Turning Point for a Disabled Mother and Loving Daughter
I depended on my daughter because of a horrible accident before she was born. Now, I’d bring her to the place it happened
It is 4:44 pm on March 12. Will she come, or won’t she?
I need her. She’s my enabler.
I wait in my wheelchair, staring at the BART platform at San Francisco International Terminal 50 yards in front of me. Will her blond head soon appear? Or will it be like her teenage years when time meant nothing, when she was always the last person to saunter out of the pool dressing room. Schedules were for everyone else; they were too mundane for her.
I smile to remember the last time I waited to see her blond head appear, to watch it come up the Meeks Bay Trail to meet her father and me. We’d bribed her with the promise of dinner at her favorite Tahoe restaurant if she would drive three hours from her college dorm, hike five miles to meet us, and then carry a 50-pound pack, five miles back down to the car. After dinner, she would drive three hours back to school.
The day before, Dave had carried me in a pack on his back five miles up the trail to Crag Lake. Purple lupine, bright yellow mule ears, and orange Indian paintbrushes sprayed brilliant waves of color across meadows. Vivid red snow plants burst from the ground in the heavily shaded areas. Wind sighing through stately pines and the gentle splashing of Meeks Creek were the only sounds other than Dave’s steady footfalls. He’d knelt down and let me butt-walk off the pack frame in the cool shade of a pine tree on the shore of Crag Lake, then he walked back down to the car, picked up a fully loaded backpack and hiked the trail again. Fifteen miles in one day, just so we could camp out overnight by ourselves at a beautiful lake in the Desolation Wilderness. The solitude was worth the sweat.
Suddenly there was movement. We saw the top inch of her blond head, then the red visor, then the big smile. And then big smiles all around. Dave’s load would be lighter and his hike out 10 miles shorter. Sooner or later, she always shows up.
At 4:45 pm, I see her blond head with a backpack towering over it. She made it! Today is her thirtieth birthday and we are on our way to Salzburg, Austria, with a few stops along the way. It all started with a phone call six weeks ago.
“Mom, can you and Dad go to Europe with me in March? I want to go to Salzburg to see the hospital.”
“Of course not! We work. And so do you.”
And that was that, until I got home, pulled out my calendar and discovered that my name didn’t appear on the work schedule for eight days in a row, and the first of those eight days would be on her thirtieth birthday. I sat in silence for a moment. What would it be like to take my grown child to the trauma hospital where two years before she was born, I left my legs and right arm? Where they saved my life so she could be born.
Breathlessly her words jumble along, snapping me back to the present. “Hey Mom. Can you believe we are really doing this? I didn’t know if I was going to make it! I had to go in to work for a couple of hours this morning in Davis. Then I had to drive to Anne and Ari’s in Oakland to drop off my car before they took me to the BART station. I got on the train just as the door was closing!”
With that she twirls my wheelchair 360 degrees, lets go of it, and then runs to catch me before I hit someone. Kids! Two hours later we squeeze into our seats in the back of the plane for the overnight flight to London. After dinner we unwrap our tiny pillows and thin airplane blankets. It dawns on me that I should probably warn our seatmate what comes next.
“Pardon me,” I say as I turn my head toward the gentleman in the aisle seat next to me. “I’ll be taking my legs off and laying them on the floor before I go to sleep.” Knowing that sounds pretty bizarre, I pause before continuing to make sure he heard me. “Don’t worry, in the morning the upper half of me will get back together with the lower half and I’ll be good to go.”
By now he’s turned all the way around in his seat and I wait for the words I’ve heard hundreds of times in the last 32 years. “Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
“Of course not!”
Although it’s a long flight, I tell him the short version of how I lost both my legs above the knee and my right arm in a train versus car accident in Germany when I was 29 years old.
Fifteen hours later, Tiffany and I force our tired bodies out into the Sunday evening twilight. Tiffany slowly pushes my wheelchair past Westminster Abbey. Her head tilts back as her eyes trace the old, rough, ornate stone spires up into a cold London sky. Faint organ music draws us into the darkened, ancient chapel. And then the full force of a Bach fugue elevates us. As the stained-glass windows darken, the ghosts of kings and queens, and memorabilia of coronations, weddings, and funerals surround us. A thousand years of grandeur make us feel mortal and yet part of a continuum of history. Afterwards we go for bangers and mash and ale, just to make sure we don’t become overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance of our allies who still revere a monarch.
Tiffany puts many miles on my wheelchair over the next two days. And those miles are vintage Tiffany — my child who thinks steps were meant to have wheelchairs pushed or pulled up and down them.
“Hey, did you know there is a ramp over there?” is a common shout when she starts hauling me up and down long staircases.
She often pretends she can’t hear them or mutters under her breath, “What is wrong with those people? Can’t they see the steps are more fun?”
Likewise, the narrow, wheelchair-impassable doorways of the underground bunkers in the Churchill War Rooms are no problem. She insists I stand up, ducks her head and shoulders under my arm, slings my body in front of hers and voila, I’m through the next tiny subterranean passageway and standing in the back of the tour group, looking as normal as the next person. Except that I’m leaning against my strong daughter and she’s making sure I don’t fall down as we both listen raptly to the tour guide describe the communications room. Similar scenarios play out at The National Gallery of Art, the Tower of London, St. Martin’s in the Fields and The Tate Modern Museum. We are a well-oiled, happy-go-lucky team.
And now our plane is landing in Salzburg, a place with a story Tiffany grew up with but has never seen. It is early March and winter lingers. The sky is gray. Trees are bare. Flowerbeds have mounds of fresh spayed dirt awaiting bulbs to burst forth with flowers as soon as the weather warms. Tiffany pushes my wheelchair along the Salzach River, a little more slowly and contemplatively than usual. Gazing at the Hohensalzburg Fortress makes us feel strong. This was the view that Dave and I took strength from every day as we stared out our hospital window so many years ago, wondering what life held for us.
We make small talk as we roll toward the Unfallkrankenhaus, the trauma hospital to which I had been rushed 32 years earlier. Thirty-two years ago, when it took a team of five trauma surgeons to debride and complete my three amputations. Thirty-two years ago, when Dave hobbled across the ICU with his broken ankle to tell me that he hadn’t married my arms and legs, that if I could do it, he could do it. Thirty-two years ago when Dave said that we’d have a family someday and that we could do whatever we wanted if we worked together and worked hard enough. We would enable each other.
Tiffany and I enter the hospital lobby. It is smaller than I remember but the emotions are just as strong. But they are better this time, because I am here with my daughter.
A year later, Tiffany reflects on our trip in a piece she wrote for a writing class. She titled it “Lessons in Courage”:
“I was, and still am, possessive of her. As a child, I could not wait until I was strong enough to carry her and put her legs on. ‘No thanks, I don’t need any help’ became my mantra when going places with her. I became a pack-mule of sorts and relished the role. As a child, I felt needed and important, able to help my mother do things and go places that would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, for her to do on her own.”
World-traveler, motivational speaker, and triple-amputee Linda Olson is the author of GONE, the inspiring story of how she took her life back. Despite her physical limitations, Linda leads a life of outdoor travel, built an award-winning career as Professor of Radiology and Director of Breast Imaging at UCSD, and birthed and raised two children.