Say “uses a wheelchair” rather than “in a wheelchair”

After his stroke, my husband used a wheelchair to get around. The stroke left him paralyzed on his left side and although he was able to walk a few steps with a lot of effort and sometimes with assistance, getting around in a wheelchair was more efficient and less tiring.

More efficient and less tiring, but still a lot of work. The stroke destroyed a large portion of his brain and so he spent hours every week in physical therapy and then on his own working to retrain his brain to coordinate movements that used to come naturally and to recognize signals from parts of his body his brain had forgotten. To learn to sit upright in the wheelchair, he practiced sitting up straight in front of a mirror, developing core control, noticing when he was slumping to one side and using trial and error to activate the muscles necessary to straighten himself out. Once he was able to sit up straight in the chair, he had to learn how to get from the bed or another surface to the wheelchair, how to transfer his weight in ways that wouldn’t potentially cause a fall or injury, and how to work as a team with a person assisting him (that was usually me). He had to train his brain to remember to check that the chair’s brake was on or off and to make sure his paralyzed left arm wasn’t in a position where it could get tangled in the wheel or smashed against a wall if he rolled too close to it.  

To get around in the wheelchair, he had to learn to maneuver around people, objects, obstacles, pets, cords, divots in the sidewalk, and obstructions that a person with two functional legs could easily negotiate by straddling, hopping, or stepping over. The world is built for ambulation on two legs; successfully using a wheelchair to navigate a world not built for it is much more complicated than walking.

I know how much effort it took Tom to get around with the wheelchair and it makes me wince to hear that immense effort swept aside with a common phrase: “He’s in a wheelchair.”

My husband’s physical and occupational therapists, his doctors and nurses, his family and friends, used this phrase regularly. Every time I heard it, I winced a little. It minimizes everything about the human being sitting in the chair. It puts the focus on the machinery of the chair, perhaps the requirement of a caregiver or attendant. It renders invisible the person sitting in the chair.

Notice how differently these two sentences hit you:

  1. During the last year of his life, my husband was in a wheelchair.
  2. During the last year of his life, my husband used a wheelchair.

In the first sentence, my husband does nothing. There’s actually no action at all in the first sentence. Nobody does anything. It’s boring, implying a boring life and a boring person. If I were to follow this sentence with how much I loved him, you would have been prepared by the first sentence to hear my declaration of love as tinged with pity.

In the second sentence, my husband does something. There is action. He is the boss in that sentence. When I tell you after that sentence that I loved him, you’re much more likely to take it as a love that includes admiration, respect, and passion.

The simple word choice has an effect that ripples out to color the sentences that follow and impact your understanding of everything else I tell you about my husband.

When we say someone “is in a wheelchair,” we’re framing the wheelchair as a state of being, like being in a funk or in a mood. Conversely, when we say someone “uses a wheelchair,” we’re framing the wheelchair as a tool. Because the words we use impact the ways we see the world, a phrase like “in a wheelchair,” which obscures the agency of the person in the wheelchair, is a sneaky way ableism slides unnoticed into our speech and thus our worldview.

“In a wheelchair” implies that someone can’t do anything for themselves, that they are a burden with no agency. It erases all the hard work of navigating a world that is not designed for you. It is easier to leave someone out of an equation when we say they are “in a wheelchair.” On the other hand, “uses a wheelchair” acknowledges that a person can learn a new technology and navigate complex situations. Notice the difference between saying “we can’t hire someone in a wheelchair for this position” versus “we can’t hire someone who uses a wheelchair for this position.” In the first example, no further explanation is needed—of course you can’t hire someone who is a burden with no agency. But the second example does require at least a bit more explanation—why can’t someone who uses a wheelchair do this job?

I admit, I sometimes use this phrase. I’ve heard it so often that it occassionally rolls off my tongue without me even realizing I’ve said the dreaded phrase. But when the person in the wheelchair was the love of my life, whose effort was viscerally apparent to me, I learned how viciously unjust the phrase is. It sweeps aside all the effort, humanity, and agency of the person using the chair.

I know people who use this phrase are, like me, using it unreflectively. They are not issuing judgment on anyone. They mean no harm. They are speaking from a place of sympathy. But the language still does harm, whether the speaker intended it or not.

It’s a pretty easy switch to replace “in a wheelchair” with “uses a wheelchair,” and it will make a difference in how you see people who use wheelchairs.

Another “First” Behind Me

I’m still having trouble with what to call my wedding anniversary now that my husband is dead. In the week leading up to the day, I called it “my anniversary” a few times in conversation, which led to some confusion. One person replied, “Has it been a year already?” thinking it was the anniversary of his death. Another responded, “Why are you so sad about it?” not realizing my husband had died.

When I called it “my wedding anniversary,” someone said, “I didn’t know you were married!” which led to my awkwardly explaining that I was but now I’m widowed.

Calling it my “anniversary with my dead husband” includes enough information to head off the most common areas of confusion but sounds weirdly necromantic.

“The day that would be my wedding anniversary if my husband hadn’t died” avoids necromancy but is wordy.

The day was tough, although punctuated with thoughtful gestures by friends and family, who acknowledged the challenge of the day with grace and generosity. Several friends texted or called. One friend brought me flowers and another delivered pastries. A widowed friend met me at the bench commemorating Tom to listen to me tell stories about him.

I had hoped to get a memorial tattoo that day but could not get an appointment with the artist I want (I did have a consultation with her and am booked to get the tattoo in June). I had also planned to go through Tom’s T-shirts to pick some out for a friend who is going to make a memory quilt out of them, but I curled up on the couch with the dogs instead.

There were some particularly tough moments:

  • While walking one of the dogs, I suddenly burst into sobs, surprising myself, the dog, and the neighbor who was in the yard we were walking past. Nearly nine months into grieving, it doesn’t rattle me much when this happens but I still prefer to keep my loud sobbing out of the streets. I worry that someone will ask me if I’m ok and I’ll feel obligated to explain my situation. One benefit of living in the city is that it’s not that unusual for someone to have an outburst in public, so no one has actually said anything to me when I’ve made a bit of a scene, but I worry a bit about it nonetheless.  
  • I attended two Buddhist meetings via Zoom, which is something Tom and I did together during the last year of his life. Although I attend at least one Buddhist meeting every Sunday morning via Zoom, doing so on our anniversary made seeing myself in a little box on the screen without Tom feel particularly lonely. When he was alive, I loved seeing the two of us next to each other on the screen. I always sat on his right because of his left neglect. I liked being able to feel him next to me and see him on the screen at the same time. He actively participated in the discussion portion of our meetings and I loved hearing what he had to say. I miss it and felt the longing to have that again intensely on our anniversary.

I had foolishly thought that once the day itself was behind me, I would feel fine, but I slept horribly Sunday night and woke up Monday morning feeling wrecked and even more emotional than I had on Sunday. I sobbed my way through work, kept my camera off for remote meetings, and avoided people when possible. Things turned around a bit Monday afternoon, and after getting a good night’s sleep (thank you, Tylenol PM), I woke up feeling optimistic and happy on Tuesday.

Tuesday brought some laughter related to Tom, too. A former employer of his emailed to say they had discovered a paycheck of his from 2019 had never been cashed and they wanted to send me a replacement check. Tom was infamous for losing money, so I had a good laugh about this windfall. I split the money with our kids, which is exactly what Tom would have done. (Actually, Tom would have spent the money multiple times, probably buying a motorcycle, taking me out to dinner, and then giving a bunch to the kids. It would have ended up costing us.)

Lessons learned:

  1. I am proactively going to block out the few days leading up to and after the anniversary on my calendar for next year. I now know that trying to work on those days is probably silly, and luckily, my job affords me the option of taking personal days.
  2. I need to either figure out how to refer to this day or be ok with not having a graceful way to refer to it.
  3. I knew I would want support on this day, so I started letting close friends know in the weeks before it that the day was coming up. They came through with those messages and acts of kindness that I mentioned.

Going through the Motions

This upcoming Sunday is my wedding anniversary. I used to say “our” wedding anniversary but now that doesn’t feel right. “My” anniversary doesn’t feel right, either, but I guess since my husband died, the anniversary is mine now.

Once Tom’s birthday in January passed, I set my sights on our March anniversary. I notice myself doing that—making it past one milestone and immediately steeling myself for the next one. (After this anniversary, the next milestone on my radar is Mother’s Day, which Tom often made a bit of a big deal about despite me arguing every year that it’s a bullshit made-up holiday. He believed firmly in honoring mothers.)

I started feeling heavy sadness last Sunday night. My eyes fell on a framed photo of Tom and me and the kids the day we got married. We had been together two years when we married in 2011. When we got married, Tom was 51, I was 41, his son was 18, and my daughter was 8. I started thinking that none of the people in the photo exist anymore. Tom is dead, the kids are adults now. The kids and I have been changed profoundly by his stroke and death. The photo seemed to capture a moment from some imaginary time I no longer felt connected to. I put the photo in a cabinet, then went to the bedroom and opened the drawer of things that at one time smelled like Tom. They haven’t smelled like him in a long time, but I still think of it as the drawer of things that smell like Tom. I ran my hands over the shirts and a stuffed unicorn (after his stroke, he loved stuffed animals), and then sat on the floor in the closet and listened to voice messages from him. The smells-like-Tom drawer and voice messages always destroy me, so I limit how often I let myself dive into them. This week, there have been no limits.

On Monday I bought myself a big bundle of red tulips to put in a vase on the dining room table. One thing I have learned since Tom’s death is how to be kind to myself.

This week I am just going through the motions at work. I’ve been attending my field’s most important conference online all week, but I haven’t retained a thing. A collaborator gently suggested to me that the work I did on our project this week wasn’t as detail-oriented as it needs to be. I will likely need to spend the first part of next week revisiting the work I did this week.

My plan for Sunday is loose. If I can get an appointment, I’ll get a memorial tattoo. Tom actually hated tattoos, so it’s kind of ironic, but I love tattoos and he’s dead so I figure this decision is all mine. I already have a few small ones on my arms and want this one somewhere else—I’m trying to decide between the left side of my collarbone or the left side of my ribs. (The left side because it’s closer to my heart.) I’m also going to go through Tom’s many T-shirts to pick out 20-25 to give to a friend who is going to make a memory quilt out of them. I’ve been putting that off because I know it will destroy me, but since I know Sunday will already be a tough day, it feels right to just pile it on. I’ll go to the commemorative bench at the park by our house at some point.

I have to force myself right now to lean into the sadness. I want to push it away. I’m tired of being sad, tired of crying, tired of memories that feel painful in their beauty and fullness. This week my sadness feels different. I feel like I can only remember my life with post-stroke Tom well. The photos and memories of pre-stroke Tom, like the wedding day picture, feel almost like someone else’s photos and memories. When I think of wanting my life with Tom back, I think of our post-stroke life. I think of pushing him in his wheelchair around the house while crouching down like a ninja and singing the James Bond theme music for drama and comedic effect. I think of cheering him on during physical therapy as he took a heavily-assisted step with his left leg. I want that life back.

I know this will pass. So much of grieving is just being patient and trusting the process. I wonder how much patience I have left and I remember a conversation Tom and I had after his stroke. He had suffered one of the many, many setbacks in his recovery and he asked me how much more caregiving I had in me. “As much as I need,” I told him. I would have happily been his caregiver for 100 more years.

Today I remind myself that although I feel like I have no more patience left for grieving, I do in fact have as much as I need.

Dreaming about My Husband Who Died

I often write about the challenges of grieving, but one aspect of grieving that has given me many happy moments is dreaming about my husband who died. I didn’t dream about him for nearly two months after he died. I desperately wanted to; I was hungry for every memory, every story, every reminder of him, but the dreams wouldn’t come. Every night as I waited to fall asleep in bed, I thought only about Tom. It seemed impossible to me that those thoughts I fell asleep to wouldn’t work their way into my dreams.

One day I spoke to a friend on the phone who was also grieving. She said she couldn’t stop dreaming about the loved ones she had lost. She told me the dreams about Tom would come and that maybe I wasn’t ready. I woke up the next morning and immediately texted my friend: I had dreamt about Tom!

It was a good one, too, featuring us living in a post-apocalyptic world, squatting in a four-story apartment building and driving an old Sprinter van. For some reason, we were played by actors in the dream—Tom was played by Jeff Bridges (with a 5’ long beard and wearing a long white robe) and I was played by Kyra Sedgwick. I have no idea why we were played by actors, but the casting was great, so I’m not going to belabor it. Tom was post-stroke in the dream, using a wheelchair and relying on me as his caregiver, but there was no stress or anxiety associated to it. The apartment building where we lived was abandoned except for us, but had a functioning, albeit rickety, elevator. Although I haven’t driven in real life in several years, in the dream I was able to drive the van because in the post-apocalyptic world, there was hardly anyone else around and I didn’t have to worry about accidentally running someone down. We were weirdly happy and carefree in the dream, which is not how I’ve ever thought of post-apocalyptia when I’m awake. I remember one particular moment in the dream when Tom’s 5’ long beard separated into tendrils and blew out around his head, reflecting the sunshine so he looked like a saint. I woke up feeling like I had gotten bonus time with him—it was so clearly a dream but it filled me with the kind of peaceful joy we shared together when he was alive.  

It was three months before I had another dream about him, and then I had two within a month. In the first one, he started out using his wheelchair, but at some point during the dream, he stood up on his own, and said, “Hey, babe, check this out.” He was a bit unsteady but not so much that I thought I needed to run over to support him. I said, “Look at you!” and then, in typical Tom fashion, once he got some affirmation, he started showing off: going from crouching to standing, first slowly and then picking up speed. In the dream he was wearing Carharts pants, which he always wore before the stroke but seldom after because I had to dress him and putting Carharts on another person is a serious workout. At one point in the dream, I hugged him, partly to hold him up because he was moving like the Tin Man and it made me nervous, but also because I remembered that he was dead and I wanted to feel his body to see if it was real. He felt lean and strong when I hugged him and I was confused, trying to figure out how I could be calling myself a widow when he was there in front of me showing off his ability to stand.

In the second one that month, we were staying at a hotel made out of rafts on a lake, with each room like a bouncy castle on the water. I was sleeping alone in an inflatable raft room and my room got a leak that made it zip all around the lake as the air whooshed out. I could see Tom, post-stroke,  inside the restaurant, another bouncy castle, chatting with the owner and then seeing that I was in distress. After I got rescued by a hotel employee in a kayak and dropped off at the restaurant, a woman told me it was my fault but I knew she was wrong and Tom would back me up. I felt no insecurity whatsoever, I knew he would have my back. When I went to talk to him, he was strong and sinewy, as always, wearing a tight white shirt that showed off his physique. He was lying on his left side on a booth bench so only his right side, which he could still control, showed. He said, “Hey, babe,” as I walked over to hug him. He was strong and healthy and adjusted to not having access to his left side. It felt like we had established a life post-stroke a lot like the life we had pre-stroke.

A couple weeks later, during an acupuncture session, I dozed off and had a dream that Tom was getting out of a car and into his wheelchair in front of our house and I floated down the ramp to meet him. I didn’t have to make any effort to float down the ramp, and it looked like Tom started out having to make an effort to get from the car to the wheelchair, but when I got to where Tom was, he hugged me with both arms, seeming to have the use of his left side, and then sat down in his wheelchair unassisted. I woke up with a start, overwhelmed by emotion.

A week later, napping on the couch at home, I had nearly the same dream, but this time I felt calm and happy rather than overwhelmed when I woke up. After that, Tom started showing up in many dreams as a side character, usually in his pre-stroke form, and always in a crisp white shirt. When he was alive, he had a knack for wearing white shirts that stayed crisp and spotless, even on camping and rafting trips.

In February, I started having lucid dreams about Tom in which I was aware that I was dreaming and could influence the narrative a bit. I don’t remember the details of the first dream, but I do remember at some point in the dream Tom and his mother told me Tom’s stroke was my fault. The thought hit me hard for a moment and then I realized how ludicrous it was for me to take responsibility for his stroke. At the same time, I realized I was dreaming and that my brain was playing a trick on me. I was searching for some kind of certainty about the cause of his stroke, which has been mostly mysterious. Once I realized it was a dream, I told Tom and his mother that I knew the stroke wasn’t my fault and they nodded and accepted it, and I went from feeling panicky to completely calm.

A couple weeks later, I had another lucid dream. In the dream, pre-stroke Tom and I were camping beside a river. We were in our tent and he was wearing his blue and yellow drysuit. We were laughing about something funny one of us had said when his face started turning into a skull from the jawline up. As soon as I realized what was happening, I said, “Uh uh! You don’t get to show up like that. Not in my dream!” and I pointed to the tent’s opening. Tom looked embarrassed and skulked out. I was sad to see him go—it still feels really special to have him show up in a dream—but could tell the dream was going to turn into a nightmare if I let it keep going in the direction it was headed.

My most recent dream about Tom featured him, post-stroke, waking up in the morning and me, as I did everyday, helping him arrange his limbs so that he could sit up without bending anything in a way that would damage his joints or strain a muscle. He was in good spirits and we joked, enjoying each other’s company. There was very little action in the dream—it was mostly just us laughing and hanging out together while I helped him go from lying in bed to sitting up. That was a process that could take up to half an hour. The infinity sign was embedded in the dream in different ways—as a pattern on the bed sheets, doodled on the envelope of a piece of mail, in the loop of my shoelace. Sun streamed in the windows of our house in the dream in a way it doesn’t in real life. I knew it was a dream in part because of that detail–the shafts of sunlight did not reveal dog hair and dust floating free through the air. I felt capable and loved in the dream, not overwhelmed at all.

I’m happy that the dreams are coming more frequently and that I’ve been able to exert some influence over the narrative when they seem to be turning dark. I was surprised to learn that most grief dreams are positive. Dream researcher Joshua Black says that grief dreams can help people experiencing loss understand “the problem of the loved one being gone in a new way” and help us continue to feel connected to the person who died.