Whenever we find ourselves on or around a college campus, Eileen and I like to ask each other if we could still pass for traditional undergrads - or at least for graduate students. (Admittedly the game works best when we don't have children in tow).
Lately, I've been spending a lot time around Washington University's Medical Campus as it adjoins Barnes Jewish Hospital. A few weeks ago, a gaggle of young female students passed me, and a couple of them offered a brief, deflected glance and smile in my direction. Whether med students, DPTs, or future pharmacists, I thought to myself "Yes! I still have 'it.'"
Tonight I pulled into a handicapped parking space at the grocery store and walked towards the entrance without my oxygen on. Although my tank had run out earlier in the day, going sans-cannula is not unusual when I shop because a) I prefer not to draw attention and b) between a slow pace and the shopping cart to lean on, my oxygen levels stay pretty high.
As I walked toward the automatic doors I noticed a woman sitting in a motorized cart shaking her head in my direction. I guess my label "End-stage, Obstructive Lung Disease; FEV1 18%; Lung Transplant Waiting List" wasn't big enough for her to read. I just looked the other way, but even if I had looked long enough, I wouldn't have been able to see her label either (Congestive Heart Failure, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Type I Diabetes, or something else).
Before moving to St. Louis I had the chance to be interviewed by the local news about the issue of limited handicapped parking spaces, abuse of those spaces, looks and appearances. You can watch it here:
Bringing three bags of groceries in to the apartment tonight took me 20 minutes - changing my oxygen tank, grabbing our little blue wagon, carting it back and forth, and resting a few times in between. Sometimes I wear the hood of my illness pretty well, but when I don't have to, I try not to.
After the chance encounter with those students on Euclid Avenue near Wash U., my ego spent a few minutes absorbed in itself (and my boyish good looks). As I passed into the glass-lined Barnes North Garage elevator I caught my reflection and realized it was just as likely the oxygen tube that had drawn devotion's visage.