“I’m here. Where do you want me?”
Bryce phoned from his van after he had pulled into the parking lot of my Colorado Springs apartment complex.
I’ll never forget that this was how he chose to acknowledge the pickle we were in. His own version of chivalry. Raised in the South, I knew that any first date that didn’t begin with a gentleman’s knocking on the door and asking for the privilege of my presence would also be a last date, or maybe not a date at all. When Bryce and I were matched online, and when I began to learn the story of the diving accident that took away basketball and rodeo in a fraction of a second and left a striking, blue-eyed rancher with a wheelchair and an accessible vehicle, I started to fret about how our first meeting would begin. I lived in a second-floor walk-up.
“Right there,” I told him. “I’ll come to you.” He’d scraped his front bumper on the curb at the base of the stairs, as close as he could get. He couldn’t open his van’s door for me, but he smiled and waited patiently while I climbed in and got settled. He bought my lunch, and after we’d talked through the afternoon, he rolled along beside me to Starbucks, where he pretended to enjoy the pumpkin-spice latte I ordered him. I would later learn that it was his very first cup of coffee; he hasn’t had another since. When he dropped me off safely back at my curb, he waited until I’d turned on my kitchen lights before pulling away. I knew I’d just ended my very last first date.
In the weeks that followed, we navigated many more firsts. We made dinner reservations at places behind doors too narrow for him to pass. He laid a quieting hand on my wrist while I searched for a diplomatic way to address waitstaff who asked if I wanted to order on his behalf. There were gifts awaiting me in the passenger seat each time he pulled up to the stairwell. Never flowers, but bubble bath and cards and, once, cantaloupe and poblano peppers he’d bought from a roadside stand.
On the day of my emergency root canal, I was sure I’d had too much Vicodin when I answered the door and found him sitting in his chair on my doormat, a quart of the hot-and-sour soup I’d once mentioned as the perfect comfort food resting in his lap. He’d found a couple of movers loafing downstairs and paid them $20 to carry him up to my apartment.
For me, Bryce’s quadriplegia was the third party in our relationship. It loomed between us, posing constant uncertainties about whether I was saying the right thing, helping too little, or hovering too much. Somewhere in this season, we established a reciprocal agreement: I have to ask questions when I don’t understand, and Bryce has to ask for help when he needs it. I read all I could about his condition and tried out phrases like “differently abled,” then waited for his reaction. He spent most of our courtship putting me at ease, working a practiced wit and charm. Most of the concerns I brought up were either challenges he’d already conquered or nonissues entirely. I was grieving a loss that he’d reckoned with more than a decade earlier.
I remember the well-intentioned friends and family who asked about this new man in my life and listened as I spoke of his special heart and of how, when people asked how he was faring, he would tell them with all sincerity that if he were doing any better, “they’d have to make two of me.” I recall particularly the colleague who gently told me that it was OK to decide that all of this was just too much to handle. I didn’t have a good reply for her, since that was not my dilemma at all.
When complete strangers learn that I’m married to a disabled man and that, yes, the accident happened before we met, they tell me it says a lot about me. The fact that I made this choice is supposed to be a mark of my character. A sign of selflessness and ultimate courage.
I want to ask these people how they’re so sure. Who says my life would have been so much easier if I hadn’t made this choice? Moreover, I often retort, if you knew me and my stubborn, firstborn ways, you would probably be telling my husband that he’s the brave one. He saw my less-than-sparkling self and less than five months later offered up a diamond ring anyway. He left behind the safety of home and a close-knit family and a familiar routine of support to follow me to a new town when my own homesickness took hold and my career took off.
“Unrehearsed talent is unrealized potential,” my dad often said in my high school years, as he dismissed me upstairs to practice my flute. In the five years since we married, Bryce and I have encountered countless opportunities for reaching our potential as humans. I’ve welcomed many unsavory staff members into our home, including a nurse who started each morning by removing her wig and tossing it atop the jewelry box on my dresser. Bryce patiently explains to flight attendants, over and over, how to properly transfer his six-four frame from chair to plane seat, though each time they’re certain that they know better and ask me if he’s ever flown before. We’ve picked our battles with prospective employers who know what to say to prevent a lawsuit but reveal just enough to indicate their true feelings.
The greatest fear I had then is the same as now. It’s not about my capability to handle the practicalities of our daily life, or even about the unknowns of a condition causing constant deterioration. It’s about the practicality of long-held dreams that I’ve had for what my husband and I would accomplish together. About the ability to chase after the legacy we decide is important that we leave—the family to raise and the callings to pursue and the art to create. And, too, the fear that people who see us together—and, worse, those who get to know us intimately—will think that our story is about a fourth-generation cattle rancher who one day found himself unable to ride and the girl who stole his heart and gave up spontaneity to be his caregiver.
It’s bold to fight for any identity, but especially so when you’re battling to be more than the guy in the wheelchair. And for my part, the most valiant choice was not deciding to enter a caregiving marriage. It’s the choice I continue to make daily: to acknowledge my useless fear that this is the label that others cast upon Bryce’s and my life together. It’s continuing to decide when and how to shrug that feeling off. And resolving that sometimes I couldn’t care less when strangers stare or ask questions about our ability to conceive children. It’s remembering that accepting my beloved’s proposal does not obligate me to prove anything or to pursue a life of advocacy or to wear a contented smile every day.
The bravest thing is knowing that, whether I’m fighting for how our story is told or surrendering in faith as it unfurls on its own, above all else, I want my brilliant, chivalrous cowboy right there, even if it means that I have to work a little to make my way to his side.
Read this year's Life Lessons Essay Contest winning essay by Meloney Dunning and second-prize winning essay by Liz Gordon.