Thursday, September 5, 2019

My Walker is an Open Invitation to Interrupt Me

When I was in grade school, there was a popular prank that involved putting a “Kick me” sign on someone’s back. You would cheerfully greet the person with a pat on the back, and surreptitiously stick on a piece of paper with the handwritten words and hope it would stay on for hours.

Hilarity would ensue.

These days, I feel like my walker serves as my personal “Kick me” sign, an invitation that says: 

“Hey, why don’t you stop this disabled stranger (or get in her way) and ask her questions, quiz her about her walker, tell her about your mother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, etc. who has a walker/cane/wheelchair, ask what is wrong with her, tell her all your health problems or those of your mother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, etc?”

That has to be the reason why complete strangers, when they see me using my walker, feel compelled to approach me. And comment. Or holler.

And in one case, almost knock me over.

I didn’t experience any of this when I used a wheelchair, but I’ve been using a walker for more than 10 years now and it’s been an endless stream of uninvited interactions. Because I have limited mobility, I can’t just walk away quickly or pretend like I didn’t hear them. So I am drawn into many conversations.

And because I am very, very nice, I will patiently answer their questions or listen to their stories, even when I just want to go from point A to point B and not necessarily have a long chat.

I have used a walker for about 14 years, ever since cancer ravaged my brain and abilities. My rare type of non-Hodgkins lymphoma is gone. (Woo hoo!) But the disability remains.

And I have a fleet of walkers  of various types to help me walk. Each has its own function. There’s one I use indoors at home, another outdoors at home and still another awaits me when I go upstairs. There’s one I use in my exercise class and a lightweight one that folds up and is easy to put in my shopping cart. There’s a different lightweight one that I use when walking longer stretches and there’s the tri-wheeled one I used for long distances or uneven terrain. There is another one which incorporates a seat but it is too bulky to take in the car and doesn't really work for someone like me who cannot balance by myself. 

I am always in search of the perfect walker. I’ve even advised two different college students who wanted to design one as part of their studies. But alas, I haven’t yet heard of The Perfect One. (Some of my criteria: lightweight but sturdy, foldable and portable, wheels that swivel, brakes that work, a fashionable look and affordable.)

Others are apparently on the hunt as well.

“Well, look at that!” they will say. “That’s different. I’ve never seen one of those! Maybe mom (etc. etc.) would like one of those. Let me have a look at it.” 

These comments are usually when I am either using one of my lightweight walkers or my tri-wheeled one. They fold up narrow while I am walking, which comes in handy when squeezing between tables in restaurants or aisles in stores. I am happy to share information about the type of walkers they are. But often my patience is tested. 

I was using one of my lightweight walkers one day as I passed by a woman waiting in the courtesy area at the drug store pharmacy, behind the line so you don’t overhear the other customer’s business. I was just passing by, not in line for the pharmacist, when the lady exclaimed over my walker, came over and tried to yank it from me.

“Well that’s a nice one!” she said, and with both hands grabbed the handles of my walker, trying to take it for an immediate test drive.

I held on for dear life, saying, “I need this to walk! You can’t just take my walker away!”

Another time, I was in a nail salon waiting area and another lady — intrigued by my walker — told me about her mother who uses a mobility aid. She asked if she could take it for a test walk.

Yes, I said, because I was sitting down and didn’t need it. She wandered around the salon for a bit and returned it.

I have answered questions about the brand, where I got it, how much it cost, and my illness. I don’t mind as long as you are polite about it and the question doesn’t stretch into a long conversation.  I was on a sidewalk in Palm Desert on a mini-vacation when a woman walked up to me and loudly said: “Hip or knee?” 

“Pardon me?” I said. 

She repeated “Hip or knee? Which operation did you have?”

“Neither,” I said. “Brain cancer.” 

(And top of the morning to you, too, I wanted to say.)

Then, she stopped and told me her hip or knee and walker story and I told her a brief version of mine.

I’ve experienced some commenters who are brief and to the point, and some who are a bit rude like she was. No time for chit chat, they just want me to answer the questions of where I got my walker and what is wrong with me.

I was just sitting down in a darkened movie theater recently when a voice barked “Temporary?” My husband looked around to see a woman sitting alone in an aisle behind us. “Are you talking to us?”

“Yes, is that walker temporary or permanent?” 

“Permanent,” my husband and I both answered.

“Well, have you seen the walkers that are upright with the high handles. My sister uses one of those and she really likes it……yada yada yada………”

I told her I had checked those out and they were too heavy for me to use in my car and too expensive. And, I wanted to say, can I just get ready to watch the movie?

Then there are folks who see me and tell longer stories. One time I was at car wash, sitting on the bench waiting for the signal my vehicle was ready. A guy next to me struck up a conversation about disabilities in general… and how he is a minister of some sort and they have a lot of disabled people come to the services…..yada yada yada. And on and on. 

Another time I was at a concert and was heading to the restroom during a break and a man came up to me and said his wife used a walker, too, after surgery and she’s sitting over there….yada yada yada…Did I mention I was on my way to the restroom? And didn’t have extra time to chat? 

After show, he met up with me again in the line to buy merchandise from the band. And his wife was there so I got to meet her and hear about her prior surgeries and another upcoming one and…yada yada yada… until somebody protested that we were holding up the line. 

Some days, I just want to make a clean getaway. On a hot day a few weeks ago, I had left my local Walgreen’s and was in the driver’s seat of my car folding up my walker to put it inside when I heard a loud voice. “I’ve been there!” A woman was heading my way, came over to the driver's side, said she used a walker for a while when she had some sort of operation or injury. And she proceeded to fire questions at me:

"Why do you use the walker?"


"What kind of cancer?"

Non-hodgkin's lymphoma. Mostly in my brain.

"Where do you live?"

Here in Castaic.

"Where in Castaic?"

Thinking does she want my address?, I gave her the general neighborhood where I live.

"I’m pretty sure it’s the water. Everything here has been poisoned from munitions plants."

Well, I got sick right after I moved here, so don’t think it’s from that.

"You should check it out. The water tables have been poisoned.

Who is your doctor?"

He’s from UCLA.


Ok, I kinda gotta go.

"Have you heard of_____?"


"Well, it’s when you walk in nature and commune with the earth and the spirits. I live in (a mountainous area about 20 miles away) and go on them all the time and I will pray for you next time I’m on one."

OK. Thank you… I kinda gotta go.

All of these people are well-meaning. But imagine if you were interrupted all the time when you are just trying to get around and do your shopping, get your nails done, get in your car or watch a movie. These meddlers are lucky I’m so nice.

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