“Peter, are you sure my butt isn’t too heavy?” I shout down to my teammate as he pushes my backside up a ladder.
My hands are gripping the wrung of a metal ladder as I attempt to ascend a thirty foot telephone pole. Peter, a 5’4” Vietnamese gay man is pushing on my butt to help give me leverage. This is one of the more humbling, embarrassing, liberating and loving moments I have ever experienced in the great outdoors.
Located north of Seattle, Washington, nestled in a section of forest near the Cascade Mountains, is the Waterhouse Center where the motto is “Where People Grow in Trees.” The center is owned and operated by a grizzled character named Bernie. I get the feeling he was a hippy who retired from the world to do something for his soul. Thus the creation of the Waterhouse Center. Individuals and groups alike seek out the center for the purpose of team building, creating leadership skills, self-confidence, encouragement and trust.
It is an early, overcast Saturday morning and I am in the woods sitting in my sports wheelchair wondering what the hell am I doing here? The rustling in the woods is not a bigfoot but Bernie’s big, goofy dog, Martin. I am staring up at a ladder that is leaning against a thirty foot telephone poll. My team of ten and I are listening to our ropes course coach, Fleur, explain what the goal of the day is and how to accomplish it. Apparently, we will be harnessed, roped and belayed. Then each of us will take turns ascending the ladder up to the pole where we will climb like electric company linemen. Once at the top, each person will jump out to a trapeze swing and then lowered back to the ground by our teammates. I’m not concerned about being clipped into a harness. I’m not concerned about being belayed by my teammates. My concern is whether or not I can pull myself up the ladder without the use of my legs and without asking for help.
I was in a car wreck when I was sixteen years old that resulted in a spinal cord injury. Although my injury is low on my spine and I have the use of my fingers, hands, arms and stomach muscles, living in a wheelchair still has challenges. For example, climbing a ladder without the use of my legs. How does one go about making this happen? And that is when I look around at my teammates and realize I am not the only one staring up and wondering how am I going to complete this challenge? I am not the only one with a disability, physical or otherwise. I’m not the only one who is worried about being humbled and embarrassed.
My team for today consists of a variety of characters: One woman and her husband immigrated from Hungary to start a new life in the United States with their children and her in-laws will not let her live it down. There is one young gentleman who battles with his sexuality and his religion. Another teammate struggles to become pregnant but her body and the universe is telling her not now. Her husband is on a path to become governor of Washington State but is deciding he would rather be happy instead and plays guitar on his days off. As I look around at my team I realize everybody here has their own story. These people chose to be here today and are willing to participate in an activity that scares the shit out of them.
And so with that in mind, I attempt to climb the ladder on my own, one wrung at a time…and fail. It turns out my bulging biceps are more aesthetic than functional when lifting myself up. And that is when it happens; my team comes together and encourages me to ask for and receive their help. I sit in my wheelchair, in my harness and think about how embarrassing this all is. I swam with great white sharks in South Africa. I kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland. And here I am, unable to propel myself up a ladder. Do I give in to my shame? Is this a battle that I choose to sit out on or do I continue with the help of my team? So, I swallowed my pride. I did it. I asked for their help and boy did I get it. Three male team members immediately propelled me up the ladder with Peter being the last. And he pushed my butt not only up the ladder but then on to the pole. And although my tired, old arms gave out about three feet from the top, I felt like I had made it all of the way. Once belayed to the ground, feeling humble but entirely satisfied, I was sure to give out plenty of hugs.
What the universe reminded me that day, outside in the pine needles and the tree sap, is that sometimes we need to ask for help. Small children consistently ask for help, “Mom, can you please tie my shoe?”, “Dad, I’m hungry. I want graham crackers and milk.” But somewhere along the way we forgot how to ask and miss out on being vulnerable with each other. We miss out on our humanity.
And so on that overcast day, in the middle of a pacific northwest forest, I found myself again. I learned that even a girl in wheelchair can get up a tree with a little help and a lot of love.