The thing about this wheelchair business is that it is forever full of surprises, but rarely the “You just won the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes” kind of surprises. Often, they can be injurious, like the time I turned to check out a pretty woman and rolled right off a marble landing, down three marble steps, and on to my hind side. It was both seriously embarrassing and produced a hip wound that took two years and a surgery to heal. The lesson: keep your eyes on the road, pervert.
Often, the upshot of one of these surprises is simply that everyone standing around sees you as, how would you say it, pathetic. At my own sister’s funeral, no less, during the viewing of the casket ritual, my 9-year-old grand-niece came flying at me to give a hug and flipped me over like a buttermilk pancake. The reason I sustained no injury is because we were in a funeral home, and all funeral homes have plush, mile-high, Saxony carpeting to soften the blow. If you are prone to falls, you might want to move into one.
But sometimes the surprise can chill you to the bone, even the ones you can’t feel.
A month ago, on a normal Tuesday night, I slipped into bed for another night of dreaming of hitting a walk-off home run to win the World Series. My wife was two feet away. It wasn’t a comfortable sleep, but it rarely is with my contractured body. Just as the morning sun hit the window, I awoke to a true nightmare: thousands of black ants crawling all over my body, stem to stern. They were scurrying in and out of every crevice, an ever-shimmering black mass, nipping at my flesh, no doubt signaling for more tribesmen to join in on the fun.
Remember that unholy screech in Psycho when Tony Perkins leaps into the shower and slices poor Janet Leigh up with a carving knife? I heard the same terrorizing riff as I desperately tried to slap, push and wiggle away from this creepy horde. The screaming woke up my wife, who, of course, had nary an ant on her. I was the sole prey.
I’m a T12 para, which means anything from a random spec of blood from a knee scrape to slight traces of other bodily by-products can apparently sound a come-and-get-it ant alarm all over West L.A. We never found what drew them. Maybe they just like flesh that seldom moves.
Long after they were beaten back, the memory haunts me. I see myself locked in an airtight coffin, mistakenly buried alive, and the ants are consuming my tasty corpse. I also keep recalling a movie I saw at the Osage Theatre in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, when I was 9 years old — The Naked Jungle —starring Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker, where zillions of killer soldier ants invade a Brazilian plantation and munch every living thing into fine bone meal. They are relentless, unstoppable. They made little boats out of palm fronds to cross the river in pursuit of native flesh.
I still sit straight up in bed every night and turn the light on to see if they’ve come back. One full-on ant attack can give you its own scaredy-cat form of PTSD. The “P” is for pestilence.
But unlike the soldier ants who ate Brazil, your common American black ant won’t kill you, just drive you insane. The little red bites quickly disappeared and I’m fine now, except when I see more than two ants in any one location. Plus, I have a great story to tell at parties. Men and women alike squirm, mutter “Oh, my God,” and enjoy the collective wave of ickiness.
The Attack of the Night Crawling Ants has now joined another strange story —the time a brain-addled patriot drove my chair like a snowplow through a crowd at Starbucks because he thought I was a war hero and deserved a free coffee — as part of my ice-breaking repertoire at house-warmings and bar mitzvahs.
See, paralysis is good for something — semi-amusing, gasp-inducing anecdotes where you are always the butt of your own joke.