Though one of the most positive aspects of reaching retirement age is the opportunity to travel, I wish I had photos of the incredulous expressions on airport security personnel when my husband and I show up. They look like, “Why don’t people like you, just stay home?” Their feelings may be justified since they spend twenty minutes patting down my husband, whose pacemaker can’t go through the x-ray machine, and about fifteen minutes examining my wheelchair as I limp through, at the same time others are dismantling our sleep apnea machines. I’m not sure what terrorist profile we match, but believe me, you are safe from us.
Back in our youthful sixties, we each took only a small rolling suitcase and backpack for eleven days abroad. This meant we could take it all as carry-ons and not risk the trauma of lost luggage. Now, in our seventies, we need an extra suitcase just for medicines, heating pads, sleep apnea machines, current converters, and outlet adaptors. The upside of my wheelchair is that we customized it to carry both me and the luggage. Of course, we look a lot like a traveling circus act. But that’s one advantage of being over seventy, who cares? One small warning to other wheelchair travelers however; all those lovely little bridges, that you have to cross every two blocks in Venice, actually consist entirely of stairs. A wheelchair with pontoons and a paddle would be my suggestion for Venice.
Traveling late in life has given me a new twist on the old joke, “What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American.” My version is, “What do you call someone who can say, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ in six languages? Any woman over sixty ,who travels.” And I am currently creating a coffee table book of photos of my husband waiting patiently outside loo’s, el banos, il gabinettos, and badezimmer around the world and including a warning about the sale de bains in France that are ecumnenical.
I remember callously laughing years ago, when hearing about two young men on one of those farcical thirty minute tours of the Louvre getting on either side of an elderly woman and literally hauling her like luggage, as their group raced from Winged Victory to the Mona Lisa. That’s not quite as funny to me now, but I do try to bring a bit of lightheartedness into having to use a wheelchair in countries that lack accessibility in their transportation systems. When I have to stand up and struggle up long sets of steep stairs, I sing out, “I’m healed. I’m healed.”
Since I’ve never been compulsive about seeing every single thing there is to see, I don’t mind sitting in sidewalk cafes or under shady trees, while my husband and son are climbing castle ruins that are too much of a challenge with the wheelchair. Being a devout coward, I declined my son’s suggestion that we ask if there was a catapult available. Besides, I have memories of the time my husband and son, energized by several glasses of beer, attempted to run while pushing me up Mont Saint-Michel over its large cobblestones. We threw a wheel about halfway up. I decided then that the view from the bottom is just as interesting and tasty as that at the top.
One surprising travel experience was sitting in a row of white-haired, rosy cheeked Miss Marples in the theater at Stratford-on-Avon. I was the only little old lady to gasp aloud at sudden full frontal male nudity on the stage. It would seem that the English are at least a verbally reticent race. Or perhaps the Miss Marples had been coming to the play every day since it opened.
There was another experience that’s funny now, if not then. We stay mostly in clean, but literally ancient, B & B’s or small hotels that have lots of atmosphere, but limited plumbing. Once, at three in the morning in Vienna, I spent fifteen terror-filled minutes locked in a tiny bathroom down a very dark hall, listening to heavy breathing sounds outside the door. It turned out to be my husband’s snores echoing out the bedroom door that I had left open for a hasty return.
I confess that planning trips seems a tad less fun now that we tend to choose the countries we visit by the quality of their medical facilities. And shopping for insurance that will fly us home dead or on life support conjures up some daunting scenarios. Recently, just my husband was planning to visit one of our sons, who was staying in London for a month. Since I do most of the practical preparations for our trips and I’ve also reached the age where funerals are a frequent part of my social life, I checked out the pros and cons of return by urn, rather than by casket. When I suggested to my son that should the need arise, he bring Dad home in an urn, he responded with great outrage, “That’s a horrible thing to say. There’s no need to be morbid.”
I decided right then to make the trip with my husband, figuring that one of us would survive to deal with any morbid decisions. When we both returned, sans urn, from what felt like the best trip of many years of traveling, I began to wonder just what made it feel like such a wonderful trip. That’s when I realized that there’s an upside to imagining worst-case possibilities. This particular trip seemed so delightful, at least partly, from sheer relief that nobody came home in an urn.
In old age, the life question, “Why am I here?” becomes, “Why am I still here?”
In the past fifteen years scientists have discovered that the natural human life span
may be one hundred and twenty years or more. I’m not sure if this is good news or bad news!
Does the Gospel message have any good news for the challenges of later life?
Many people have conscientiously lived the Gospel message, that it is better to give than to
receive all their lives, so they find it difficult to figure out how to answer the call, “Come, follow
me,” when they are flat on their back, stuck in a wheelchair, in pain, and dependent on family
or nursing home care.
I’ve become convinced that following Jesus in our later years is a completely different
call. Jesus does not limit the “Come Follow Me” to his years of healing the sick, feeding the
hungry, and taking the Good News of God’s love to others. It includes following Him, like loyal,
doubting Thomas to Jerusalem, where we know that in worldly terms, things will not go well.
Jesus was in God’s accelerated class. What He learned from His experiences on Good
Friday may take the rest of us years.
Through my years in a wheelchair, I experienced things that I never would have, if I
were walking under my own power. Painful and challenging as these were, they were learning
experiences. Shocks do get our attention.
Shock One: was being imprisoned. I could no longer go either when or where I wanted.
I was helpless and dependent on others.
Shock Two: was that my church community pretty much went about their busy lives without
me. I felt abandoned even by my Christian family.
Shock Three: Though blessed with free air travel abroad, I discovered that the handicapped
are literally hated in many countries. (Note: Many people were kind in these countries, but the negative experiences were a shock.) In the Czech Republic, I was hissed at and we were forced
off the sidewalks into the streets and even out into the rain by middle-aged, middle-class
looking women. In Lucerne, Switzerland a taxi driver with a trunk easily spacious enough for the
wheelchair, vehemently and arrogantly refused to take us from the airport.
In a two story museum in Paris, we were told that the elevator was out of order, though we
could see workers using it. In Vienna, the manager of our small hotel refused to help
us find a safe place on the ground floor for the wheelchair that wouldn’t fit into the tiny
The first few times I experienced this kind of rejection, I cried at night realizing that it didn’t
matter to these people, whether I was a good person, smart, talented, or had even achieved
things. I was rejected, because in their eyes I was defective, and that probably threatened to
force them to recognize their own vulnerability as human beings. These experiences made me
feel terribly naked and vulnerable out on the streets among hostile strangers. In fact, we would
go blocks out of our way, when we spotted groups of young skin heads on the street.
Shock Four: When we had to struggle to get me and the wheelchair up long flights of stairs
while hurrying to make a connecting train, no one offered any assistance, some even
angrily pushed past us. Those days left me with both a great deal of physical pain and the
emotional pain of feeling so universally rejected.
But grace came in Prague in a huge ancient cathedral. As we toured the cathedrals of Europe
several things struck me. One: the only people actually using them for prayer were the old,
mostly women. Two: The Catholic ones were filled with gold and silver ornaments and
elaborate tombs of Popes and Bishop, the Anglican/Episcopal ones were filled with gold and
silver and elaborate tombs of Kings and Queens and other nobility. The Presbyterian one in
Scotland was a little less gilded, but no less ornate and filled with the tombs of warriors.
In Prague the cathedral not only had many gilded angels, ornaments, and tombs, but one
room with walls almost completely covered with embedded semi-precious stones.
My son wanted to climb to the top of the bell tower and my husband was taking photos of all the
glitter. It was jam packed with tourists, so they parked me in a dim unadorned corner without
any people in it. I was newly wounded by my experiences of rejection and when my son and
husband were gone a long time, I began to feel depressed and sorry for myself. I started
looking around for something that represented the love of God, not the silver and gold in
honor of men. Finally, I looked up at the wall behind me. There was a life size wooden crucifix
with the body of Jesus right over me. We were alone together in the darkness, since the crowd
was entranced by the silver and gold and the famous. I remembered a quote from Paul Caludell, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with his presence.”
Somehow in that moment, I experienced a oneness with Him. We were in this together. I
was not alone and never would be.
God chose, through Jesus, to experience our loss of purpose, imprisonment, falling
under the weight of the cross, needing the help of strangers, being
stripped of image, being rejected by the world for vulnerability,
being abandoned by friends, suffering physical and mental pain that makes the minutes
seem like hours and the hours like eternity, and even finally feeling abandoned by God.
Yet, still saying, “ God, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
I knew then, that He is not only with me and all of us, but He is in us, experiencing
everything through us. Right then, right now, and always. He told us that whatever is done to
even the least of us is done to Him. And in the helplessness of old age, we are finally freed to
accept being the least, those totally dependent on God. We are not alone, ever. And
when that becomes more important to us, than all the losses we mourn, I think we get to go