like he’d thought this through before and was confident with the answer.
“Actually, some of the more crippling components of being crippled are all of the other medical conditions – unable to walk is really just a small part of it all.”
But again, Isaac doesn’t want pity because he doesn’t think he needs it. Being unable to walk from birth has given Isaac something the Great White, the speedy Cheetah, and most of us only wish we had: freedom.
“Because my restrictions, or ‘weaknesses’ are so open, I don’t have to pretend to be perfect,” he looks down to his legs and shuffles his wheels, “because I’m visibly not.”
I thought of Jack Merridew in Lord of the Flies and his attempt to cover his shame, his embarrassment, and his weaknesses through the painted mask, “So the wheel chair allows you to be more open, more free, because you can’t even try to pretend.”
“You’re free to be yourself, and to make mistakes.”
“Yes. When someone looks put together, they try to act put together. They aren’t open about their own restrictions.”
“And that’s terrifying,” I say, not offended in the slightest, but enlighted.
“Anything else the dream taught you?”
“Not to wish I were different.”
“That’s all? Seems fairly boring.
He smiles, “to have a sense of humor too. I like making people feel uncomfortable.”
“Like how,” I ask.
“If someone asks me if I want to go for a walk with them later, I like to say, ‘is that a crippled joke?”
“You’re mean,” I say.
He smiles, “I know.”
“Speaking of which,” I look at the clock and know I have to go soon, “are their words of phrases people use that frustrate or offend you?”
“I don’t like being called a paraplegic or crippled, because those words make me feel crippled and,” he thinks for a moment, “they put a distance between us.”
“Because they’re too formal?” I ask.
“Yeah. And they define me, restrict who and what I am.”
“What do you prefer?”
He shrugs, “I’m no different. Call me Isaac, and just know that I can’t walk.”
I smiled ashamedly, “Right. We don’t ‘label’ people who can’t sing, or dance, or play sports. We just say they can’t sing, or dance, or play sports, but look at everything ELSE they can do!”
We chatted for a little bit longer and a few days later went for a walk to get a nice drink. Well, I walked, Isaac rolled.
Isaac isn’t worried about living alone or making friends or getting around the city, any city for that matter. “If I can get around Chengdu in a wheelchair, I can get around anywhere. I’m excited about the adventure.”
Unbound, Isaac rolled off, on his way to meet his friends. And I want on my way, changed, never able to make it back.
In the end, I was glad Isaac’s story didn’t turn out like I had hoped, like a movie, because
his life, his person, and his Story is better than any I’ve seen.
Because he lives off script, lives without bounds, and isn’t manufactured.
Blemishes and all.
And he rides off into the polluted sunset, with a smile on his face, and open roads ahead.