This is a story about shoes. But these are not ordinary shoes. This story is about shoes that helped change my life.
After I became a quadriplegic after a car accident in 1979, my wife Sandy came to the hospital every day for the 3 months that I was in acute care. When I was transferred to the rehabilitation Hospital, she still came almost every day. I felt safe when she was around, and only when she was around.
When I was discharged, she did everything with and for me. Whenever I needed something, she would go to the store with me and take care of all the things that I was unable to do. The same would happen when we went out to dinner or took our first vacation. She was there. She was always there.
Until 10 years later.
Alone in our kitchen on a cloudy day in June, she said that she wanted a trial separation over the summer of 1989. I was crushed and I was scared. But I hoped the separation would only be temporary. I muddled through the summer with a great deal of help from my nurses, my daughters and friends.
In September, we met at Dunkin’ Donuts on Kings Hwy. in Cherry Hill. And there we sat face-to-face at a little plastic table. That’s when she told me she wanted a divorce. Fortunately there was no one else there at the time because I cried right there in Dunkin’ Doughnuts! And then I cried some more.
I was terrified about my future. How would I live without her? Who would help me at stores and restaurants? In a way I thought my life of being functional was essentially over.
Here’s where the shoes come in. A few weeks later I realized I had to deal with this sometime. So I got in my van (I was driving at the time) and drove to Macy’s. I love clothes, so I wandered around trying to figure out how I could do this. Eventually I found myself in the shoe department. I have always loved shoes, but I wasn’t thinking clearly when I chose the shoe department. Not a great place for a quadriplegic to go on his first retail outing!
So I went to the department and a salesperson asked if he could help me. “No thank you, I’m okay”, I said pretending to be more independent than I felt.
The shoes were arranged on 3 shelves that went around the department. I couldn’t see the top shelf at all and could barely see the bottom shelf. Because I was pretending to be so independent, my options are limited to the middle shelf! So when I was ready, I told the salesperson which shoes I wanted. He awkwardly asked if I wanted to try them on. “Oh that’s okay” I said, “I know my size”.
I drove home feeling good about myself. I realized I could do this independently and I felt proud and relieved.
So when Mr. independent got home I had my nurse open the shoe box. And when I looked inside to see the shoes I was so proud of., my assessment was that they were ugly. But not regular ugly, they were so ugly I have my nurse close the lid never to be opened again!
For the next couple of weeks I tried to ignore the shoes, but the wasted money was getting to me. So I had my nurse put the shoes in a bag with handles so that it could be hooked on the back of my wheelchair. And off I went to Macy’s. Again.
I wheeled right into the shoe department to return my shoes. Fortunately, there was a different salesperson there. He took my shoes and asked if I wanted to replace them with another pair. I did. This time when he asked if I needed help, filled with shame and fear, I held my breath and could barely make eye contact when I said: “yes, please help me.”
He happily showed me shoes from all over the department. He stayed right with me until I saw a pair of shoes that I really liked. No more Mr. independent. Now I was no longer pretending to be stronger than I really felt. I was just a vulnerable human who had the courage to say those 3 words: “please help me”
Feigning independence is easy. The heart is closed and the walls go up.
But showing our vulnerability takes courage. It often feels shameful. Many, especially men, feel that we are seen as weak and might be rejected because of our vulnerability. After all, men are “supposed to be” strong.
In these last 25 years, I have uttered those words thousands of times. And just about every time, the person I said that to smiles and opens their heart. More often than not, when they help me, they say “is there anything else I can do for you?”
Independence makes us lonely. When we wear our suit of armor, nobody can see our hearts. Vulnerability is the only way we can get close to one another. Even in a significant relationship, if we are not vulnerable with each other, we won’t be able to experience love. Remember the wisdom of Simon and Garfunkel “A rock feels no pain and an island never cries.” Well, I feel pain and I do cry. Just like the rest of my fellow humans. And it all started with
An ugly pair of shoes and 3 words.