Recognizing Internalized Ableism on My Anniversary

Today would have been my anniversary with Tom. Today IS my anniversary with Tom. My inclination is to write the first sentence because I am no longer his wife, but I realize that whether he’s dead or alive, today IS the date we got married in 2011. There is much that was and much that still is. My love for him and the life we had together is just as strong as it was when he was here to celebrate with me. But that life is a memory now, and as much as I love the life I am living now, it is not a life with Tom.

I was at a conference last week and knew my anniversary was coming up, but lost track of which day it was. My return flight yesterday got significantly delayed and I ended up not getting home until after midnight. After crawling into bed, I was almost asleep when suddenly I realized that because it was after midnight, it was my anniversary.

That realization, on the heels of a long travel day, kicked off my anxiety and big tears. My mind kept going back to our last anniversary together, after his stroke and just a few months before he died. We went to one of our favorite restaurants and they were woefully unprepared to greet a guest using a wheelchair. The next morning over brunch, Tom took my hand and apologized for not having understood the challenges of my being disabled.

It was an incredible acknowledgment. The last few years, he had been incredibly supportive but when I first started mentioning that my vision didn’t seem right, he was skeptical. Like many people in my life, he wondered if I was exaggerating things or just not trying hard enough to see. Especially when my disability inconvenienced him, he would ask me if I was really trying. It was maddening for both of us.

I finally understood at some point that he hadn’t not believed me but that he hadn’t been ready to accept that I was going to have to deal with the challenges of a disability for the rest of my life. I noticed a similar resistance in myself when Tom’s doctor told me there was a high likelihood that Tom would never walk again. My immediate response was that of course Tom would walk again because I knew he would work hard in physical therapy.

But no matter how hard he worked, walking unassisted was out of his reach. I kept thinking he just had to work a little harder, but even as I had that thought, I knew it wasn’t accurate. All of his physical therapists were astounded at how much progress he made and how hard he did work. It wasn’t about hard work—it was about the stroke having knocked offline the part of his brain that handled his left side. I saw the MRI images and the massive infarct, the technical term for the brain tissue killed by the stroke. Two-thirds of one hemisphere of his brain just didn’t exist anymore.

Even knowing it wasn’t about how hard he worked, my own brain kept grasping at the idea that if he just worked a little harder, maybe, maybe, he would walk again. I realize now that that’s the line of thinking he followed when he wondered if I was trying hard enough to see.

This is what internalized ableism looks like: me wishing my husband would work hard enough to walk again, him wishing I would try hard enough to see what he saw. The line of thinking might originate with optimism and hoping for a “positive” outcome, but there are at least two big problems with that rationalization. First, it attributes the desired outcome with hard work and less than the desired outcome with not enough work, and second, it assumes that walking, in my husband’s case, and what is considered normal vision, in my case, are the only outcomes that can be judged successful.

On this anniversary, I miss everything about that man who used a wheelchair, including his wheelchair. His physical and occupational therapy sessions were often team efforts, with both of us working together to get him somewhere or accomplish a task together. It helped us realize in a concrete way that we were always on the same team. We hated the stroke and the pain it caused Tom, but it opened up some opportunities for us to communicate better and become closer.

I celebrated this anniversary by sleeping in, being gentle with myself, and sharing memories with my daughter. I went to Tom’s bench and talked to him for a bit. I got a few emails and texts from loved ones, acknowledging the anniversary, which I appreciated. I felt lucky to have had such a great love and proud of the life I am living now, which was shaped in so many ways by my relationship with Tom.  

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