When The Promise of a Different Life was originally published, and in the many months since then, dozens of readers wrote to say how much they liked the article, and how important it is that such positive stories and their lessons be heard.
I am grateful for your kindness of spirit and generosity of praise, and especially thankful for the friendships forged and strengthened from it. I rarely write of my experiences with polio on these pages, but some of the finest exchanges of understanding have resulted from that original publication. Occasionally, I hope to add to that beginning on these pages.
It's a foggy Sunday morning in Washington, over a long holiday weekend. The early spell of cold has set me thinking that I'll take some of these one-off holidays in the fall and roll them together with the Christmas/New Year break and make a 10-day sun-break out of that. Plus, the heating end of the air conditioning unit at home clearly isn't working like it ought to be, so there isn't much to be gained by staying in the deep-freeze.
Pulling on a pair of sweats and the one pair of jeans which is rapidly turning into an autobiography, I head out to the grocery, mentally compiling a list of things to bring back home. It's been a while since the Indian bounty was last hauled home, so I add a stop at the ethnic store to the usual rounds at the co-operative.
It's one of your average desi shops, lots of little transparent packages stacked against the walls, and a few aisles of other goods arranged in no particular order that I can tell. Lentils, rice, bread, pickles, videos, Dettol, all sorts of things that coagulate into the Indian life gathered together in one store.
As I enter, the storekeeper smiles pleasantly enough. I drift around the store trying imagine what sort of things I could throw together in palatable meals with my limited culinary skills, and taking in the agarbatti wafting around the premises. As the comfortable lethargy of an unplanned morning settles in, purposeful shopping is clearly the last thing on my mind.
That must be why I remember so little of what I bought, and so much of how it happened.
After I had picked up the first few items I wanted, the storekeeper asked me if I would like a shopping basket. While I considered his offer, wondering if I would run up enough purchases to warrant one, he brought it over anyway, and said quite gently, "if there's anything you need help with, please let me know." I thanked him quietly, filing away a lifetime of understanding the code in people's voices and language. I noticed especially that he didn't say "if there's anything I can help you with" instead his exact words were "if there's anything you need help with." Check. Placing the few things from my hands into his own, he took them back to the counter, leaving me with the empty shopping basket to continue my purchases.
As I continued my rounds of the store, he reappeared periodically to be of every assistance one might have asked for. Was I looking for anything in particular, could he help me put the tomatoes into the vegetable wraps, could he carry the basket back to the counter when I am done? He spoke quickly and directly in Hindi, and to the degree that I understood him, I replied, mostly to say thanks and please, and in English.
When he rattled off some strange sentence of which all I really caught was chawal, I told him that while I could understand some of his Hindi, I didn't really speak much of it. With a quick apology, he switched to speaking in English, and explained to me how, by purchasing one sack of his rice, I could make away with another for free. I declined his offer, but said I would keep it in mind during my future purchases in his store.
As he proceeded to ring up the items, he asked me if I was a student. I said no, but didn't elaborate. He totalled the bill slowly on his cash register, and pronounced "$ 35.57", offering no receipt. When I had paid him, he asked how far away I had parked, and insisted on carrying my purchases to the car for me, brushing aside my protests. When he had safely deposited the small bags in the back-seat and I had thanked him, he asked my name and told me his.
Wishing me well and hoping to see me again soon -- that might well be, the $ 36 didn't buy much! -- he walked quickly back into the store, hunching his shoulders against the cold of the foggy morning. As he disappeared from my view, I turned the car towards home, driving quietly through holiday traffic, and letting my mind wander over the encounter.
The Hindi was the bit that connected things in my mind. He had begun with the thought that I must be conversant in it, partly from his own assumptions and partly because, at least initially, I responded to the things he said, albeit in English. But when I conveyed to him that his rapid-fire speech in the language didn't quite convey his thoughts to me meaningfully, he switched right away to something I am more familiar with. I smiled to myself, remembering a colleague's agitated finger-wagging at northern linguistic chauvinism and my own past harangues on languages, class society and prejudice.
In contrast to the rationality evinced in our conversation, what we never spoke of stands in sharp contrast. The storekeeper never asked me of my illness, never once suggested that his enthusiasm in assisting me in even the most trivial physical tasks were entirely -- or even in part -- on account of the disability he saw in me. And notwithstanding my assurances that I could carry those bags myself, indeed even despite my telling him that I would rather carry them myself! -- he insisted on doing it his way. Of polio itself nothing was said. He knew, I knew that he knew, and he knew that I knew that he knew. And there it ended. He was kind to me, and gracious.
Later that day, I drove into the leafy Washington suburb of Greenbelt, one of those Roosevelt-era model towns conceived as the ultimate in egalitarian society. The co-operative food store in town isn't as spacious as your regular chain grocery store, but it nonetheless stocks everything I need, and I admit a certain fascination with collective ownership. I loaded up the shopping cart with five paper sacks full of wares from the store, and wheeled it outside to my car.
I slowly opened the doors and proceeded to load the paper-bags; light as they are, I have a difficult time gripping them with sufficient certainty to risk transferring more than one at a time into the back of the vehicle. An elderly store attendant lounging by the doorway with a cigar in his mouth walked over, and without a word, picked up the bags for me and loaded them in the car. When he was done, he smiled at me, with a polite "Have a nice day, son," and walked away.
Like his desi counterpart in my previous experience, he didn't ever suggest that he knew of my apparent illness, but absent the profusion of attention from the earlier episode it is impossible to tell how much that mattered. He merely helped me load a few bags in the car, much as he might any other customer at the co-operative store. His endearing address may have been little more than a sign of his age and my youth, and I might err in judging it to be more than that. I considered waiting in the car to observe him interact with other shoppers, and then quickly changing my mind, drove away. Some things, you don't want to find out.
A simple description of the morning might convey only that I went shopping, bought many essentials, indulged a few simple pleasures and came right back home, the sort of thing you probably do every Saturday afternoon in a thousand different avatars. A more complete telling of the day's events, however, will include the awareness being handicapped creates. The nuances of interactions with strangers, and sometimes even the familiar people, are a combination of things that never really become understood. On any given day, I don't want to be helped, I need help, and I am dumb enough to attempt the things I possibly could not accomplish on my own. And all of this, at once.
If my own demons rage in such complexity, how, I imagine, might someone else be able to read them? Of the kind store-owner, I wonder -- how could he possibly know that more than anything else, what I needed then was to be left to deal with the circumstances of my life as I understood and accepted them? The physical realm is quite removed from the spoken, it isn't as if, as with switching from Hindi to English, the storekeeper -- or I -- can imagine a different universe, one in which ability replaces disability and the transaction is little more than the exchange of his goods for my money.
At the IKEA store in Elizabeth, New Jersey, later that week, a young mother struggling with her handbag, her purchases and her baby's stroller asked me if I would be kind enough to help her lift the push-cart over the guard-rails. As I kneeled down to take hold of one end of the cart with the sleeping four year-old in it, I was reminded of those shopping bags. Why must one chance encounter be of the inability to carry a 10-pound sack of vegetables and tin cans, and the next be of apparent ease in picking up 40 pounds of baby and cart? What ever happened to uniformity? Why must I learn so much from the extremes of apparent disability, and no anticipation of it?
The complexity of that morning's events hit home even harder a few days later. In one of those "what have you been up to lately?" conversations with a friend, I learned that the attendants at the co-operative store regularly help customers take the groceries out to their cars. An afternoon of mind-games trying to comprehend my fleeting experience vanished into the simple abyss of routine store-policy.
As I ruefully considered how I had allowed myself to imagine so much more than what actually transpired, I smiled to myself, making a mental note to slow down composing these judgements. My friend, noting my smile, raised an eyebrow, and I started to tell her about the day's shopping. "I went to this desi store across from where I work..." I began. "Did you find the store-keeper overly effusive?" she asked immediately. "He simply wouldn't stop fussing over every detail of my shopping when I was there. In fact, he even insisted on carrying my purchases out to the car for me!"
Life isn't about understanding other people, I have decided, or having them understand me. One accepts things, not so much in fatalism as with awareness. And the only honest measure of how the encounters pass is the sincerity of intent, both in the things I observe and the lessons I take away from them. Over the many childhood years that my brother and I shared one room at home, we hung a poster over the bedpost, with the words "The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention". Sometimes, I wonder about that.
The greatest of good intentions have a way of reminding me of the very things I wish not to remember. It isn't anyone's fault, but equally, it isn't always easy to remember the good that comes of those designs. For even in their absence, the trite becomes philosophy, wrenching more than I dare give.
Sometimes, I dream of the splendour of an ordinary life.