It happened almost 10 years to the day. The Spring of 2018 had been wetter and colder than normal, thereby impeding my ability to get outside and roam around on my own. The late arrival of Spring meant that the season was dramatically shrunk – to about two weeks! By mid-May, 90° days were the norm, but I nevertheless welcomed the opportunity to roam outside, free from some of the constraints of my existence. I consider Wednesday and Sunday as my weekend, as those are the days I am up in my chair and out of bed. On those days when the weather is nice and we are not engaged in other activity, I look forward to getting out of the house on my own, roaming the neighborhood or the nature preserve attached to our subdivision.
On one such Wednesday, just before Memorial Day, the outdoors was calling with sunny skies and temperatures climbing into the upper 80's. On this day, I decided to break up my six hours of freedom by roaming the neighborhood for about an hour, coming back to hydrate and do a little work on my computer. Following that, I planned a multi-hour venture down Road Runner Trail. As I was preparing to leave on my short foray into the neighborhood, my wife suggested I take my phone. “That’s okay,” I said. “I’m only going to be in the neighborhood.” We live in a small community, where there are only 99 homes in our subdivision. Within that area, there is substantial green space, including a city park. There is one particular vantage point about two blocks from our house where you can observe a neighboring ranch with its small herd of Longhorn cattle. It is one of my favorite spots in the neighborhood, and occasionally nearby residents will come out to chat. I decided to head there to start my afternoon.
Numerous cumulus clouds provided some relief from the noon day sun, especially when combined with a light but steady breeze. I settled into my usual spot, watching the slow migration of the Longhorn cattle from their pond to a shady resting spot a hundred yards or so away. I followed the frantic activity of Blue Jays, Cardinals and Mockingbirds as they built nests in nearby trees. I marveled at such a pastoral view, while sitting the equivalent of two lots away from several nearby homes. As I leaned back in my wheelchair, I noticed what appeared to be the reflection of a cloud on my control panel. As I looked a little closer, I saw it was not a cloud, rather it was a motor error message, flashing steadily but slowly. My first reaction was one of minor alarm but major irritation. I immediately engaged the controls, to no avail. I was stuck! While I could raise and recline the seat back, and tilt the seat forward and back, I could not move the chair. I was immediately taken back 10 years to that day on the trail by Lake Grapevine, when I became paralyzed. Both my bike and I lay on the ground, within earshot of revelers on the lake. I had that same feeling in the pit of my stomach, remembering how those nearby boaters couldn’t see or hear me, and not knowing when someone might come down the trail to discover my presence. Drawing from that experience, I told myself not to panic. On that particular day 10 years ago, I was discovered after only 45 minutes or so. It should be much less than that today I reasoned, given that I was literally within rock throw of nearby homes.
At first I decided to listen quietly for the sound of nearby activity. Someone’s garage door opening, a jogger or walker coming by, or someone letting their dog out into the backyard. Fifteen minutes later after producing exactly zero leads, I decided something a little more aggressive was in order. My wheelchair is equipped with a high-pitched horn, the sound of which seems particularly irksome to dogs. For the next 15 minutes, I periodically sounded my horn, figuring someone would surely hear it. They didn’t. It didn’t even raise the ire of nearby canines, of which I knew there were at least four.
By this point, the sun was beginning to prevail over the clouds in the sky, and I began to be concerned about the potential for sunburn. I had recently been treated for several spots of skin cancer on my arm and hand, and I had another upcoming procedure scheduled. This is crazy, I thought. How can you be stranded in the middle of civilization? Nevertheless, I decided to raise the alert level to DEFCON II. This consisted of sounding the horn on my wheelchair in rhythmic patterns, similar to a car alarm. Surely that will cause someone to come out and investigate this strange new sound. Periodically, I would change the rhythm, so that anyone listening would be able to differentiate from a standard alarm sound. After 45 minutes, I took stock of my situation once again. By now I was beginning to get sunburned, and the Longhorns looked irritated!
At this point, I felt I must get mentally prepared to be stranded until late in the afternoon when neighbors began coming home from work. Several cars had passed behind me on the neighborhood street, oblivious to the fact I was in need. Clearly they could not hear my horn with their windows rolled up and their air conditioner turned down. During this time, two bicyclists passed nearby on the city street next to the Longhorn ranch, lost in the sound of their headphones. Police had driven by three different times, one time honking and waving at me! While thirst was beginning to become an issue, I blocked out thoughts of a severe sunburn and heatstroke, just as I had 10 years before. I had to remain calm, yet up the ante once again. This time, in addition to my horn, I began to call for help to anyone in the area in measured and rhythmic tones. The parallel in my mind to the event which started it all was starting to become all too real. Fifteen minutes later I heard a garage door open down the block, and a workman or neighbor start up their lawnmower. Clearly however, they did not hear me.
A half-hour later, I heard a neighbor open their patio door to let their dogs out. This was my chance I thought. I sounded the horn in a more urgent pattern while calling out for help. Fortunately, the neighbor heard and called out, “I’m on my way.” At the sound of her voice, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders, just as I had when I was discovered on the trail at Lake Grapevine. When I explained what had happened, she went to our house to get my wife. Within minutes, she was executing the protocol on the chair designed to reset the motor error. I spent the rest of the afternoon indoors, re-hydrating and cooling off. Later that evening just before sunset, we took a walk around the neighborhood and spoke with the neighbor who had heard my call for help. She told me she works from home on Wednesdays and had seen me sitting down the block. She didn’t want to let her dogs out, lest their barking infringe on my “quiet time.” Finally, the dogs would wait no more – thank goodness!
You would think after 10 years, I would have learned my lesson about the dangers of becoming stranded. You could say class is still in session.
Slice of Life series articles are those that share the special experiences of those living in a wheelchair in a way that is witty, informational, poignant and even inspirational. Do you have a story? Share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.