The first car I could ever consider my own was a 1979 full-size Ford pickup truck. It was monstrous—not in the sense of being able to drive over other vehicles like in some sort of main-event show, but just large in terms of the overall footprint. It was my grandfather’s old truck. And to me at the age of 16, it was a means of a whole new sense of independence and freedom. It did me well for a few years. But after a three-story fall left me paralyzed from the chest down, the driving solution I was then accustomed to no longer worked. I physically could not drive it. Answer: Find a new norm.
In the spring or 2001, my parents got the call. It was from the father of a hospital-mate of mine who I became friends with during rehab. “Is Billy still looking for a van?” he asked. “Yes. Yes he is,” was the reply.
Along the side of a neighborhood road 20-minutes north of Seattle sat a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon parked and ready for a new owner. Upon seeing it, we bought it. The previous owner had already made some wheelchair conversions, so it only took a few more touches before I was back behind the wheel after a 5-year hiatus.
For those not familiar with wheelchair-accessible vehicles, this is what it takes for me to get situated inside my van:
One, deploy the wheelchair lift.
Two, roll onto the wheelchair lift backwards.
Three, raise the lift.
Four, roll backwards into the van.
Five, transfer into the driver’s seat from the wheelchair.
Six, rotate the driver’s seat 90-degrees into position for driving.
Seven, put on the seatbelt and chest strap.
Eight, stow the lift and close the door.
Nine, start the van.
Ten, hit the road.
Because I am unable to move my legs, the pedals of the van, i.e. the gas and brake, need to be engaged by hand-controls. Off of the left side of the steering column, beneath to steering wheel, is a lever that depresses the gas and brake when pushed in the correct direction. When one pushes the lever, it physically pushes the pedals. It is not a separate system. In other words, one can still use their feet to drive the van if they want and have the ability.
But here is the thing... and this is something I learned just after getting back into the driver’s seat... the hand-controls push the pedals, but the pushing power from one’s arm pales in comparison to the pushing power of one’s foot. With a foot, one can stomp the brake—to the point where they are lifting their butt off of the seat. Pushing a brake pedal by hand definitely works, but not to the same extent as a foot.
When I first got back behind the wheel, it was in a school parking lot after hours. It felt like I was fifteen again, learning a new skill while a parent helicoptered from the shotgun seat. The driving was great. Everything went as expected... except for one thing: braking. My gauge of estimating how long it would take to stop the van and the amount of effort I would need to exude was way off. And of course knowledge of my miscalculation only came into play when approaching a stop sign with adjacent oncoming traffic.
With my left arm fully extended and pushing with all my might, the van came to a stop just past the stop line. Two things became immediately clear. One, be cognizant to leave more following distance between cars on the road. And two, leave more runway to slowdown.
This became my new norm for driving—a methodical process to get loaded into a vehicle followed by slow driving with extra following distance. It took 5-years to find this new normal. And is this new normal different from when I drove a huge gas-guzzling truck as an ambulatory teen? Yes. But am I again able to partake in getting stuck in the mud or snow? Or getting a flat tire? Or breaking down on the side of the road? Or getting speeding tickets like everyone else? Absolutely.
What I am trying to say is it took patience to find my new driving norm, and that norm is certainly different from when I first started driving. But am I any less successful in terms of getting from Point A to Point B in my van? No. The independence and freedom I felt behind the wheel at sixteen still exists in me today.
Given the unprecedented climate at the moment, we are all in some way grappling with a new reality. We are reminded with how intertwined the world has become—how an action in one part of the globe can affect the rest—how isolated we can feel through social distancing; yet, still remain connected through virtual channels. We are reminded how precious life is as we see both suffering and strength. We see the courage of healthcare angels serving those in need. We see those in leadership roles doing their best to make impossible decisions. We see the dedication of parents assisting their kids through these confusing times. And we see a future ahead... but the look of that final picture conjures uncertainty.
As we continue to move forward in these uncertain times, we are all in search of and question what the new norm will be. We are all in it together. And we will all get through it together. Whatever the outcome, we will each find our new norm. And when we do, the joy of being back in the driver’s seat will again be in our grasp.