Note to the reader: English is my second language. Every day, the language rules of usage change. As much as attempt to be careful, please bear in mind that I live in Puerto Rico, speak Spanish on a daily basis and mean no offense if I make such a mistake as I genuinely speak from the heart. Therefore, if in any way I use any word in an inappropriate manner, I apologize in advance. Compassion goes a long way. Namaste.
I was born to a wonderful father with a severe physical impairment that made him depend on a wheelchair for his everyday life. Even though his physical limitations didn’t allow us to carry out many activities many of my friends shared with their fathers, my dad’s condition provided me with a priceless toolbox.
Two and a half years ago, my special friend of thirteen years suffered a stroke that left his entire right side paralyzed and speech severely slurred. After intense weeks of therapy, he began to walk slowly with a cane. As time went by, his condition improved but he never fully recovered.
Out of the blue, one day he told me:
“You are the only person that treats me normally.”
I pretended it wasn’t a big deal and replied: How else am I going to treat you?
I instantly knew what he meant. Before his stroke, his witty comments were constant, he always had a smart remark. Constantly joking and in a good mood, regardless of any problems he could have been going through, he always had a smile on his face. An eternal flirt with women, he made all feel beautiful and and never forgot a birthday. He never missed a funeral. Everyone adored him.
When he fell ill, he considerably lost a great part of his self. People loved him so much that when they saw him, they lied to try to make him feel good by how well he looked. They would go out of their way to help him as if he was helpless.
Instead of making him feel better, it did the opposite. It mortified him but he graciously didn’t say anything. He knew they meant well.
It didn’t even occur to me to do any of that. I let him roam free. When he would come to see me, I asked him how he was feeling as I did to any of my friends. I even fought with him and bossed him around to do simple tasks. I occasionally helped him out without asking if I saw he was having trouble, never making a big deal of it.
I didn’t act this way out of a script; I was just being myself.
The last birthday I celebrated was in February 2019. I really planned it for him to enjoy. It was small — only my closest friends — that were his as well — were there. I warned them not to dare say to him that he looked well or to go out of their way to help him. Rather, I instructed them to only ask him how he was doing. Nothing else.
It was very hard for them not to cry seeing him so frail and weak. However, they put in their best effort. We sang, laughed, reminisced. They imitated me as to how to treat him. Before leaving, he thanked me for the happiest birthday we’d ever celebrated together.
Years before, I had experienced another special moment that I didn’t realize it’s significance at the moment, yet it taught me a huge lesson in the realm of disabilities.
Over thirty years ago, we went to visit my sister in San Francisco. My father enjoyed going to nice restaurants when we travelled. He took us to an exuberantly elegant one called the Cypress Club.
Even though we had been to our share of fancy places in Boston and New York where my other sister and I had gone to college, the classy Cypress Club waitress‘ attentions and imppeccable service captivated my father in a way no other server ever had.
When listening to his questions, addressing him and taking his orders, instead of looking down at him with pad and pen in her hand, she elegantly squat next to him and quietly discussed his choice of drink or meal. On the way to the hotel, my dad commented on her graciousness of making an effort to speak to him at eye level. He mentioned no waiter had ever done that before in his lifetime. The year was 1985.
Needless to say, it’s unlikely she expected the generous tip he left her.
About five years ago, I was in a conference where I got introduced to a blind man. I gently extended both my hands towards the man’s left hand, held it and softly shook it, returning it back to his chest. I could detect a faint smile on his face.
As I was driving back from the conference with one of the colleagues present at the conference, he told me: “That was pretty cool what you did back there when you shook the blind man’s hand”. I then asked him: “What else was I supposed to do? That is the courteous thing to do.”
It dawned on me that what is obviously normal to me doesn’t cross most people’s minds. It is only my experience growing up with someone like my father that such behavior became second nature.
I am certain that I held and shook the man’s hand because of the unique toolkit I obtained growing up with a severely impaired man.
These are just three examples of the compassionate etiquette that naturally flows from me when addressing or treatig a person with an impairment.
The practical lessons in kindness I learned from my father cannot be found n any book; you acquire like courage they are learned by practicing them.
Don’t be afraid to naturally extend manners such as these to people that don’t fit the conventional mold. As the daughter of someone who taught his peers to treat him like anyone else, I assure you that your nonchalance won’t offend them. On the contrary, it’s the awkward over-attention what makes them feel uncomfortable and inadequate.
When you are able to look beyond anyone’s disability and treat them normally, you exude kindness and elegance, indispensable items in the toolkit of life.