I was recently out on a dinner date with my lovely girlfriend, Anna, when a stranger approached to have a friendly conversation. He said he was a huge fan of my column about life and disability. He turned to my girlfriend and asked, "Are you his sister?"
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with his question, but if I saw two young people out having a nice meal together, I would probably assume that they were dating. This, however, does not seem to be the assumption people make when you throw a wheelchair into the picture.
On various other occasions my girlfriend has been asked if she was my nurse. Once, a person blankly asked if she was "the one who takes care of him." We've gotten used to this bizarre, recurring question, and often find ways to poke fun at their ignorance.
"He's my dad," Anna will answer with deadpan perfection.
"I just pay her to be my friend," I will say.
The mindset that causes a stranger to automatically assume that any female in my presence is a nurse, or family, is one that ignores the reality that people with disabilities can and do have "normal" romantic relationships. I place normal in quotations because I'm not sure if there is such a thing when it comes to love.
For a good chunk of my young life, I didn't think I was worthy of that type of affection. I worried that my physical limitations would prevent girls from wanting to date me. I will not be able to pick her up in my car, I can't give hugs or hold hands very well, and we will be limited in the activities we can do for dates. It all seemed rather hopeless in the heart-wrenching, hormone-fueled days of middle school.
I worried even more that a girl would date me out of pity, silently putting up with the annoyances of my disease because she felt bad for me.
Then college came and my brain opened up to the real truth. I met some spectacular people who helped me shake the notion that love was only for the physically-abled.
Sure, I can't hold hands in the traditional sense, but we make it work. To be fair, our fingers look like a catastrophic train wreck once they are intertwined in the precise position that I can manage. I can't pick her up in my car, but so what? She enjoys driving and so we make it work. And no, I can't go mountain climbing with her, but I can make her laugh. So we find other activities, and we make it work. Don't worry; I'll leave the most intimate details for my books.
Once I realized that there are girls out there who are more than happy to "make it work," the fear of being unloved for all eternity drifted away like a funny joke of the past.
Today, I live with the firm belief that an able/disabled relationship can be even more satisfying than your average romance. I'm still young and stupid, so I don't want to trick you into thinking I have this all figured out. But I believe the deeper closeness in an able/disabled relationship blossoms from the process of teaching your partner how to "care" for you. That's a tough concept to grasp, so I'll try to provide an example.
The first day that Anna and I spent together, we decided to go out for brunch at Valley Family Restaurant. This outing required Anna to learn in a brief amount of time many new "Shane Helper Lessons," such as putting on my jacket, driving my van, picking up my head when I lost my balance, cutting my food and helping me take sips of my drink.
At this point in our relationship, I hardly knew Anna, and was afraid that I might overwhelm her with all of this "helping stuff." I must have expressed this in some fashion, because I vividly remember a conversation where she promised that she was excited by the prospect of learning how to help me.
There is something profoundly intimate about a promise like that. On my end, I felt a deep sense of serenity that could only be attributed to trusting her with my care. On her side, and I've checked with her, there was an important emotional connection that began to develop when she chose to be with me despite the extra requirements of needing to help cut my meatloaf.
As we began to experience life together, starting that first day at brunch, we encountered innumerable moments of magical humor that arose from my "Shane Helper Lessons." We reveled in these moments, embracing whatever occurrence led to our fits of giggling, rather than letting awkwardness create tension in the relationship. This mutual laughter brought us closer. In fact, one of our main sources of bonding became teaching her how to keep me alive, like how to brush my teeth without choking me, or how to put my shoes on without snapping my ankles, or how to shave my face without slicing my jugular. She deserves an award for putting up with my relentless teasing.
That is why I get confused when strangers assume that she isn't my girlfriend, because to us it has always seemed so normal. It is fun and it is silly and it is beautiful, and we never think twice about the fact that our relationship is abnormal in any way.
We simply make it work.