This essay is sponsored by a Friend of The Toast.
I sit in my wheelchair at the edge of the pool. My seat belt is undone, just in case. If my chair somehow ends up in the water, it’ll be easier to escape that way. Humidity shimmers in the air and settles thicker than sunscreen on my skin, but it’s early enough that the water should still be just this side of cool. Two camp counselors stand on either side of me. They each put one arm under my knees and one around my back before wrapping my arms around their necks.
One, two, three, and lift.
I am essentially dead weight. The most I can do to help is glue the pads of my fingers to their already sweaty skin. I sag between them. They move awkwardly down the steps, their flip-flops splashing out of sync. It feels like a more treacherous trip than it actually is.
Soon enough, and without incident, they sit me in the water.
Before letting go, they slip floaties onto my upper arms, the kind made for five-year-olds who probably wouldn’t drown without them but better safe than sorry. I probably would drown without them. Despite being twice the intended age, they keep my shoulders above the waterline. It’s enough.
My body stays bent for a moment, clinging to its familiar right angles, but then I stretch. I press the balls of my feet into the slick, scratchy concrete and push. I bob myself up and down—like the round plastic floats we’ll use later in the day to spot fish on our lines—before tipping my head back and dousing my hair. I’m careful not to lose my balance (I’d never get myself upright if I did), but I’m not worried.
The water covers and carries me, both of us glimmering under the sun.
I don’t remember the day I stopped walking, but I do remember the moment I realized that day was coming. Nothing specific happened to alert me. I didn’t fall—though I’d done plenty of that before—or feel weak, tired, or sore. I was standing in the bathroom, brushing my teeth, when not for much longer flitted through my head. It wasn’t quite as concrete as a phrase, though. It was the suggestion of knowing, not scary or upsetting or meaningful in any real way—it just was.
Nothing much changed when I did stop walking. Nothing I noticed right away. I’d always used a wheelchair part-time, so now I’d be using it full-time. That’s all. At six years old, I was still tiny enough to be carried up and down stairs, or pushed in a stroller when my chair was inconvenient. I didn’t miss walking, and I was oblivious to the fact that other people thought I should.
That blessed lack of awareness didn’t—couldn’t—last, though. Here, too, there was no one event that triggered it, that taught me walking was better than not. No one said, “Kayla, you’d be a more complete person if you could hop out of that chair,” but they didn’t have to. Sometimes a half-concealed stare, a hastily hushed room, a careless phrase, a subtle implication is more than heavy enough to get the job done.
There are unusually few people in the pool, which makes the water calmer, easier for me to navigate. I don’t have to brace myself against rogue waves when someone jumps in, or scramble away from bodies leaping for a volleyball. I can just swim. I swim upright, pedaling rather than paddling through the water. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to riding a bike, and I let myself enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of my thigh muscles contracting, my knees bending and unbending, my toes flexing way down at the bottom of the pool. It’s strange (but not unpleasant) to propel myself forward with nothing but my will and my limbs.
Is this what walking felt like? Feels like? I can’t remember anymore. The sensation is gone. All that’s left are movie clips: a little girl looping her house while holding a wishbone and praying for a life-size Barbie to be waiting for her when she gets back; a little girl stumbling on the sidewalk and tearing the skin off her knee; a little girl racing her littler sister down the hallway even though she’ll never ever win. My mind remembers walking, but my body doesn’t. I worry that should feel like a loss, maybe even a devastating one. That it doesn’t makes me worry I’m bad or heartless or wrong.
I’m not careful. Somehow, I lose my balance. I tip. My floaties don’t—can’t—catch me. They’re not enough.
Drowning is wet. Not the way swimming is, where the water seeps under your bathing suit, webs around your fingers, warms you and buoys you. My eyes sting before my lungs do, and there’s nothing but the wet. I know I’m going to die, but I don’t do much about it. What can I do? I can’t scream underwater and I don’t have the strength to flail my arms or kick my legs to signal for help.
But help comes anyway. A few counselors—one of whom I’ve known for years, who feels like safety—pull me to the stairs and hold me up as I sit there choking on chlorine and panic.
My chair greets my still-shaking body without hesitation. Its cushion is both giving and firm; its armrests prop me up; its back and headrest support my spine, my heart, my mind. The screen brightens at my first request and the wheels back away from the pool as slowly—and as quickly—as I need them to. I know the motion of this chair so deeply that I don’t use my hand to drive anymore. Haven’t in years. I rest my forearm on the joystick, turning, speeding, slowing, moving with barely any effort at all.
There’s a bump at the pool’s gate where concrete turns to pavement. I glide over it, jostled some but never losing control. Once I’m beyond the chainlink, I snap my seat belt back on. I can’t fall now, out of the chair or into the pool. I can’t drown.
I can’t walk, but I can drive.
It’s more than enough.
Kayla Whaley is co-editor of Disability in Kidlit and a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop. She specializes in being way too earnest on the internet.