I admit it: Sometimes I can get, well, kind of righteous. Sometimes too righteous for my own good.
A few years ago, my mother had knee-replacement surgery. She was in a great deal of pain prior to the surgery and with the subsequent recuperation, and it was a struggle for her to walk. So she acquired a handicapped parking card. I’d seen her frustration trying to find a convenient parking space, because even a few feet made all the difference when she was trying to walk. The placard gave her some sense of mobility and independence.
Almost immediately I deputized myself in the name of truth and justice in parking. Everywhere I went I was on the lookout for ne’er-do-wells using the specially designated spots when they oughtn’t. I’d asked to see a person’s handicapped parking permit if it wasn’t visible. There were times that I alerted the security guard at the mall when I spotted a scofflaw in a spot. I, ever eagle-eyed, watched people walk from their car to assess just how “handicapped” they might be, and thus, how deserving. Yes, wherever honest parking was in peril, I was there. And yet…
I’d started to go out and about with my mother just to be able to park close to whatever establishment we deigned to visit. I didn’t want to go to Sam’s Club, I didn’t want to go to Over 55 Water Aerobics, I didn’t want to go to Old Country Buffet, but a secret thrill would surge through me as we’d pull up just a few feet from the door. I became heady with power. (In retrospect, I was just lucky there was no small nearby country begging to be annexed.) I was riding my mother’s incapacitated coattails.
Then one day, my mom asked me to run to the drugstore to pick up some medications. I didn’t own a car at the time, so I took hers, whereupon I breezily pulled into the only handicapped parking space and displayed the placard. Just then, a fellow pulled into the space next to me. His car bore a handicapped placard as well.
I froze. I, entirely able-bodied, was doing something bad. And I’m Midwestern and Catholic, so I always feel like I’m doing something bad, even when it’s routine and legal, like folding laundry.
Willing an invisibility shield around me, I got out of the car and the fellow came around to where I was. He was on crutches, and I saw that one of his pant legs was empty from the knee down, the fabric loose as it hung from his leg.
“Hi,” he said, then kindly asked, “So, what happened to you?”
I’ve never been quick on my feet and I said the only thing that came to mind.
I said, “Had a baby.”
But it came out in a strange, tough-guy voice that startled me as it passed my lips. You would have thought there was a Marlboro dangling from my lips or that I had “love” and “hate” tattooed on my knuckles. Moreover, the closest I’ve ever come to having a baby was being an aunt. I can barely tell a newborn from a freshly packaged chicken at Kowalski’s.
A flash of bafflement crossed his face. Quickly, gruffly, I added, “Big one.”
My face burned with disgust at myself. I changed tack. I assumed an unnaturally perky voice. “And you?” I inquired.
He’d been in a bad car accident, and had almost lost both legs. “I was lucky,” he said. “I only lost part of this leg.”
Again my voice did not belong to me. With a huge smile, I declared very loudly, “Oh, wow!” The words hung there in the parking lot. We stood there for hours—or perhaps mere seconds. I couldn’t walk away because I didn’t know how a new mother should walk so as to warrant a handicapped parking spot.
At last, he shook my hand and said, “Nice talking to you. You take care of yourself,” and he went on his way. I got back in my mother’s car and cried. I cried because of a stranger’s gentleness and I cried for a stranger’s struggle. And I cried with the shock of being just as rotten as everyone else.