In the blink of an eye, a week has gone by since I posted and I’m back on the West Coast. How did that happen? Whereas the first week dragged on at a torturous pace, the second zipped past like one of Washington DC’s metro trains (which were infinitely more accessible than their New York counterparts, by the way.) The last seven days were a mixed bag of sour and sweet experiences that all seemed to end with late nights, so here’s a recap of what all you missed.
The physical act of Rolling on Capitol Hill looked nothing like I had imagined it would when our plane first took off from SeaTac airport couple weeks ago. I never would’ve guessed there were series of catacomb-like tunnels beneath our nation’s capital, or that Amanda would be pushing me through them in a manual wheelchair from the House Building to the Senate Building, passing folks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham along the way. An hour later, it was back to the House. Then back to the Senate. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. She’s a trooper, that girl.
The meetings themselves had a much different feel than I anticipated as well. Instead of rubbing shoulders with senators and congressmen/women, we were met with handfuls of policy-wonky aids with hard-hitting questions I wasn’t quite prepared for. Thank God United Spinal had the forethought to pair me with a DC veteran named Andy Hicks from Bainbridge Island, who deftly fielded the tougher ones and let me swing freely at the softballs about my personal experiences. Those who know me know I’ve never shied away from a chance to flap my gums, and this trip gave me plenty talk about.
I left the capital more than a little exhausted but motivated as well. Besides liking to talk, I really like to debate, so those unanswered policy questions loom large inside my head. If I’m going to be an advocate on behalf of my community, I think I’m going to need to do a little bit more homework while also keeping the pulse of current events. It will be a hell of a lot easier now that I have been in the belly of the beast and know what to expect next time.
Wednesday – Sitting, Waiting, Wishing:
We heard late Tuesday afternoon that my wheelchair was fixed and that it would be “out for delivery early Wednesday morning” which we clearly misunderstood meant 7 PM at night. Better yet, the girls didn’t get but 5 feet inside the hotel after the driver dropped off the chair that our favorite “CONTROLLER FAULT” message started flashing on the screen, making it a full 11 days since United Airlines busted my legs and we still weren’t out of the woods. Yay! Fun times! A long call with my wheelchair rep back home and some strategically place electrical tape made the trip a few blocks over to Bolt Burger for milkshakes possible, so the day was not a complete bust.
Thursday – Tentative Tourism:
In what apparently was a pattern for Thursdays this trip, Claire and I were finally able to get out and see the sights. Just like the previous week in NYC, she helped me soldier through a handful of initial controller faults so that we could properly explore the rich history on display in nearly every nook and cranny of our nation’s capital. Miraculously, we made it most of the day without too much of a struggle.
After dipping into Smithsonian Museum of American History to escape the heat, we spent much of the evening meandering around The National Mall, starting near the Washington Monument, down through the WWII and Vietnam war memorials and finishing at the Lincoln Memorial before heading back through the Federal Triangle towards our hotel. The neoclassical design of the area seemed to swallow us whole, making the long walk/roll feel like an exposition of architectural history. It’s fascinating how the downtown buildings blend new construction with centuries-old buildings. Before we knew it, the day was over, and we had our first successful touristy day of the trip in the books.
Friday – Fun with New Friends:
After yet another consultation with a wheelchair technician early in the morning where we may have finally diagnosed the problem, we left our hotel with a little more confidence that my ride might hold up long enough to get us home to the replacement parts we need. We filled our late morning and afternoon with a couple more museums before catching the subway down across the Potomac to the Pentagon where we met Ian and Julie Sandstrom, a couple from Virginia Beach we had met through a Facebook group focused on navigating relationships after paralysis.
A four-hour drive to meet virtual strangers may sound a little crazy to some, but there is an inherent bond between SCI Survivors and their loved ones, so we were bantering like old family friends within minutes of sitting down at a local Mexican restaurant for dinner. We briefly toured the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial at sundown and made plans to connect at the capital for our last full day in DC.
Saturday – Saving the Best for Last:
We met Ian and Julie at the National Air and Space Museum just after noon. Being our third straight day exploring yet another Smithsonian, it only took a couple of hours before we were officially all museum-ed out, so we opted to brave the heat and check out a few more monuments. We made a lap around the White House before stopping at some benches just north of the Reflecting Pool to chat. It is always awesome when Claire and I get to spend time with people who understand the unique trials and triumphs that come with a relationship where paralysis plays a part. Every couple we meet gives us another tool or six to work on our own relationship.
We closed out the night at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, where I could feel an inkling of frustration start to flare at what this trip could have been if it weren’t for all of the trouble early on. But as we sat at the foot of the former president’s statue reading some of wise his words, it was a good reminder that true wisdom demands life be looked at on a much longer timeline than a few uncomfortable days. Yes, these last couple weeks were extremely difficult, but I vaguely recall getting something in the mail right before we left about life starting at the end of your comfort zones. And as uncomfortable as it most certainly was, I can’t help but humbly acknowledge that I was put on this path for a reason. There will be plenty more trips to come. This one was about giving me a platform to use my voice to push for change.
Sunday – Fear and Loathing at 40,000 feet:
The only thing left was another five-hour tour without my legs in the not so friendly skies. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Heh heh…*gulp*
We met the Sandstroms at the Pentagon, and they gave us a ride to Arlington Cemetery for quick tour before dropping us off at Reagan International Airport. Armed with a handful of extra tips we’d gleaned from the overwhelming response to our little viral video a week earlier, we rolled up to the check-in desk for Alaska Airlines ready to fight for proper treatment. You can imagine our surprise when they didn’t even blink at the notion of Amanda going down on the tarmac with my chair. Hell, they even gave her her very own reflector vest.
We found the flight experience with Alaska Airlines to be diametrically opposed to that with United. From check-in, to boarding, to the flight crew themselves, everyone we encountered went over and above the call of duty to be as accommodating as possible. Granted, it was still extremely uncomfortable and cumbersome due to the flawed protocol that exists, but a little bit of effort by the people on the ground (and in the air) made our lives remarkably easier for the five-hour flight home. Plus, they managed not to trash my chair, so they had that going for them as well.
Monday – There’s No Place like Home
We spent most the day recovering from jet lag and reflecting on the entirety of the trip. Even with everything we had to endure, this will still probably go down as my favorite just because of all the incredible things we got to see. I have to be honest that, for a couple minutes in each town, I caught myself seriously contemplating a move to the East Coast. It was easy to fall in love with the concrete jungle that is NYC, the colonial feel in Old Philly, and the heavily marbled halls of DC. Each city has its own distinct feel, but they all held a similar magnetism which triggered a bit of my closeted wanderlust. Maybe it’s the melting pot of cultures and languages on display. Maybe it’s the sheer density of the people and historical places around every corner. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone on that side of the country appeared a little more plugged in than their counterparts on the other side. But all it took was one peek out the left side of the plane to remind me why I love living in this corner of the states.
It’s good to be home. I’ll take another day to rest, but then it’s back to work. New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC… You may have won this round, but we will be back soon for another go. Thanks for all of your support from both sides of the country, everyone!