Disability Invisibility

My cat is a bitch.  She swiped at me and drew blood.  When I was in the hospital late last year some weird, universal force I am not even sure I believe in, drew me to the animal shelter website at 1am. Mind you – I am not an animal person.  All my growing up life the animals always got first look, major love, lots of “schnickels.”  I got sh*t, so who wants them?

But there I was, in what seemed like unending, unanswerable physical pain, and her face inquired into me, as if we were two species, one soul. So she became my SoulKitteh.  Seriously.  Is it that she filled the gap of something to care and be responsible for, to touch, to feed, to kvetch over, when my son went to boarding school? His physical body removed from my reach, I needed some kind of physicality-relationality as my baby grows up?  Maybe.  Regardless.  She can be brutal as only a SoulKitteh can.

She leaves this long-lined, bloody mess on my face in the shape of a comet. The wide part at the top a round mound of gashed open skin, with a globule of blood-caked, drying flesh.  I make it sound like a battle wound.  It is ugly, and it is obvious – black blue in its supposed healing, slightly necrotish way.

I have to go on a business trip, so me and my gash head out with the hydrogen peroxide and bacitracin. There is no way you can’t notice this. It is on my face, right above my lip, right below my nose.  No concealer or foundation or powder can match the exposed nastiness of an open cat wound.

And yet, meeting after meeting, across every table, out of 10 hours of face-to-face, people-to-people engagement, only one person says something.  I thank her: “Do you know you are the first person all day to mention it?”

And so I stumble upon the invisibility of disability.  I think of my friends in wheel chairs. I think of my friends with chronic pain or mental illness.  I think of my friends who are missing limbs or the ones who have infrequently seen formations to the limbs they have…my gash will close over the next few weeks, get less angry red, and pussy blooded.  For others – no.

So what are we supposed to do? What holds us back from naming what we see? Especially when it could not be more obviously there?  I want it to be true that we meet each other where we are, all throughout the day. And if that means you acknowledge my gash and find the courage to withstand any response I give you – a lie, a laugh, a lightweight cover-up, then so be it. Can you tolerate the risk of knowing why I am wounded, or worse the risk of not knowing, because I reject or handle or manage or rebuff you?

At least it would be real, the actual of what is before/between/obvious to us. “…Our only obligation…to be authentic to the…story and to tell it uncompromisingly.” (p 100). Somehow I find that safer. It’s the currency I prefer. Let’s just deal with what is there, smack dab on the front of my face.  And yes, it is true: “…Openness to human relationality …carries[s] a price.” (p 97)

©Gabriella Strecker, 2016

Text quoted from When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Random House, 2016