“Would you push five for me?” asks the woman. “I’m having trouble with my hands today.”
I poke the black button next to the cutout number and my knees plié at the jerk of the taut cables. I stare at the numbered panel of the elevator, waiting for the digits to light and extinguish, but eventually my eyes shift to the woman next to me.
I notice her crutches right away. They’re not the type you buy at the drugstore after a twisted ankle then toss into the attic after a weekend of use. These have no padded ledges beneath her armpits on which to rest. Instead there are two rigid, four-inch cuffs, each locked on the long black sleeves covering her slight arms. Her hands, I presume, normally clench the foam grips that protrude from the metal sticks and hit her at the hips. Now, however, they fumble with the zipper of a brown saddle-shaped purse slung across her chest. Ignoring her is an option; avoiding her is impossible.
Not much bigger than a wine barrel, the elevator we’re squeezed into is one of those cage-style carriages embellished on three sides with delicate gold swirls and flourishes, and an industrial crisscross gate for a door that collapses and expands in graceless clacks. The space is barely big enough for one, romantic for a couple, but for two sets of unfamiliar eyes, awkward. The elevator ascends sluggishly, as if being hand-heaved by two men in the basement. It would have been faster to take the stairs the six flights up to my room, which I did yesterday.
“Can I help you with that?” I ask, nodding toward the woman’s purse.
“Yes, thank you,” she says.
I reach over and slide the zipper open.
She interlaces her fingers and caresses the length of each, then says again, “I’m having so much trouble with my hands.”
Her statement is an inverted invitation, the equivalent of “I had the best meal last night” – only I get the feeling her answer won’t lead me to a new bistro in the seventh arrondisement. I stare at my feet, the carpet, the rubber tips of her crutches. Out of the corner of my eye I see the number two button light up.
Asking the question was no problem in high school, when my friend Cyndi appeared on crutches one morning in a cast that stretched from her ankle to upper thigh. By the time the afternoon dismissal bell rang, her white plaster canvas had been transformed into a purple-penned, heart-dotted “I” masterpiece. Cyndi made swinging like a pendulum on one foot appear flirtatious, and for the next six weeks girls carried her books, and football players carried her crutches – and her – up the stairs to her second-floor classroom. I laughed until my cheeks hurt when she dropped a pencil between the cast and her skin while trying to scratch an itch, and when she was finally cast-free, Cyndi ceremoniously chucked her crutches, and the rogue pencil, into the school dumpster to the cheers of about a dozen classmates. To this day, I don’t remember the answer to the question of how she actually broke her leg; all I know is that Cyndi grew more popular because of her defect. She had somehow made it seem cool to be impaired, and at the time, I too desired that kind of attention, even if it meant splintering a limb to get it.
But for this woman the crutches aren’t about popularity. Nor are they temporary scaffolding to protect the underlying anatomy while it heals. They’re permanent buttresses that prop her erect and tether her feet to steady ground.
Truth be told, I’ve never stood this close to a disabled person. Even with our backs against the farthest edges of the elevator, we are close enough to touch. I’m ignorantly uneasy, as if the crutches will infect me with the malady if I look her in the eye. Pity and curiosity swirl in my head, along with the crass assumption that nothing I say will make a difference. I don’t like the word disabled, but don’t know if handicapped is politically correct. Saying nothing doesn’t feel right either, but is it okay to ask her what’s wrong with her hands, or is it wrong to use the word wrong?
“So, what’s going on there?” I ask, adding a quick jerk of my chin.
“I’ve been diagnosed with A.L.S.,” she says.
I’m surprised by her candor. I’ve heard of A.L.S. but don’t know enough to respond, so I just shake my head.
“Lou Gehrig’s disease?” she prompts.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “I guess I’ve been talking about it for so long I expect everyone to know.”
With academic succinctness she explains that A.L.S. is the acronym for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a neuromuscular disease that attacks and degrades muscles and motor skills, like those in her hands and legs, until they atrophy and die.
The word “die” is the one I’m afraid of, and it lingers in the air next to the hum of the elevator motor that has now lifted us past the fourth floor. A lump clogs my throat. I grapple with what to say next.
“How long ago were you diagnosed?” I ask.
“Nine months,” she says.
Nine months. The time it takes to grow a life, I think; the time it took me to grow my daughter.
“And you’ve had a second opinion?” I murmur.
She gives a half laugh. “A second. A third. A fourth.”
A weighty silence caws between us.
“Is this your first trip to Paris?” I finally ask.
I think about the first time I saw Paris, nearly 20 years ago. It was covered in snow. Along the cement banks of the steely river; on the branches of squat, leafless trees; in the curves and crevices of filigreed balconies; and on the stone wings of angels, winter had dressed Paris in gray and white. It was nothing like the poster tacked to my wall at home depicting pink sunset swirls on the Seine. Nor was it like the movies I saw in French class with canoodling lovers clinking wine glasses beneath the Eiffel Tower while a nearby accordion played Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.”
For the first few days, I wandered the numbered neighborhoods and checked off the clichés. I traced the steps of former denizens and imagined them waltzing in taffeta gowns with gents who plucked gold coins from velvet pouches. I loitered in cafés where legendary writers once scribbled novels as cigarette smoke circled their heads. But the unexpected boon of being alone in the city of lights was the self-scrutiny and liberation that anonymity brought. In a place rife with foreign tongues, where no one knew who I was, I could be whatever I wanted. From the grand boulevards that shot across the city like arrows aimed at distant compass points, to the couples who strolled the avenues arm-in-arm and kissed openly on park benches, to the performers who rendered hopeful opuses in the windowless underbelly, Paris was my patron of endless possibility.
“I remember my first visit,” I say, smiling.
“I’ve always dreamed of coming here,” she says. “And I wanted to see it before I couldn’t.”
Tears sting and well in my eyes. For the first time in the few minutes we’ve been together, I really look at her. Under the halo of a small overhead light, and with the golden elevator trimming the backdrop, she looks posed like a portrait in a gilded frame. She’s older than me by about ten years, 50-ish. Her black hair parts in the middle and ripples against cheekbones that chisel sharp edges below her brown eyes, and shade the hollows of her cheeks. Her skin gathers like a cinched sack at the outline of her rose-tinted lips, which hint at both a smile and something else I can’t quite decipher. Perhaps it’s sadness, or acceptance, or surrender.
Instinctively, I introduce myself and stretch out my right hand. She squeezes it harder than I expect and says her name is Leigh.
A cellphone rings from inside her purse. She maneuvers around the bag’s small opening and I offer to help, this time without pondering proper etiquette. I flip the phone open and place it against her open palm. It’s her mother; she has accompanied Leigh on the trip and is waiting in their room.
“She’s always so worried about me now,” Leigh tells me when she hangs up. “I just wanted to be by myself for a while.”
I nod. As a mother, I empathize with the fear of losing a child, whether to the fever of a foreign city or to a fated malady. As a daughter, I understand the desire to find yourself by veering off a path that was planned for you and following the one that is meant for you.
I’d chosen to take my first trip to Paris for reasons spawned by idealistic books and a poster of the Eiffel Tower pinned to the closet door of my childhood bedroom. But my journey was also about breaking off a path I could have easily followed. For years I’d listened to my mother dream aloud of going to Hawaii, Maine, Greece, other far-flung places. When the foggy June mornings arrived in southern California each year, she’d tell me it was her favorite time to be at the beach. But she never went. Not to Hawaii, or Maine, or Greece, or to the beach that was 20 miles from our house. Her dreams were checked behind pretexts of time, money and fear. “Maybe someday,” was her response whenever I asked why she didn’t just take the easy drive to the shore.
The shrug of her shoulders told me “someday” would never become today. As a kid, I was disappointed that we never took these grand trips. But as a young adult, disappointment turned to determination; I found the idea of wishing one’s life instead of living it sad, and without a moment’s hesitation, I seized my first opportunity to go abroad.
A decade later, when I became a mother, I vowed to myself that I would encourage all reasonable whims. And thanks to Ludwig Bemelmans’ Parisian-themed Madeline books, it didn’t take long to fulfill the promise; my daughter Chloé, who read each Madeline book until the pages creased, asked me to someday show her the Eiffel Tower. When she turned 6 I took her to Paris, and as we rounded a corner and crossed the Pont d’Alma, the celebrated landmark came into view. It was night and the lights quivered like a million fireflies. She gasped. I could see the curiosity and wonder in her eyes as she tried to reconcile the cartoonish sketches from her bedtime stories with the shimmering, larger-than-life monument she’d wanted to see.
“It’s so big!” she said.
I hoped that somehow I had made her world a little bigger, too – and that I’d planted a seed of wanderlust. But mostly, in the flickering light, I wanted Chloé to recognize a wish fulfilled and see her mother as the devoted granter.
When Leigh and I finally reach the fifth floor, the gate bangs open and I hold it while she shuffles toward her mother, whose smiling face and halo of white hair beckon her into outstretched arms. I step out behind her and let the elevator gate slam shut behind me.
Though I’ve spent only a few minutes and five floors with Leigh, the intimate details she’s shared make me feel more like a trusted friend than an outsider, and I ask them if they’d like to have dinner one night. They say no; they only have a few nights left, and they’d prefer it be just the two of them. I say goodbye and watch as Leigh’s mother places a steady hand on the small of her back and cups the other over the rigid cuff clamped on her daughter’s arm.
“I can do it, Mom,” Leigh says, shuffling forward.
But her mom doesn’t waver, instead pulling her daughter a little closer. Leigh lets her.
This mother’s strength overwhelms me. It’s something I both revere and hope never to have to summon. Watching them, I understand the only way they can conceivably bear their grief is by doing it together.
Before she enters her room, Leigh turns back toward me.
“What’s your favorite place in Paris?”
I’d just spent the morning revisiting the familiar cobblestone streets that had awakened me years ago. Paris is my favorite place in Paris.
But Leigh’s searching eyes tell me that’s not the answer she’s looking for.
I suggest Notre Dame Cathedral – admired for its hovering demons and flying buttresses. “There’s a bronze star in front, set in the cobblestones,” I say. “It’s from there that all road distances in France are measured. The star is point zero, the starting point.”
As I say the words aloud to Leigh they sound cruel barely off my tongue. I’d stood there first as an expectant young adult, and then decades later had returned to place my daughter’s feet on the same spot. Paris had been my genesis, and I’d hoped Chloé’s too – the beginning of a life unlimited by time and fate.
The door of Leigh’s room shuts, and I climb the final steps up to the sixth floor. Outside my window I see the peaks of ancient rooftops pierced by attic rooms, where lights flick on and off and occupants ebb and flow. And I see the crown of Notre Dame, below which I picture Leigh’s mother placing her daughter’s feet on a star, fulfilling a child’s wish at the starting point of a different kind of road.
[Photo Credits: Kimberley Lovato]