The First Holiday
For Thanksgiving last year Hannah and I discussed our plans, as most couples do. At the time, my parents were living in a house which was only partially accessible. The first floor could be accessed via ramp, but there was no bathroom available. Theirs was the only house on either side of my family with even limited accessibility.
Her parents, on the other hand, live several hours away. It was impractical to think about traveling there for just one long weekend.
“Maybe I’ll stay in Toronto,” said Hannah. “You can do your Thanksgiving, and I’ll stay here. I need to work anyway.”
“Jesus,” I said, “that’s really depressing. Are you sure?”
“It would be nice to have a solid four days to work on my dissertation.”
At the time, I knew something she didn’t know: in a year we would be engaged. In two years we would, in all likelihood, be married. The status quo would need to change.
My sister was the only one who knew about my plans to propose to Hannah.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I took my sister aside.
“I want to give you a heads up,” I said. “After this year, things are going to change.”
“Because of the proposal?”
“Yeah. I might not even be around for Thanksgiving next year.”
My sister refused to accept this, but knew on some level it was true.
Every couple merges their lives at some point. This always requires negotiations and compromise, as well as the sacrifice, shifting, and blending of traditions.
But Hannah and I are not like a lot of couples, because I’m retarded and her legs don’t work. The decorative nature of her legs is an especially complicated factor. It’s easy for people to say, “Oh, we’ll make it work” but I’m seeing more and more what that really means.
Because we’re spending Christmas with Hannah’s family, we decided to spend Thanksgiving with mine.
My family’s Thanksgiving traditions are pretty straightforward. My immediate family drives to an apple orchard, then an apple mill, then comes home and has dinner. The following day we travel to see my mom’s family, all of whom live at least an hour away. These traditions have always served us well, because up until this year everyone in my family has had two functioning legs.
Then there was the problem of how exactly Hannah would get into my parents’ house in the first place.
You see, about a month before I proposed to Hannah, my parents moved into a townhouse which is almost completely inaccessible. With the help of an eight-foot-long ramp, the back door can be accessed. But in order to reach the back door, Hannah has to cross our neighbour’s backyard. Fortunately it isn’t fenced in.
The back door leads to the living room, which is hemmed in by stairs. Fortunately at Thanksgiving we spend most of the day driving through the countryside. Unfortunately we do not have a wheelchair van, and I’d always assumed this was an insurmountable obstacle.
My parents- who once moved across the city so my sister could attend a specific high school- saw things differently.
They rented a van.
“Wait, what?” Hannah said when she heard. “Isn’t that really expensive?”
I asked my mother about the cost. She shrugged it off.
“I decided it was worth it.”
The only catch is that the van company was closed on Sunday and Monday during the Thanksgiving weekend. My parents had to rent the van for three days.
“On Monday maybe we can drive somewhere,” my mom said. “In order to make the rental worthwhile. Ask Hannah if there’s anywhere in southern Ontario she’s always wanted to see.”
“Jesus, I don’t know,” said Hannah. “Maybe Niagara-on-the-Lake?”
My dad still wasn’t comfortable with this arrangement, because Hannah and I live forty-five minutes from my parents’ place.
“She’ll have to spend the whole day here. Where’s she going to go to the bathroom?” my dad said.
Hannah routinely waits up to twelve hours to go pee. She’s able to do this because of a concept called “pee math” which physically disabled people use.
For instance, if you know that coffee makes you pee about three hours after you drink it, and you’ll be away from a bathroom for four to five hours, then you don’t drink coffee. Maybe you’ll have a pop instead.
Through the strategic consumption of beverages- and a whole lot of trial and error- a person can theoretically go for up to half a day without peeing.
I explained this to my dad.
“Won’t her kidneys shut down?” he asked.
“They haven’t yet.”
My parents offered to rent us an hotel room in Oshawa so that there’d be an accessible bathroom no more than fifteen minutes away whenever Hannah needed it.
We drew the line there.
“That would be, like, three hundred bucks,” said Hannah. “Toronto isn’t that far away.”
I thought about it, and realized there was a public library and community centre not far from where my parents live.
“Maybe they’ll have an accessible bathroom,” I said.
“It probably wouldn’t be big enough for my chair,” said Hannah. “I find that old age homes and hospitals are the best bets.”
“You can just wander into a hospital off the street and go to the bathroom?” I asked.
“They assume I’m a patient.”
This was promising; there’s a hospital ten minutes from my parents’ house.
“We’d still need a Hoyer lift,” said Hannah. “I have a portable one, but it’s at my parents’ place.”
We decided it wouldn’t be practical for her parents to drive all the way to Hannah’s apartment before Thanksgiving just to drop off the lift.
For this holiday at least, Hannah will have to use pee math.
All these negotiations and calculations only solved half of Thanksgiving. There was still my mother’s family’s gathering to consider. Usually they gathered in Orillia where my aunts lived, or in Kinmount, where my grandmother lives.
“Maybe we could rent a hall in Kinmount,” my mom said.
I told Hannah about this.
“Well, how are we going to get there?” she asked. “Where am I going to go to the bathroom? How would we bring a lift? It feels like it might be too much work for one dinner.”
This is an understandable concern, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter. Hannah is constantly being told that she isn’t welcome and that she takes up too much space. Public bathrooms aren’t accessible. Houses aren’t accessible. Half of the subway system isn’t accessible. Many restaurants and businesses aren’t accessible.
These messages aren’t explicit, but they accumulate over the course of a lifetime. It becomes deeply ingrained.
It’s hard to believe that people who use inaccessible spaces and have inaccessible traditions might be open and able to accommodate a physically disabled person. It’s hard to accept that my family’s inaccessible lifestyle is accidental, and that it doesn’t have a deeper meaning.
My cousin Stuart recently moved into a condo in Toronto with his partner Maggie. Their condo just so happens to feature a large, well-equipped party room. It is also across the street from an accessible subway station.
Stuart and Maggie have never hosted a family get-together before; up until now, they’ve been living in a series of small apartments. But this year, they generously offered to host Thanksgiving.
We accepted, of course, and the plans slid into place easily. My mother’s family are creatures of habit. They’re big believers in tradition. For an outsider, this can easily be misinterpreted as exclusionary, so I was relieved to see how quickly they accepted the idea of a different sort of Thanksgiving celebration.
All this effort for a three day holiday. This is what it means to be disabled, and to be partnered with someone who’s disabled. I have a lot to learn about how the world works from this new, more precarious perspective.
I suppose I’ll learn one obstacle at a time, one holiday at a time, and while it will get easier it will never be easy.
That’s a small price to pay.