Each summer in the late 1960s, my two sisters and I would ride the Greyhound bus from Arizona to Arkansas to stay with our father.
A World War II veteran, Dad had many medical problems, any one of which could cause many people to lose more than their sense of humor, but not him.
I have vivid memories of Dad waking us up in the morning. Before he’d put on his legs for the day (he had lost his legs after his discharge), his wheelchair was his mobility. Holding his cane, which was his extended arm, he would roll through the house yelling, “Up, up, up!” Get up and face the day! It’s a beautiful day! Rise and shine!” If we didn’t get up right away, he would repeat his song in rhythm with his cane hitting the end of our beds. This was no performance put on for our benefit; every day was truly a beautiful day to him.
Back in the sixties, there was no handicapped parking or wheelchair-accessible ramps like there are now, so even a trip to the grocery store was a difficult task. Dad wanted no assistance from anyone. He would climb stairs slowly but surely, whistling all the way. As a teenager, I found this embarrassing, but if Dad noticed, he didn’t let on.
Once during a trip to the store, he found the three of us in the makeup department and began to look at makeup with us. He picked up a container of powder and started reading the label out loud. “‘Leaves your skin soft and silky from head to toe.’ Well, that leaves half of me out,” he said, laughing. We had to laugh, too. He had a talent for finding humor in everything he did.
Those summers always ended too soon. He would drive us back to Arizona every year, stopping at the checkpoint for fruit and vegetables at the New Mexico-Arizona border. When asked if he had any fruits or vegetables, he would reply, “Just three sweet peas.”
Our father has been gone for a long time now, but not the lesson that he taught us: You are only as handicapped as you let yourself be.
I know now, too late, that any one of his “sweet peas” would be proud to walk beside him – whistling up a set of stairs. And be glad to wake to the sound of his voice, to rise and shine and see one of his beautiful days.