by Kim Karpeles

The handicap placard swinging from my rearview mirror gave me decent access to Target’s entrance, but it wasn’t as close as I remembered. This was the smallest Target near me, but it loomed larger than when I’d shopped there before the rainy day wipeout in my driveway.

I’d driven some since the bicycle accident grounded me for six weeks after surgery to screw my hip back together. Grounding meant not placing more than ten pounds of pressure on the good leg, using a walker without wheels to get around, and crutches to navigate stairs. Even with buff triceps I couldn’t go far.

At my seven-week visit for an X-ray, I had a teary outburst resembling a psychological breakdown due to the lack of endorphin-producing exercise. The orthopedic surgeon reluctantly granted me swimming privileges if I agreed to follow his restrictions. In junior high I swam backstroke for the local swim club when the regular relay team member was gone, but I hadn’t swum laps since – and now I could only use my arms. Doctor’s orders.  

The water aerobics class at the health club pool crowded around me wondering what a woman in her 50’s was doing using a walker and showed me how to navigate the pool steps on one leg. I was initiated into a subculture I hadn’t known existed, and they relished encouraging a younger person new to the world of physical limitations. They complimented my increasing distance, and I noted their strategic towel and sandal placement making it simpler and safer to exit the pool.

After mastering the health club routine, a Target run seemed reasonable. Maybe my eight surrogate mothers would have warned me otherwise. The automatic entry door was in my favor, but the distance from the car to the entrance had taxed my arms and I was spent. I thought about the items I wanted to buy, calculated the distance through the aisles, to the cashier, the entrance door, and back to the car and knew I couldn’t do it. I turned around and left.

Tears of frustration and humiliation filled my eyes, but didn’t pour until I slammed the car door. The to-do list was a goal I couldn’t reach. My physical limits couldn’t be overridden by willpower and redoubled determination; and I hated to admit the reality I didn’t want to accept.  

About eight weeks later I got the green light to bear more weight, use a kickboard in the pool, and moved on to a cane. I pushed through the painful process of strengthening atrophied muscles in physical therapy and kept at it until nearly a year later I could walk without pain. While I celebrated regained sufficiency, I knew the day would come when I couldn’t expect healing to diminish my body’s limitations; aging would multiply them.

Until then, I want to be aware when someone can’t reach the upper shelf in the grocery store or pick up something they dropped. To notice the look of desperation when someone realizes the distance to the hospital desk or the elevator or their parked car. To recognize the frustration of opening heavy doors and trying to maneuver a walker in tight bathrooms. To speak at normal volume to someone using a walker and address them directly, not the person with them. To learn from those who already know accepting limitations isn’t easy and to ease their journey when I can.

Months after I returned to the treadmill and my handicap placard expired, the ladies from the water aerobics class graciously invited me to their monthly birthday parties. Part of me wanted to join them, but I had walked out of their subculture and back into my own.

Kim Karpeles is the Director of Communication for a mid-sized church in Northbrook, Illinois. She holds two masters degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; one in Systematic Theology, the other in Christian Studies. Kim enjoys reading, sudoku puzzles, travel, and learning Spanish.    

Cover image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay