When I got married at 19, I thought I knew how to “wife”. While my then fiancé and now husband and I had a good understanding about doing away with the traditional gender roles a husband and wife play, I didn’t know there was a poisonous thread of preconception I was trying to weave into our marriage. A preconception of what it means to be a bully in a marriage.
Growing up, I knew I was fortunate to have parents who loved each other. I saw them sacrifice for each other, spoil one another and love together. But I never saw my parents fight, for they preferred instead to fight quietly and behind closed doors. This wasn’t wrong of them and I don’t resent them for it; however, when I began seriously dating my now husband, I was very behind in knowing the loving way to argue in a marriage.
After my mother died, my models for marriage came from my friends’ parents and from movies and TV. Other friends’ parents didn’t make it a habit to argue in front of us either, so I unconsciously began learning patterns of arguing from romantic comedies and TV series. When I laughed along at the antics of Jill and Tim the Toolman Taylor, I unconsciously stored away the pattern of Jill’s to roll her eyes at Tim and for Tim to always admit that Jill was right in the end.
Across television, these wives berate their husbands in the form of jokes, insults and passive aggressive teasing. There’s always something that the husband has done or said wrong and it is only the husband that is responsible for the wife’s happiness, with no regard for the husbands. The idea is that the husband should be happy that he has his wife, no matter what, and there’s nothing that she can do wrong.
Regardless of the two genders or two nongenders in a relationship, the idea that one person has dominance or authority over another should always be wrong. Women’s suffrage of the early 20th century in this country taught women that they have a voice and a right to be heard. But now it seems like the traditional idea is that there’s still one person in the relationship whose voice is quieted for the other to be heard.
And I am guilty of repeating this mistake in my own marriage. Dusty and I have been married for seven years, five of them with me in a wheelchair and six years in the military.
While stationed in Missouri following our return from Germany, Dusty and I both went through a transformative period. For the first time since the accident, I was purposefully doing physical therapy just to stay healthy and not to continue to try to walk.
At this point we’d been married 6 years, together 8 years, and been together through family crises, my accident that left me a paraplegic, moving for school, moving for the Army, long trainings, long distance loving, and countless events that began to shape our identities. He learned how to dress me, stretch my hip flexors, stand by in case when I became independent, and how to be a soldier with a disabled partner. I learned how to be second to the Army in his time, yet feel secure that I was first when given choices. We grew up in our adulthood together.
Like young friends do, we also teased each other. Made fun of each other’s failings, jokingly at first but always with an element of our true feelings. Then it began to happen in public, at dinners with friends or with our families or even when meeting other couples for the first time. “Don’t ask Dusty, he can’t make choices,” I’d answer for him when friends would ask where to meet for dinner. Joking? Sure. Truthful of my own frustrations with some of his mannerisms? Yes.
And for the first six, Dusty simply absorbed this undertone of belittling and patronizing that I had brought into our marriage. And he took it because he too only knew that it was the husband that was wrong and was constantly needing to get his act together. It breaks my heart to know the man of my life and the hero of my story felt this way for so long. It didn’t matter how tirelessly he worked to make my life accessible, to tune all the kinks from my wheelchair whenever it needed it, to watch for mental and emotional roadblocks in our military life and prepare us for them; if I was unhappy, it was Dusty’s job to fix it. How miserable of a marriage.
But Dusty went through a minor quarter-life crisis in realizing that he simply was not happy. He couldn’t put his finger on the reason, he loved his position in the military at that time, he was hiking and camping all throughout the beautiful Ozarks on weekends, he was enjoying CrossFit… but still he wasn’t happy. We prayed together, I prayed for him and he prayed. And God replied to me, through an article I found on Pinterest. (God totally talks through Pinterest, I’m sure it was His will that wanted me to turn into a wooden pallet sign label maker for our house). Reading through the article, it forced me to ask myself this question.
Would I want to be married to me?
If I was married to myself and played the role of Dusty, would I appreciate the things I said to myself? Would I want to have the responsibility that I’d just shove over to myself without another thought?
Of course not. I’d make myself miserable after a day. No wonder Dusty was unhappy. It wasn’t that who I am as a person made him unhappy or that he didn’t enjoy being with me or we didn’t love each other or anything in that thread of thought. It was the patronizing and belittling comments that had eaten away at his self-esteem, confidence and happiness with who he is. And I crumbled when I realized it had been my mouth from which those comments had come, no matter what my intention had been.
And so together we learned how to communicate both the negatives and positives of each other. We’re still learning how to build each other up instead of cutting away the edges we don’t like. And we’re going to be just alright. We have a foundation of communication that has carried us through my accident and more and now we rely on that to teach us how to fight fairly.
I urge new couples in a serious relationship to practice fair fighting when tempers run high and expectations are skewed. A couple that doesn’t fight could be pushing down the life force of communication that love between two people need. When I’m angry now, I talk honestly instead of passive aggressively belittling his choices and person. He feels affirmed that I think he’s the incredible, strong amazing man that he is when we’ve finished an argument and I feel the same from him. We now know what is a healthy conversation and what isn’t and that’s an education for which I couldn’t be more grateful. Because I’m not married to a husband on TV. I’m married to true person with a spirit like myself.
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We parked alongside a quieter portion of the Roaring River in Kings Canyon, near the end of the careening road through the stone walls. I wanted to make my hippie ancestors proud and wash myself in the cold mountain water, so I changed into my swimsuit and grabbed a towel and our biodegradable camp soap. “I won’t be able to feel the water, anyway,” I assured myself, fearing this river water would be similar to the freezing water we’d waded in at Lake Tahoe but knowing that my spinal cord injury would prevent me from feeling anything up to my waist.
But I was very, very wrong. Even though I couldn’t feel the ice water that I’m sure was going to freeze over any minute, my legs still spasmsed violently in protest. Quickly I squirted the soap all over my head and over my body, caring less by the second how clean I was actually getting. Ethel looked worriedly over the top of my head, balancing on the rock I was leaning against to check on me but not caring so much that she would have to get in the water too. Dusty just clutched his stomach laughing at me, having camped and trained in the woods enough times to know no amount of clean was worth getting this cold. “Qqq-uuiiet you”, I scowled at him with my teeth chattering and braced myself for another dunk to rinse.
Dusty helped lift me from the water and sit me down on the rock behind me to dry off in the sun. The dry air and high elevation thankfully made quick work of my sopping wet hair and soon my breathing returned to normal. “Julia, look,” Dusty said suddenly and grabbed the back of Ethel’s harness. I turned to reprimand him, I don’t like anyone grabbing at Ethel other than myself and her former trainers, but he pointed to thirty feet away on the other side of the river. “A black bear!”
And sure enough, there was a black bear. Not quite a mature adult, the smaller bear was walking along the far bank of the river looking for what seemed to be a good place to enter the water. He (or she, I’m not going to pretend to know how to tell the difference between male and female black bears) was moving in the way bears do in what only can be described as a gallumphing fashion (gal-LUMPH gal-LUMPH) with the paws on each side moving in asynchronous order. Hardly hearing myself, I alternatively commanded Dusty to “take a picture! Take a picture! Hold onto Ethel! Ethel, don’t move! Did you take a picture?!”. The large paws gripped the slippery rocks as he bent towards the water and then smoothly glided into the stream. It was majestic watching him swim, barely making a disruption in the fast moving water. “Ok, we gotta go,” Dusty said suddenly. “Why?” I wanted to watch this beautiful beast catch a fish like in the Pixar movie Brave. “Because it’s coming to this side of the river. Let’s move!”
Forgetting that I, you know, can’t walk, I tried getting to my feet in a sprint to get back to the RV. All I got was wet as my feet slid back into the water and Dusty turned so I could climb onto his back. Ethel had seen the bear too and while interested in the big dog across the way, Ethel wouldn’t go near water to meet any friend or person. But the bear either hadn’t seen Ethel or wasn’t interested and I was not in a hurry to find out. Dusty jogged back to the RV, too much in a hurry to try to secure me with his arms and left me dangling from his neck getting jostled with each step. On our way we called out to the four caravan family that had just parked behind us, telling them of the bear that could be headed this way. They didn’t seem that eager to photograph a bear sighting on their family vacation, because I distinctly heard car doors slam as Dusty set me down safely inside the RV.
It wasn’t until later, after we’d left the river, did I remember from the educational signs all over the park that I was supposed to make a lot of noise if a bear was nearby. So, for good measure, I screamed loudly when we had pulled into a gas station to fill up. Even though I explained I was trying to save all of our lives, Dusty was still mad.
And thus concluded my first bear sighting. You could say that while we ended up safely ensconced in our RV afterwards, we really only bear-ly escaped.
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To those who know us, our announcement about this next chapter in our life should come to no surprise.
We’re 26 and 28 years old. We were married when we were 19 and 21. I was injured in an accident and became a paraplegic at 21 and he was 23. We survived our first deployment at 22 and 24. We traveled Europe and Africa at 25 and 27. And now we’re saying goodbye.
There are several “checkpoints” in an Army career where you have the option of leaving service or diving a little deeper into the commitment, sacrifice and adjustments the Army life requires. In Dusty’s career, when we moved to Fort Leonard Wood, we were faced with another checkpoint. But there was a problem; for Dusty to continue with the Army, it would make my dream of going to medical school with the support and help of a present husband just a little harder. We prayed and prayed. God molded our hearts and pointed our feet towards the door. Our life has definitely shouldered too many struggles already. We don’t need to voluntarily add more.
So Dusty found an Army Reserve unit in Denver. I studied my butt off and did well on the preliminary medical school admission test. We sold our couches, dart board and donated boxes of clothes. I explained all the upcoming changes to Ethel. And then we bought an RV.
We’re setting out on a journey to wake up each morning with the only goal being to enjoy the day. We’re putting aside the constant race of getting higher in the career ladder, making more to buy things we don’t need and falling asleep each night just a little exhausted by the trivial fires that seem to be lit every morning. We have this next year before I know where I’ll be attending school and Dusty just has to drill once a month. We set up a home base in Denver, got a PO Box, put cars in storage and now we’re hitting the road.
There are more important things to spend the day with than the anxiety and ego that seemed to underlie the career focus our life had. So we’re shutting the door on those to instead embrace the beauties of the Western US and the happiness of the complexities of marriage. And Ethel, with her travel bowls and working vest ready, has been more than happy to discover this life with us. As long as her Kong is full of peanut butter, she’s a happy camper.
Wish us luck and please follow us along here as I write our Wheeling Diaries and more!
“There’s another pit bull!” I cried out to Dusty as we arrived at the platform to catch the train. It was our Five Year Anniversary and we were headed to celebrate in the city of excitement, nightlife and love, Barcelona. So far, every time we’d taken the train in and out of the city to our campground on the coast there had been at least one pit bull whose owner would reluctantly tolerate me cooing and petting their widdle wuv muffin on the twenty minute train ride. The stigma that these sweet creatures carry in the United States left me happily stunned at their acceptance in Cataluña. But there were so many differences like that, unique pieces of Barcelona lifestyle and history that make it such an inimitable city separate from mainland Spain. That fact has left Catalonians protesting their independence from the Spanish government for centuries, their history they declare is so isolated from Spanish history that they deserve their own unattached countryhood. Even the language spoken in Catalonia, Catalan, proves the distinction from the Spanish spoken in mainland Spain. Knowing conversational Spanish, I attempted on the first day to speak the Spanish I knew to the people we met and was laughingly told that I’d be better off trying English. Message received.
We arrived in Barcelona and got a shuttle bus service outside the city limits to our campground along the teal blue Mediterranean. Like many European campgrounds we’d visited, we had a café, pool, clean bathrooms, store and bar at our disposal on site. It wasn’t so much camping as it was “glamping” but we did pitch out tent in the dusty ground under low trees and got sufficiently dirty. “Grab everything valuable,” Dusty warned and stuffed his wallet and phone in the bag we carried. I rolled my eyes; Dusty is a chronic worrier of thieves and, as such, never left anything in our tent whenever we left for the day. He was absolutely right to do so, anyone can rob a campsite and our fellow campgrounders all seemed to be under the age of twenty, but I am more of the “whatever happens, happens” mindset. Once Dusty felt like our tent (which he locked the door zipper to the tent and took the key with him) was secure and our bag (which had a carabineer attached to its zipper too, connecting it with a loop on the strap so it would be very hard for a pickpocketer to open) was secure, we took the train to the beach for the day.
It’s a cliché to say, but I discovered my favorite parts of anywhere in Europe is anything close to the Mediterranean. The aqua waves tipped with white like vanilla frosting allured me, reaching with their fingers crawling on the shore to tickle my feet and draw me in. When we arrived at the train platform overlooking one of the beaches of Barcelona, the entire coast stretched out to us. The golden sand was sprinkled with a rainbow of beach umbrellas, towels and the rosy brown tones of nude flesh. We took to the sidewalks leading down to a wooden hut on the beach, in between volley ball courts and brightly painted metal sculptures that served as children’s playgrounds. The hut was owned by the campground as well and served an assortment of food and drinks to the guests lounging on four poster, wooden beds scattered on the sand. “This is heaven, right?” I asked Dusty, looking around at the tranquil scene of pure beach enjoyment. He laughed and gave a satisfied sigh as he dropped our bag and flopped down on one of the beds.
We laid together and ordered tapas and drinks while we watched families try to unsuccessfully corral their naked, brown children in one direction or another and teenagers kissing passionately on their shared beach towel under an umbrella. True to custom, there was not a bikini top in sight but instead the rosy color of bare flesh absent of embarrassment or insecurity. A topless woman would be shamed beyond belief for her indecent exposure in much of the United States, but it was my bikini top that was shaming me on this Barcelona beach and I quickly shed the stringy piece in relief. When we wanted to dip in the chilled teal water, Dusty carried me down to the edge on one of the many wooden boardwalks set up in the city to allow anything with wheels to easily access the water’s edge. Such a convenience was a novelty to us and I was delighted with Barcelona’s consideration and welcoming gesture.
Later in the day, we dried off and took the train to the center of downtown Barcelona. We made our way to La Rambla, the main strip in Barcelona, and strolled for a good while, enjoying the street performers under the suspended shadows of the street lights. By day the buildings of Barcelona are loud walls of bright reds, yellows and teals, with beautiful stone carvings along the edges telling a different story from wall to wall. At night, these buildings take a back seat to the performances and festivities on the street. men with carts on either side demonstrating their wares for the crowd, which tonight was a plastic spinning toy that light up and shrieked when it was flown. Bustles of colorful flower arrangements were on display at other carts, selling bouquets of sweet smelling drooping purple petals I’d never seen. People milled around us, the musical Catalan language wove through the crowd and the bursts of French or English or Italian danced on the melody like notes on a sheet of music. Teenagers leaned against light poles kissing and kids banged on the tables of outdoor cafés waiting for their parents to finish their wine. Many of the girls wore cutoff shorts riding up high on their hips and cropped suggestive shirts hung loosely and unabashed. Smoke rose through the crowd from the innumerable cigarettes dangling in the corner of mouths or pinched between the two fingers of old, wrinkly men selling flowers and too young boys riding skateboards down the street. Barcelona seemed more alive in the shadows of night with glowing streetlights illuminating a scene of entertainment, taste and excitement. As the hour grew later, the fervor of La Rambla amplified into a megaphone of merriment and wine that reverberated like a pulse throughout the city.
We made our way down La Rambla towards a small dinner theatre restaurant that people from Dusty’s unit had told me has the greatest display of Flamenco dancing in an intimidate setting in Barcelona. Later, I reflected that any notions I had about passion in dancing were redefined for me in Barcelona. The Flamenco is a dance that captures the soul of the dancer and speaks in the proud swish of the dress or the stomp of heels on wood. We were seated by escorts in tuxedos in a cramped, multilevel dining room of tables with silk tablecloths and bright red roses on the table. We hadn’t come in time for the dinner, but our empty hands were soon filled with glasses of sangria. The lights in the room suddenly darkened and a single light blinked on to illuminate the wooden stage in the front of the room. The musicians of the show walked out to line the stage, dressed in the signature Flamenco black pants and loose white shirts bleeding accents of red. The Spanish guitar began slowly as the musicians took their places, a sad melody of love and complication that escalated as a singer stepped forward. I didn’t need to translate the words of the singer to feel his passion, gesticulating with outstretched arms and his rich, high throaty voice rose alongside the guitar. And then the dancers emerged.
One solo at a time, a dancer would move forward into the spotlight and stomp, swish, twirl and sway to the singer and guitars. There were two female dancers and two male dancers, each with their own personality of Flamenco dance. Their dresses and costume were dark, with stark white tops or a bright rainbow of threading. Dark hair was oiled to shine in the light whether pulled tight into a bun or loosely bouncing in curls. A dark-haired woman wore a dark blue, richly red detailed Flamenco dress that stopped close to her neck and had thick white layers that she would lift and swish with every fast turn. A blond dancer with large, bouncing curls danced to slower, romantic songs of intricate guitar melodies and layers of skirts lifted high. Her red and black dress dipped at her bare shoulders and gave the effect of her dress melting off her in a syrup of carnal energy. Both dancers would suddenly smack their heels and fiercely tap their boots on the wooden stage while they spun and twirled. The Flamenco showed itself to be a dance of love and passion, shown by both the fierce beauty of the steps and the enticing, expressive splendor of the costumes and dancers.
The song would change after the crescendo of the coda and a new singer would begin soloing a high, throaty verse of the next song. When one of the male dancers came to the center stage, dark and seductively dressed with an open chest peeking through his shirt, his entrance would be aloud series of complicated taps and stopes that were met with cheering from the other dancers. The show was as social of an activity for the dancers as it was for the audience. The men danced as aggressively as the female dancers, their arms outstretched or risen above their heads and their legs stomping the stage in a fervor of heat and sound. Their complicated foot work and dizzying spins were accompanied by colorful accents of scarves and dark hats and, for some song, decorated by short waist vests.
A few times in between songs, we were graced with the presence of the matriarch of the dance. This older woman had her long, dark hair pulled so tightly into a long pony-tail braid that it pulled on her eyes, which were heavily painted like the other female dancers against bright red cheeks and dark lips. She would come to the front of the stage, arms spread, singing the loudest of the troupe and dancing as complicated of steps with the same passion as her younger dance cohorts. She gestured to either side as she sang and the dancers swayed and clapped to her song. And then, as suddenly as she would appear, she would stomp her heels and spin offstage. The dance and guitar and song came to a dazzling crescendo when the dancers reappeared together in brightly colored, bedazzled dressed, vest and hats, twirling each other and dipping and stomping to the harmonizing singers. The guitarist, sitting on a bench off to the side of the stage, suddenly came into view as the dancers stepped aside to showcase his talent. This musicians’ fingers became a blur as he whipped up and down the neck of the guitar to bring the dance to it’s passionate, complicated end.
We had never before heard a guitar sing so complicated a song or a dance that could stomp, sway and spin so many different sides of passion. The Cataluña Flamenco redefined the way I see the art of dancing; I know now how many sides of a soul can be shown just through sparkling cloth, mesmerizing rhythm and steps so passionate the leave the wooden stage forever dented with its steps. I was breathless as the this dancer’s song came to an end. My heart pounded loudly in my chest, feeling the music melt into my veins and course through my body. It was as if the dancers moving on stage were speaking the language of love to their partners and to all of us in the audience.
I learned in elementary school that bees communicate through dance, giving directions to each other where the good nectar is located by zigzagging patterns, turns and steps. They dance to connect with each other, their bodies creating the language. These dancers, with their beautiful dresses and vests of bright red, blue, yellow and green thread, were telling us about love in the passion of their steps. And it wasn’t the shy, slow affectionate love they expressed but the love of such enormity that its weight is painful. They were speaking of that moment when you angrily surrender to the fact that you love this person so much that life is nothing could never be anything but painful without them. They stomped the hunger for that other person, the ache for their arms and their fever that captures you completely. I knew that love, that anger that someone could imprison my heart so strongly and so completely yet I still ache for their attention. I never knew a dance of such beauty could so capture a depth of understanding of that love and commitment.
We left that night for our tent and sleeping bags carrying the message of the dance with us, sensitive to how gratifying it was to be holding each other hands, to kiss, to simply be married for five years. The modest gestures in a relationship, taking the bag, rubbing a back, were amplified by the passion of the flamenco and we slept that night unable to untangle from each other’s arms.
The next morning we left on a treasure hunt to find the sights of Barcelona and sample as many tapas as we could. There’s a famous architect of Barcelona that has shaped the atmosphere of the entire city with his inspired, colorful art. Antoni Gaudi’s houses are an attraction that cause many to walk the city just to see his work. The houses are astounding and truly look like recreations of the settings of many of my favorite childhood movies; it’s as if Willy Wonka came to Barcelona to make homes for his Oompa Loompas (but in normal sizes). It was the night of our anniversary and all I was told was that we were going to dinner. I pulled on my dress over my unshowered, still wet from an early morning dip in the Mediterranean hair and we got on the bus-to-train into the city.
When we arrived at a prominent Gaudi house, there was a crowd of onlookers taking selfies with the beautiful art behind them. There was a red velvet carpet, a gate and a giant bouncer who more resembled a tuxedoed Palm Tree at the entrance, daring the tourists to take a step closer into his domain. Dusty, in a very suave move, pulled out tickets hidden in his jacket and handed them to the bouncer whose demeanor changed to welcoming as he unlocked the gate to let us in.
We were escorted to a back elevator by the Palm Tree’s also giant friend, Mr. Cork Oak Tree .
“Mademoiselle, dis is a very especial way to, ah, see da art of Gaudi”, Cork Oak informed me when we got in a glass elevator. “You see, Gaudi wanted people to, ah, see da house as if dey are, how you say, going underwater,” he said as he pushed the button to the top floor. “Da higher you go in dis house, the deeper underwater you see”
I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to tell me until the elevator starting moving. The walls of Gaudi houses are not straight, but curved in ripples and scenes are painted on the curved and moving walls. The first floor was alive with yellow colors and smoother walls, but as the elevator began to ascend I saw the walls begin to ripple like water. The colors changed to from yellow to lighter turquoise to a deep ink blue. The glass strategically placed over different areas of the wall made it look like you were viewing the entire scene underwater. It was incredible.
When the doors opened to the penthouse, tuxedoed waiters ushered me inside and escorted me to where Dusty, who had taken the stairs, was waiting. The top floor of the apartment opened up to a large dining room bared to the street with large floor-to-ceiling windows and a kitchen turned into a bar for the night. The cream walls and dark wood floors were made amber by low lights, creating an ambience of mystery and glamour. They soon filled my empty glass with champagne to match Dusty and we were escorted out to the large balcony looking out over the back of the street behind the apartment. We could see over the tops of other buildings, the red tiled roofs lit in the moonlight turning to a dark maroon sea of Barcelona nightlife. The balcony seated two or three dozen people in white wicker chairs surrounded by tall, dark leafy plants and trestles woven with vines. A small stage had been set up at the front and a band in black suits played rumba catalana melodies on guitar and piano accompanied by a shiny brass saxophone and trumpet. A beautiful African woman swayed in the center of the stage and sang in a Cataluña accent while smiling at the crowd with bright red lips and a gap tooth that made her seem even more appealing.
I took Dusty’s hand as we sat near the back, listening to the sweet sounds of Cataluña and marveling that five years earlier we were just starting this life together. How far we’d come in such a little time, figuratively and as we sat thousands of miles away in Spain actually literally far. I looked over at my husband, his eyes closed listening to the music and his arm around my shoulders. How far we’ve come, how far we’ve come, indeed.
“Are you sure you have anything? Do you have any cash?”
I roughly pulled my classic backpacking-through-Europe knapsack on my back, the various bulges and attachments left it looking awkward on me. We were on the platform at the Hauptanhof train station near our apartment downtown. I grabbed my small travel wallet I kept inside my jacket and looked. No cash, just a credit card and ID.
“Here,” Dusty pulled a few 20 Euro notes from his wallet and handed them to me before rechecking the ties on my knapsack for the umpteenth time. “I feel like I should go with you, are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?” His eyebrows came together on his face as he looked at me.
“I promise I’ll be okay. George is meeting me there day after tomorrow and it’ll be great. Have fun at Dave’s wedding and please don’t worry about me.” I rubbed his arm up and down and pulled him in for a kiss. The train turned a corner on the distant track and we watched it approach the platform. I gave him one last long hug, trying to linger in his arms but not wanting to give away my hesitation about my confidence in traveling to Rome alone. The air hissed as the train slowed and the mechanical whirr announced the doors opening. I climbed aboard and as the train began building speed, I watched him shrink as the platform disappeared from view.
I’m just being dramatic, I thought to myself. There was nothing to be afraid of traveling by myself to Rome from our home in Stuttgart, Germany. No, I didn’t know Italian but I was pretty conversation in Spanish. And, well, no I didn’t know anything about the transportation in Rome or how to get around from site to site but I could figure it out, right? My younger brother was meeting me in Rome two days after I’d arrive for a weekend of brother-sister bonding in one of the most important sites of the development of Western civilization. Both of us history buffs, we were sure this would be a great weekend. Right?
I should point out here that I’m a paraplegic. A new one too, I’ve only been injured for a few years and I’m absolutely terrible at all things wheelchair. I fall out of my chair constantly, usually because I hit bumps or ran into something that could have been avoided if I had been paying attention. I would eat whatever I wanted and drank a minimal amount of water, both of which did nightmares to my already partially paralyzed digestion track. I tried hard to keep my chronically cold legs and feet warm and covered, but ended up with skin issues on both anyway. I was trying to be a good paraplegic and take care of myself, but for the most part I caused a lot of problems for myself simply out of ignorance.
I got to the airport and was lifted and pushed onto my flight. Disembarking from my flight, I was helped by two large Italian men who oozed a sweet perfume of their aftershave and flirted unashamedly with me like I had been warned Italian men will do. “Si, si,” I’d laugh back with them, “Grazie!”. They blew me kisses as I loaded into a cab and took off for my hostel.
We drove through streets with crumbling, beautiful stone buildings lit up in the black night with modern lights. I could hear the people on the squares we passed yelling and laughing, not caring how loud they were this late into the night. As we drove on past city streets and squares lit golden by the street lights, streams of fast Italian and loud laughter flew through the taxi. I was in a bubble of travel bliss.
Until we arrived at the hostel. Or more appropriately, the crammed apartment in an old, stone building on a street with no streetlights that someone turned into a hostel. I came inside and was greeted by the musty smell of old socks and disinfectant, although by the look of the peeling paint on the tiny entryway hallway I couldn’t believe disinfectant was frequently used. “buonasera,” a tired twenty something behind the counter of the entryway hallway welcomed me. He rattled off in Italian until I apologized and asked “In inglese per favore”. “May I, ah, help you withah anythinah?” He said again in English. He showed me to my “room”, which I had requested be a private. It wasn’t. Turning the corner from the cramped entry hallway, I saw the bathroom sized kitchen to the left and two doorways to the right. My private room had already been occupied, when I showed up to my reservation an hour later than I said I’d be there they had given it away. Instead, he opened the door to a dark bedroom of 3 bunk beds pushed up against the wall and a mess of luggage in the middle, hitting me with the source of the dirty sock smell I noticed earlier. “Dis is youra key,” he pressed a key into my palm. I looked at the beds on the bottom of the three bunk beds. They were all occupied. “I can’t get to the top bunk,” I whispered to him, but he just shrugged and gestered to the sleeping forms of the occupants. “Dere is nothin I, ah, can do” He shrugged again and left the room. I dropped my knapsack and determinely pulled out my toiletry kit, resolute to make myself at least a little more comfortable washing off the dirt of a long, traveling day. The connected cramped bathroom had mold stains crawling up from the tile and the communal toilet brush was stained yellow. I gagged a little trying to get ready for bed but I was determined to emulate the laid-back, adaptable traveler in my favorite books and movies. What’s a little dirt to me? I can do this.
I got back to the bedroom and threw my knapsack on my bunk, trying not to teeter too badly on all the sandals and shoes of the other occupants covering the floors. I knew enough to know that in a crowded hostel, it’s better to sleep with your belongings like a pillow than trust the lockers, no matter how strong your lock. Luckily the bunk bed had railings on the side and if I reached up just high enough, I could grab the ledge of the railing with one hand. I had pulled out an old bike lock that Dusty insisted I bring and, saying a quick prayer of thanks for my insightful husband, I locked my expensive and invaluable wheelchair to the corner leg of the bunk bed. Then I swung my hands up and pulled myself over the railing into bed.
I had set my alarms for early the next morning so I could get a head start of seeing some of the sights of Rome, but I awoke to a loud, rapid Chinese conversation. Two of my dorm occupants were sitting on the bed and floor and comparing pictures on their phones but laughing and yelling five decibels louder than necessary. I felt something itch me on my arm and I looked down as I reached to scratch it.
There was a line of three dark bugs crawling up my arm.
For anyone who hates all things insects as much as I do, don’t be ashamed to involuntarily shiver with disgust like I did. I’m not a prude in the sense that I need five star cleanliness from a public facility, but having bugs crawl on you as you sleep does cross on of my lines.
One half hour and a heated argument with the twenty something clerk about a refund later, I was back on the streets in my chair with my knapsack awkwardly hanging off my back. I had no other plans of where to stay, having made that reservation for the entirety of the trip, no idea where I could find Wifi and no way to contact either George or Dusty. I had my phone but didn’t have an Italian SIM. That meant that I could use my German SIM card and call who I needed to call on my German phone and access the Internet, but it would be expensive eat up my prepay reserve very quickly. I needed to find a Vodafone refill station and quickly or else I wouldn’t have anywhere to stay tonight and George wasn’t arriving until tomorrow.
I wandered the streets of the northern downtown neighborhood of modern Rome, trying to keep my knapsack from falling off and pushing myself up over countless cobblestones, curbs and other nightmare terrain for anyone on four wheels. But I needed to get online to find another hostel, so I tried café after café to see if anyone had WiFi. No one did, but I downed enough expresso to keep me going. Every time I passed a hotel, I tried entering to see if they had a room. I say “try” because most buildings would have entryways higher than the street and sidewalk, so there was always a step to enter. This is common throughout Europe and a huge pain in the ass when you’re in a wheelchair, alone, with a heavy backpack. Every time I did a wheelie to propel myself up or down a step, I was sure the weight of my knapsack would toss me over. “Avete camere?(Do you have any rooms?)”, I’d ask the clerks at each counter, becoming more and more desperate for a room as the day wore on. By lunchtime, I sat in a café exhausted and ready to accept whatever I’d have to pay to use my phone. I wanted so badly to hear Dusty tell me that this was just part of the adventure of traveling, but he’d left the same day I did to be in a wedding for a friend back in the United States. He didn’t have a phone that would work in the states and there wasn’t a way for him to help, anyway. I’d just worry him and the last thing I wanted was for this misadventure to escalate any more than it already had.
I quickly hunted for another hostel available in the city that George and I could stay for the next four nights and jotted down the address of my top choice. I pulled up a map of Rome from a quick google search and saved the picture to my phone, giving me access to subway stations and road names just as a picture even if I ran out of service. And sure enough, as soon as I ended the call with the owners of the bed & breakfast I’d found, a chipper voice alerted me that I had no money left over to make another call.
I took a quick glance at the map and found my way to the nearest subway stop. There are only a few lines in the subway system of Rome and it seemed straight forward enough to find my way. I stopped at the steps leading down to the subway stop below and looked all around the intersection to find an elevator. No luck.
“Is there a lift?” I asked a passerby before they descended the stairs. He shook his head no and rapidly gestured below before hurrying down the steps. Alright, then. I’ll try the next station.
A few blocks away was the next stop on the subway map. Again, only steps with no lift. My phone was able to do a GPS walking guide for me to follow to the B&B but it tried to lead me to subway stops the entire way, with none of them providing lifts for me to be able to take the subway. An hour of rolling later, I was pushing the buzzer on the doorway of the unassuming B&B and praying that the lack of a sign on the door was not an indication of its’ credibility. A small, round Italian man with a booming voice and gut-jiggling laugh opened the door for me and helped me to the ancient, open wire elevator to their apartment on the second floor. Looking back, what I’ve just described is the plot for any serial killer, mystery novel but at the time I was too exhausted to panic. Thankfully, he was a nice man with a wonderful wife and clean B&B and I’m still alive today.
I met George the next morning through a series of waiting around for his train, him walking right past me and us exchanging frantic “WHERE ARE YOU” emails whenever we found WiFi. But once together, we began running around Rome emulating the exact tourist behaviors that we despise on principle. But who can’t do a 360 degree turn around the Colosseum and wonder about the gladiators and lions locked away below? Who can’t take a selfie at the Pantheon or try a melodramatic filter of the theatric Roman Forum or Palatine Hill?
By the end of the second day, I was thoroughly overwhelmed by the magnitude of historical significance around each corner of Rome. My entire Western education, nuances and culture is indebted to the people who walked on these same roads where I’m rolling. The significance of this relationship drove me to take every picture of every turn that I could, wanting to capture every second to immortalize that feeling.
As expected, these same ancient Roman roads were a complete headache and source of endless frustration. I had not acquired the durable wheelchair attachment FreeWheel yet and was left trying to wheelie myself over every lopsided cobblestone and up every step to enter buildings. George pushed and pulled me through each attraction, but I had to bounce and jolt on every sidewalk. When we approached the Colosseum, we could see the line rounding from the site all the way down the street. It was a hot day, sunny in the bright way that only Italian sun brings and it wasn’t going to be pleasant waiting in a line for hours. I hadn’t bought us a ticket in advance, allowing us to skip the line, but we bypassed the line and approached the front desk anyway. I’d learned at other attraction in Europe and the US that sometimes there’s a special handicapped entrance if the main entrance has steps. When we approached the desk to ask if this was the case for the Colosseum, a guard at the gate at the front of the line motioned to us and lifted the cord on the entrance.
“We don’t have tickets yet,” I apologized to him as we approached. He shook his head, went to the desk and spoke with the attendant and returned with two white passes in his hand. “For you,” he gestured to my wheelchair, “and you (motioning to George)nessuna carica (no charge) “. Score!
We entered the Colosseo and as we went around the circular perimeter above the remains of the ancient spectator seating, I rubbed my hands against the rough yellow stone columns. I looked down at the remains of the amphitheater stage below, the cells for the animals and gladiators under the floor of the pit now visible. I thought about the gladiators emerging from one of the crumbling entrances and was dumbfounded that something so raw and violent was such popular entertainment. I learned spectators in the lowest seating could get splattered with hot blood and I responded by taking a selfie. Like any tourist would do.
We ran around the rest of Rome, eating delicious Italian at the little local restaurants recommended by our fantastic B&B owner. I was careful to watch how many expressos I drank as there was little access to bathrooms of any sort, let alone accessible ones. Early in our move to Europe two months prior, I had given up trying to ever find a bathroom large enough for me and my wheelchair and instead got accustomed to pivot transfers from my chair into the bathroom stall. Such was the situation throughout Rome.
When Sunday came, I woke and put on the special earrings I had brought for the occasion. The reason my brother and I had chosen this specific weekend to go to Rome was not happenstance. There was to be an induction of a statue of the Virgin Mary from Portugal into the possession of the Vatican. This statue of Our Lady of Fatima would be presented and celebrated during the weekly Sunday Mass, which would be given by Pope Francis himself.
My mother died a Catholic woman, having completed confirmation just a few years prior to her death. Her passion in her faith was celebrating the Virgin Mary, leading my mom to pray continuously for the Holy Mother to watch over all of us. As a mother and as a Labor & Delivery nurse, my mother had an immensely strong kinship with Mary that I’ll never forget. She had always wanted to go to Mass at the Vatican; I wanted to go in her place, on the same weekend that her Mary would be there.
We arrived at the gates of the Holy City early Sunday morning and a crowd was already surrounding the perimeter. The Vatican is walled city that closes to the public before Mass on Sunday to quell the thousands of people who attend. We joined the fray, George pushing as I tried to squeeze us to the front. When we stopped, there were a dozen nuns in grey habits around us talking to themselves in Spanish. George and I are both proficient in Spanish and we tried talking to one nun, a woman with bright eyes who looked about our age. “() (When do we enter?”, I asked her. “() (At seven),” she answered, giving us a funny look. “Wait, do you speak English?” she asked. “Yes! We’re Americans,” I answered. “Me too! I’m from California,” she laughed. “Where is your convent?” I asked, gesturing to the other nuns dressed similarly around her, although her headpiece was different than the rest. “In Spain,” she answered. “God led me to join after I visited the convent studying abroad in college”.
We talked for a few minutes and she got the attention of her sisters to help us get to the front, a pair of Italian grandmothers on our right offering to help as well by pushing on my wheels. She told us there was a special section for people with disabilities, but she didn’t know how I could get to it so she helped us get to the guards at the gate. The guards of Vatican City are the elite Pontifical Swiss Guard, males from Switzerland who have trained for years, had to pass a multitude of aptitude and skill evaluations, have to remain unmarried, be under the age of 30 and at least 5ft 8.5in tall.*
Upon approaching the gate, Italian grandmothers in the crowd helping George and our nun friend push me through the throng, one of the guards spotted me and opened the entrance for George and I to pass. We waved goodbye to our friends and followed our brightly colored red, orange and blue uniform escort through the Piazza di San Pietro to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
A row of two chairs had been arranged facing the podium and altar arranged on the top steps of Basilica di San Pietro. Rows of chairs sat perpendicular to us on the top steps as well, facing the podium from the site. I turned to see the sun begin to rise above the walls surrounding the city and a ray shone on the red granite obelisk behind us. People began milling through the entrances to the city and pushed to the front of the barricades I saw had been arranged to create pathways through the crowd. The Pontifical guards herded the people to the right barricade and I saw there were kneeling benches forming countless rows to the back of St. Peter’s Square. George and I nodded and greeted the other people sitting with us at the front, which consisted of persons with Down Syndrome and their families, amputees and a developmental young man with his brother. George and I watched the nearly empty Piazza behind us become a moving mass of bodies. The seats on the stage of the steps in front of us were filled as monks in white, black, red and other colors of robes filed in. Finally one monk with robes of ceremonial finery approached the podium and announced the start of Sunday Mass.
I’m not Catholic and although I attended a few Masses with my mom, I didn’t remember any of the formalities, customs or ceremony of a traditional mass. A melodic song of Latin hummed through the crowd and when the brother declared each verse, the sound pulsed in our chests. The crowd behind us fell on their knees in unison as the pitch rose and fell in song and chant from the altar. The sun was high over the Piazza now and the heat blanketed us in a sticky film with our shirts starting to glue to our backs. The smell of thousands of people sweating started to waft. The guards, however, did not seem to be bothered by the heat or the crowd but continued to pace the walkways between the barricades in their long sleeve, long pants uniform.
Suddenly, there was a break in the Latin and everyone was looking at something at the far end of the Piazza. I couldn’t make out what was moving towards us, but as it came closer I saw that it was the statue of the Virgin Mary that was getting inducted today. “There she is!” I whispered to George and gripped his hand. He nodded and we watched the parade of four monks carrying a life-size golden statue of the Holy Mother adorned in colorful flowers for the ceremony. Her face was visible for the few seconds she was near us before they began to climb the steps of the Basilica towards the Pope. Her face radiated of something that could only be what true harmony looks like. She was dressed in a simple peace, the kind where you know for certain what you were put on life to do and the utter fulfillment of doing it. I was speechless for a second; the Virgin Mary had never meant anything more than one lasting connection I had with my mom after she died. But, as they walked her to Pope Francis, her peaceful face gave me the gift of knowing exactly how serenity looks.
The Pope blessed the statue and then began his homily, thankfully repeating his words in English as well.
“It is the astonishment of realizing that God, to become man, had chosen her, a simple maid of Nazareth. Not someone who lived in a palace amid power and riches, or one who had done extraordinary things, but simply someone who was open to God and put her trust in him, even without understanding everything,” Pope Francis continued in his soft, strong voice. This is why my Mom loved the Holy Mother; she was the example of an idea Mom drilled into my head time and time again. I could hear her voice saying “who you have been does not indicate who you can be. You can be anything you want and God has something He wants you to be more than anything”.
My hands clasped under my chin as I bowed my head and listened. My heart was slowly sinking down to my stomach and I could feel it’s weight pull my chest down. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come here. This hurt, a lot, to hear about Mary, a woman I knew so intimately as part of my mom. In a way, it was my mom that was getting welcomed into the Vatican today. Where she had always wanted to see, always wanted to belong, was where she would be from now on. I was confusingly angry at Pope Francis, a man I admire so much, so talking about Mary as if he had a relationship with her as strong as my own. I rocked back and forth and continued listening.
“May she help us to be open to God’s surprises, to be faithful to him each and every day, and to praise and thank him, for he is our strength. Amen.”
But then I couldn’t let his words sink in any more, for Mass soon ended and Pope Francis was leaving his ceremonial seat for a white vehicle parked by the side of the steps. The PopeMobile! I had seen pictures of this car and had heard that Pope Francis had asked for the bulletproof glass that protected the Pope as he rode to be removed. As the car began to slowly make its way on the walkways through the barricades, I saw why the bulletproof glass had previously been installed. The Pope rode through the thousands,, touching hands and kissing the foreheads of babies that the Swiss guards or CIA-like men in black suits lifted to him. His hand reached out to pat heads and he wove around the crowd to reach every block of people waiting to see him. It was nearly 45 minutes before he reached the front and began to come through the handicapped section.
He seemed taller standing in his white vehicle than he looked projected on the big TV’s they have situated all around the Piazza. Men with cameras and men with black suits strode in front and around the PopeMobile while the Swiss guards marched in two pairs of two at the head and bringing up the rear. His robe was the same stark white as the car and he smiled modestly, as if he didn’t understand everyone’s excitement to see him. The PopeMobile suddenly stopped and a black suited man helped Pope Francis down to the street.
A young boy a few people down from me in our section was crookedly lying in his wheelchair, a family of several generations of women surrounding him. The boy’s body was twisted and he wasn’t able to turn his head fully forward to see the Pope striding towards him. I couldn’t hear his prayer, but Pope Francis laid both hands on the boy and lowered his head praying. He then reached down to pull the boy forward from his wheelchair into a hug. The women were crying and fussed mercilessly over the boy when Pope Francis broke their hug. He then stood to face all of us and made the sign of the cross before lifting his hands and blessing every handicapped person in our section. He returned to his PopeMobile and continued on, leaving behind a breathless group of people who had just been fed an enormous amount of hope.
But once he was gone, a new realization hit me. “Shoot, George, I gotta pee,” I whispered to my brother sitting beside me. He looked around for a bathroom and we spotted the long, winding line in the distance. He stood and bent over to push me towards the line, trying not to block anyone’s view. When we arrived at the bathroom, which seemed like a cave into the walls with two private bathrooms inside, the line was indeed long and followed along the inside perimeter of the stone walls of the city. But one of the guards spotted us at the door of the bathroom and gestured to follow him. He went into a small cave and then gestured to us to follow, where he then led us to a private, accessible bathroom. Thank you, God.
Now I have a brief caveat to add here; I can’t poop like an able bodied person anymore. Parts of my digestive track are paralyzed now so I don’t have the ability to tell my body “hey, it’s time to poop” the same way I can’t tell my body “wiggle those toes already, darn it!”. So sometimes accidents happen and I’ve learned to stop crying, clean up and move on already from it. It’s not that big of a deal. Unless you had an accident when you were getting blessed by the Pope. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to sob and I wanted to give up and I wanted purge myself of the flood of emotions that had engulfed me over the past hour. I cleaned up (thanks to a handy emergency kit I keep on me) and joined George outside.
Mass had ended and the thousands were now all trying to exit the city through it’s numerous, but narrow gates. We squeezed into the crowd and I gripped George’s hand to keep us together, although I did lose sight of him from the in between the mass of bodies a few time. Now that I’m roughly eyelevel with a person’s belly button, I have a hard time in crowds and getting pushed by dozens of hands connected to too many moving bodies. We finally came out onto the street and I took a few deep breaths, but the dam of emotion in me had risen too high. I missed her, more than anything, I missed my mom and I wanted to call her, send her a text with a picture of her son and daughter at her Vatican. Tell her about the Virgin Mary parading through today. Ask her what Latin hymns meant. Hug her on the steps of St. Peter’s.
I choked on sobs as I stopped in the middle of a pedestrian street, giving up on trying to roll over the persevering cobblestones. I cried hard, trying to fill each tear with as much grief and pain as I could so it would leave my body. George leaned over from behind me and wrapped his arm across my shoulders to push me to the seclusion of a little café. But then we just stopped there, his grip tight on me and giving me his silent acceptance of my breakdown. Melodic Italian flowed around us as people yelled out greetings to each other, laughed at the mundane and flirted. But for me, in that moment, I was back in Indiana and watching her disappear from my life all over again.