I'm on the bus, my wheelchair locked in place, an open book on my lap, heading uptown for a a disability culture conference at Columbia Univesity. It's September and the temperature outside is still in the high 80s, so I'm grateful for the air conditioning chilling my neck and blending the diverse odors of the New York City bus riders into an amalgamated, homogenized scent.
At 42nd Street, a woman and a young girl get on. The woman is pulling the girl by the hand. The girl is 10 or 11 and disabled. Her movements are spastic. Cerebral Palsy? I wonder. This is one of the older buses where the wheelchair spaces are in the back. From my vantage point, I watch the two making their way through the aisle, luckily not too crowded with standing passengers. Apparently there are no empty seats in front and no passengers are eager to give up their seats.
The girl is wearing braces, the short plastic type meant to stabilize the ankles, but her legs look muscular and strong. Not easy to walk sideways, though, pulled by the hand, through the aisle. Her left foot first kicks outward then ends up hitting her right one. Her left arm, extended to help her balance, is drawing wide motions in the chilled air. The few standing passengers lean in the opposite direction as she goes by them, afraid, I guess, of being hit by her flailing arm. As the two get closer, I realize that the woman is not pulling the girl by the hand but by the arm. The girl's right forearm is securely clasped in her mother's hand.
I assume the woman is her mother. Their skin is the same shade of rich milk chocolate. Not African American, though. Hard to identify their ethnicity. Indian maybe? They both have thick wavy black hair. The mother's hair is long and tied in the back in a low pony tail, the daughter's is chopped at chin length.
I notice that the seat next to the man sitting across from me is empty. It would be nice if he got up, I'm thinking, and, as if reading my mind, he indeed stands and offers the mother and daughter the two seats. The mother pulls the daughter closer to her, turning her around, so she has her facing the front of the bus and pushes her between the rows of seats. She speaks to her in a language I don't recognize. I suppose she's telling her to sit down. The girl answers her in English. “Stop pulling and pushing me and I'll sit down,” she says. Her vowels slope and loop, her consonants come out of her mouth in bursts, her face muscles contract with intense energy. Her mother speaks softly, but forcefully in her language. The girl again answers in English: “I'm not talking too loud.” As she labors to speak her left arm flies up. The mother grabs her arm and pulls it down, then puts her index finger over her mouth in the universal gesture for “silence.”
I feel the anger swell up inside my chest as the dark thought suddenly invades my mind. Is the mother ashamed of her disabled daughter? Together with the dark thought, a crazy feeling overtakes me. The irrational, outrageous desire to take this disabled girl away from her mother and claim her as my own! I feel myself shaking with rage and with longing at the same time.
What the hell is the matter with me? Are these frustrated maternal feelings? My barren menopausal womb crying out in regret? Or is it just my "Proud Disabled Woman Identity” that wants to claim every disabled girl I see as a "Disabled Daughter?"
As if sensing what I'm feeling, the girl turns and looks my way. I smile at her and she smiles back. She seems so beautiful to me this girl with chocolate skin. If only she were my daughter, how I would treasure her, how proud of her I would be! And how I would teach her to be proud, in ways her mother never could.