Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month – Spotlight 2, Michael Pucci
You can lead a wheelchair to water, but…..
Growing up in the Pucci house, my physical disability was mostly invisible to my family. My parents’ expectations of me were no different than their expectations of my sisters and brother. Society was a whole ‘nother story. In the world outside my front door, the more physically different an individual was the more “different” they were treated. That was my mindset as well. So, ultimately, I endeavored to be as “normal” as possible. The same could be said for most of my peers with physical disabilities; we strove to “fit in.” On one hand, the effort was doomed to failure… it’s beyond hard to hide 2 crutches and an obvious limp. On the other hand, it was, for me at least, a journey to self-discovery. I’ll spare you from the story of that journey… for now.
To come to the point of this piece, there are some residuals to spending a big chunk of time trying to “fit in” and be “normal” and some of those residuals are not so positive or inspiring. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work on letting folks help me. I didn’t start out being so accepting of help as I am now. In my early years, my father could expect some very sharp teeth digging into his arm if he made the unwise decision of trying to carry me someplace rather than waiting the near eternity of letting me get there on my own. When I lived in Boston for school, my girlfriend lived at the top of Beacon Hill in a 4-floor walk-up. Most days, when I finished my shift as a pharmacy internal at Mass General, I’d walk up. Some days I let her carry my backpack full of textbooks… some days not… and never if she asked if I needed help. Hara, my patient wife, had to learn the same hard lesson. After a long day of visiting family or friends with our toddler, Greta, it was MY JOB to carry everything into the house no matter how many back-and-forth trips or how long it took. With Hara being Hara, it took a long time for her to get past her compassion and learn not to ask if I needed help.
Over the years, I’ve aged…surprise, surprise! With age my mobility has decreased a bit (or more) but, more importantly, I’ve come to the realization that embracing help when offered (whether I need it or not) gives me something much more important than some fallacy of physical independence. Allowing another, especially someone I love, to help me reaffirms my connection to my family, friends, community or the good Samaritan (I know that’s the other religious tradition…but you get it, right?). These connections with others bring me happiness, gratitude for their caring, contentment that I’ve helped another feel good about themselves and a truer sense of “fitting in” to the human family than I could ever get from looking and moving “normal.”
There are those times though… I’m human, I fail, I fall short. In my family, we have a Christmas Eve tradition of meeting all the Hartmans (my in-laws) for dinner at a kosher restaurant in NYC. This year, the night was unseasonably warm and dry. Some rain earlier in the day had cleared out. The parking near midtown was typically tricky so we had several blocks to traverse to get from our parking garage to the restaurant. Our start into the city from home was typically late so we were in a bit of a rush. It’s those times when I’m a bit stressed that the young boy with sharp teeth comes back. I was going to set the pace and it would be brisk. I was going to push the wheelchair myself. Well, I should have thought that one through. The second curb that we came to was hidden under dark puddle of rain water… at least I hope it was rain water. I approached at “lift off” speed. Unfortunately, my wheelchair didn’t “lift off” … the wheelchair stopped cold. You know what else was cold? The water was cold! I know because I bounced out of my wheelchair and was sitting in that puddle and soaked to the skin. My wife and a kind stranger helped me back into the wheelchair. I hadn’t learned my lesson yet though. I was still intent on pushing myself. That wasn’t the last time I fell out of my wheelchair that night…twice more. I was very stubborn; I was very wet; I was very cold. Ever sit through a 2-and-a-half-hour dinner with wet pants? After you were three years old? That was a 4-scotch dinner. The story I tell now has Hara pushing me into the puddle and trying to drown me for the insurance….
As Bruce Wayne’s father said to him, “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to pick ourselves up” Forgive me for having the audacity to think I could improve on Thomas Wayne’s quote… “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to accept the blessing of help from others.” But you should still watch out for the sharp teeth.
I’ve enjoyed telling you this story. I hope you’ve found it fun and amusing. It’s true in all its absurdity but I would be remiss if I didn’t add a serious aside. The blessing in allowing someone to help me is only fully realized by me when I am confident that I could achieve the same physical result without help. In other words, if physical barriers exist to my access to a place that I reasonably want to go on my own (i.e., reasonable means not necessarily access to the peak of Mt. Everest) and the place is accessible to the average Joe, my joy and fulfillment are diminished. It’s complicated, I know….