Knock on any door
My grandmother had a saying “knock on any door and you’ll hear a story”. She knew how to put the kettle on quickly and she always had a tin of some nice, home-baked treat to enjoy with the tea and conversation.
Battling public transport is not a bad time to practice “door knocking”. How often when you get on a train in the morning peak do you find every “special needs” seat occupied by people who look as if they’d be perfectly fine to stand? If you look as well as I do, you’ve probably never dared to ask if anyone is able to get up and give the seat to you, no matter how torturous your poor balance or fatigue make a standing journey. Look again. Is it possible that healthy young lady is in the early stages of pregnancy? Could the overweight, middle aged office worker suffer a chronic pain condition that makes standing impossible? No doubt the seat is often taken by a “normal” person who just wanted to sit down, but why should I assume my own invisible challenges are the only ones out there if I don’t even ask whether any of those taking up “my” seat would reasonably be able to stand?
I make a point of taking one of the disabled seats, if one is available, when I use public transport – partly just so I’ll know that at least one of them is being used by someone who would genuinely find it difficult to stand! The last time I did this on a tram in Melbourne, I was on my way home from getting a dose of IV steroids for an MS flare. My walking was OK, but I was dealing with quite severe vertigo (to the point that I’d vomited at the hospital before the drip got started), worse than usual balance problems, blurred vision and debilitating fatigue. A few minutes into my journey, a blind gentleman got on with his guide dog. The tram driver immediately came out from his cabin to ensure the blind man made it safely up the steps and then turned to me and said “Please stand up. This man needs that seat”. What should I have done? The bandage on my hand was proof I’d just been having IV therapy at the hospital, but clearly this was not sufficient to make my need to sit down apparent. Fortunately there was one more seat vacant further down the tram, so I stood up and (very carefully “furniture walking” to avoid a fall) went and sat down there. It wasn’t a disaster. I made it home safely and I got to sit down for most of the journey. But if I’d ever had any questions about what other people think when they see me using a “special needs” seat, I now know for sure that they think I’m the person who can be told to give it up to another with “real” needs.
So I get back to my grandmother. There were plenty of things in her life that she could have demanded sympathy for. She was a war bride who somehow managed to feed, clothe and shelter a tribe of small children on her own at a time when women were not well equipped to earn money and many things were in short supply. In later years she often spoke of her pleasure when her sweet-heart returned home safely, but I never heard about the hardship she’d endured in his absence. As she aged, she dealt with her own health issues and those of a husband who barely remembered who she was. Throughout it all she maintained a keen interest in the lives of others. For as long as she was able, she cooked and sewed for and visited all manner of people who she knew were in need. Near the end, when she was unable even to live independently, she still asked after all sorts of people and listened to their news with genuine interest. She wasn’t a saint, but she understood how to find happiness in the hand she had been dealt and she knew that joy can come from helping others, even just by listening. She died before I found out I had MS. But I don’t need my grandmother in the room with me to know some of the good advice she might have offered if I were ready to listen. It’s beautifully summed up in the “serenity prayer” she had hanging on her kitchen wall – and that hangs in my kitchen now. May God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The Unaffected One