A woman came up to me in Starbucks the other day. She smiled and asked, Are you Codi? The sarcastic side of me always wants to respond with Was it the glasses that gave me away? But as my husband has pointed out, people may not see the humour and instead simply think I’m an asshole. So I smiled—mostly at her, but partly because of my husband’s lecture running through my head—and I said hello.
I follow you on Facebook and read your blog. I sent you a message when you were newly injured. I thanked her as she fumbled with her phone and I—as I always do—struggled to say something more than thank-you and wished for the millionth time that words came to me in conversation as easily as they do when I’m alone in front of my computer. Then she showed me a photo on her phone. It was her dad. He is 90 years old and has been paralyzed since she was a baby.
If it’s possible, I became even less eloquent and began relying heavily on my million-dollar smile (I mean, that’s what my mom calls it). She told me a bit about her dad and we parted ways. I can’t remember much of what she said because my mind was grappling to reconcile how I felt about the photo of her dad, aging with paralysis and the emotions I would have had when I received her message shortly after my accident—my brain went into hyperdrive
If she had messaged me early on, I didn’t remember. I didn’t remember because when I was newly paralyzed, I didn’t want to hear stories of people who lived a life with paralysis. I would respond politely and then block it from my mind. In the beginning, I wasn’t motivated by seeing how others overcame our common obstacle. I needed to face it head on for myself and my family—not because other people had already done it and I should follow suit. I needed to discover it for myself and not second-hand. I didn’t need to see people thriving while I was suffering. It probably didn’t help that I messaged a well-known quadraplegic in the very raw, early moments of my recovery and her response was You’re a low-level para. You’ll be fine. She was right. But it wasn’t helpful advice—it was discouraging.
In addition to that, as I’ve written about before here, aging with paralysis is a difficult topic for me and the thought of aging with it while still so early in my recovery, was not somewhere I could even let my mind go.
Fast forward to today and I find it empowering to draw strength from other SCI survivors and my thoughts around aging aren’t all doom and gloom. So even though my conversation with this woman couldn’t have been more than two-minutes long, it left me with so much to think about.
I took my coffee and went back to my car with that ache you get in the back of your throat when tears are close to the surface but you don’t have time for them. I didn’t want to cry. I couldn’t even fully comprehend what I was feeling so the thought of crying about it seemed ridiculous. And while I couldn’t remember much of what this woman said to me during our very brief encounter, there were two big things I was left with. The first was how proud this woman was of her dad and how much love she clearly had for him. The second was that photo. Having only seen it for a few seconds, it was etched in my thoughts. And while it represented so much of what scared me about aging, I realized, it didn’t bring me anxiety because he was still cared for; he was still admired.
I went home and found the message she had sent me almost three years ago. I read it and re-read it—it sounded familiar. It was like a story unlocked from that place in my brain where I file things I am not ready to hear. Even in that first message, you could sense her pride and love for her dad. Just like our conversation, the message wasn’t long, but it left me with so much to process.
After sitting on all of this for a few days I was finally able to sort through it. While it brought up so much for me from the feelings I had in early recovery to aging, my biggest takeaway from this entire exchange was gratitude. Gratitude to her for sharing this piece of her life with me and for reminding me of something truly important. That is, it’s not our differences and our adversities that matter—it’s how we live our lives despite all of the reasons we believe we are not good enough.
If I make it to ninety, I can only hope my children will show my photo and tell my story with the pride and love that I witnessed in this woman who I met so briefly. I hope they remember that I showed up for them. I hope they remember me putting on the damn bathing suit and getting in the pool or getting piggybacked up to row 5 at the dance recitals because they hated when they could see me at the front. I hope they rememeber that I always tried.
Sharing your story isn’t always easy. And the reaction you get may not be what you were hoping for. I imagine this woman didn’t leave our Starbucks exchange knowing what an impact she had made on me because—from what I remember—I mostly just smiled. But she left me with immense gratitude. So thank-you kind stranger in Starbucks. You sparked reflection and growth in me this week. You just never know how or when you might reach somebody.