My ankle required major surgery last spring. I lay on my sofa in a cast for six weeks. As soon as the cast came off and the doctor said the word “rehab,” I gathered up my kids and flew to the Carolinas to visit my kin. At that point, I just needed some good ole southern lovin’ up.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well Delta accommodated disabled passengers. And the flight from Rochester to Atlanta was filled with Southerners—the real Deep South kind. “Awww, darling, just look at you,” and “Bless yore little heart,” followed me all the way to my seat—in the bulkhead row. Several men fought for the privilege of taking my crutches up front to the steward.
AT MY PARENTS’ HOUSE
The first few days at my parents’ house, I crutched my way around the neighborhood in 95 degree heat, learning how to “walk at 50 percent weight-bearing” in an ugly black plastic boot. I kept my eyes glued to the pavement, not trusting my footing. My sister dressed me in a neon yellow reflective vest. She was right: I would never see a car coming.
But after a few days of practice, I found that I could crutch and look up at the same time. Women waved at me; men nodded respectfully or raised hands from the steering wheel. A gentleman backing out of his driveway called out, “I just want to know one thing: Who won?”
“The surgeon,” I told him. “He made a lot of money off this leg.”
A leggy woman in her 60s stopped to tell me, “I walked up and down this road like you’re doing—but with a walker. You just keep it up, honey.”
The next morning, a lady stopped in her station wagon. “I’ve been watching you go up and down this hill all week, darling,” she told me. “If you need a rest, you just stop at my house. 2730. Remember that.” She didn’t even tell me the name of her street—that’s how well she knew my route. Sure enough, I found 2730 around the next corner, with a cute little red rocking chair sitting on the front stoop.
The COUP D’ETAT
But the coup de etat was the scooter man, who only exercised after dark. The first time he lapped me on my route, I put his age at 14. Who else would be out here in a reflective vest and head-lamp, whizzing by every five minutes but a teenager too young to have his license?
Finally, he pulled up alongside me and hopped off his scooter. “What happened to you?” he asked. I looked into his concerned face and saw a man well over 70. So I told him. It turns out that he scoots every night because the doctor wants him to strengthen his right leg muscles. Bob knew my parents. He knew that my sister walked her yellow lab in the evenings. He wanted to talk about the Mayo Clinic, who sent him a monthly newsletter, and the Cleveland Clinic, who did his sister’s heart valves. He made me wish that I were ready for a scooter.
I SHOULD QUIT KICKING PEOPLE
I felt loved during my time of disability in North Carolina. But lest you think that I believe—erroneously—that Southerners are perfect, people did say some ridiculous things to me too.
We went to the beach and stayed in a high-rise. A drunk man in the crowded elevator was warned by his wife not to hit my leg. “I oughter hit it,” he said, “so she’ll remember why it’s broken.”
The following day, in the same elevator, another comedian said to me, “You ought to quit kicking people.”
“I really should quit,” I told him. “But people keep saying the darndest things!”
Pam Whitfield is a teacher, writer, horse show judge and spoken word artist. In 2011, she won the Minnesota professor of the year award from Carnegie Foundation.