I composed the first draft of the following essay some years ago while on vacation at the New Jersey shore. At that time, I was going through multiple surgeries to replace an arthritic left hip and was using a wheelchair for long distances.
In January 2021, many unsuccessful surgeries and four infections landed me permanently in a motorized wheelchair. The extent of my walking is to transfer on and off the wheelchair with a couple of steps on a walker.
While I was going through the 12 surgeries and difficult recoveries, I was wonderfully upheld by my church and the prayers of many people. I know that God undergirded me. Now that my intense times of being in the hospital and rehabs are over, I long to feel the prayers and support of my faith community. I live with chronic pain, but prayer lists often only include those with emergent health issues.
Over the last few years, I spent too much time thinking about the future. Now I am focusing more on living in the present, trusting God to help me. Facing life with faith and hope helps me to get through my daily struggles.
For those of you with a disability or who have a family member with one, I expect that you may be able to relate to my article. My hope is that everyone who reads this essay will gain an understanding of the complexity of getting around in a wheelchair. In addition, I challenge everyone to advocate for additional accessibility in our churches and our world.
Vacationing by the ocean may offer wonder and relaxation no matter what the weather. But going to the beach when one is disabled can pose many challenges.
Now that I am in a wheelchair, I find myself preparing for this trip with some sadness. The grief comes because I can no longer walk where the water meets the sand and feel the cool waves lap over my shins and toes. In the past, I would wade into the shallow surf to stand and absorb the magnificent expanse of the ocean. The words of a hymn often filled my soul, "There's a wideness in God's mercy, like the wideness of the sea." My humbled spirit would experience spiritual refreshment.
We planned this kind of vacation for the past two years, but the trips were cancelled due to surgery on my left hip. Over the years, the joints in my knees, right hip, and left shoulder had been successfully replaced because of osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, my left hip required multiple surgeries due to several infections.
In anticipation of our finally being able to take a trip to the beach, I prepare with intricate detail. I even reserve a motorized scooter to be delivered to the hotel. The scooter will give me some independence.
The chore of loading the car with our overabundance of bags, assistive devices, and food items falls to my husband. He approaches the job as one would piece together a jigsaw puzzle, so that everything will fit into our champagne-colored Honda Accord, including my wheelchair . . . and me!
After a mostly uneventful drive to our destination and check-in at the hotel, we begin to face obstacles. We find one small elevator at the back of the hotel (our room is on the second floor so I can view the ocean from the balcony). We discover it is barely big enough to stuff me, my wheelchair, a walker, and my spouse within its walls. The hallways of the hotel are so narrow that people scrape past my wheelchair. Finally, we arrive at our room. The arduous task of unloading the car begins for my husband. He makes several trips to haul things to the elevator and the room. After everything is in the room, we unpack and organize our belongings.
Much to my dismay, I see that the bed, by design, is too high off the floor for me to climb into it by myself. Even a step stool will not help since I am not able to conquer steps after the many surgeries on my left side. Unfortunately, this means that my husband will need to assist me to get in and out of bed.
Turning our thoughts to our growling stomachs, we decide to call the hotel restaurant for reservations. It is located on the first floor. We freshen up and change clothes before going back into the narrow hallway, into the cramped elevator, and around the pool area to the restaurant patio. Once settled, we relax and enjoy a delicious meal. Since evening has come, the air is slightly cooler.
The next day we plan to go out for dinner. I research accessible restaurants in the area and choose an historic Inn. When the manager shares that a ramp will allow me to enter the restaurant, I reserve a table. On this night of celebrating my husband's retirement, we dress smartly. I settle myself in the wheelchair for the ride down the narrow hallway, into and out of the tiny elevator, and into our car (the restaurant is too far away to use the motorized scooter). A short drive into the town allows us to find the attractive, old Inn.
We notice a ramp starting at the front entrance and circling toward the side of the building. The ramp is made of wood that has been weathered by the salt air. After we check in at the front entrance, we wind around the building to the double doors as suggested. The boards of the ramp are slightly uneven making for a bumpy ride. At the end of the ramp, the double doors into the dining room are pushed open by two servers.
Inside, there are tables adorned with sparkling water goblets, ornate place settings, and huge elaborate menus. We are ushered to a table and sit in the beautiful Art Deco style room with smiles of accomplishment. We peruse the menu and order from the list of gourmet meals. I select crab cakes and my husband chooses a seafood medley. Both choices are delivered fresh and prepared expertly. We thoroughly enjoy ourselves. Feeling rested and satiated, we roll over the bumpy ramp back to the car and on to our hotel.
During the rest of the week, we encounter several poor curb cuts, narrow doorways, and steep ramps. Sometimes people are helpful in opening doors while others barely notice our needs. Trying to find truly accessible public bathrooms is very difficult.
We find many enticing shops in the town. Some stairways and narrow doorways are out-of-bounds for a wheelchair. It takes the joy out of shopping when I remain dependent on someone to maneuver me and the chair through small places. After meandering around quite a maze of baubles and people, I eventually purchase a locally crafted, beautiful pottery mug.
I struggle daily to stand up with a walker to get onto and off toilets, shower chairs and beds, and into cars. The resulting aches and pains often keep me awake at night. Sleep can be sporadic and brief, which leaves me fatigued during the day. Daytime rest is often needed.
A special beach wheelchair may be available for my husband to push me onto the sand, but during this trip we do not pursue it. Instead, I enjoy watching the rolling waves from our hotel balcony. We also drive near the shoreline so we can see the magnificent ocean.
The motorized scooter ends up sitting at the hotel unused. It does not fit into the car. The heat is so oppressive that we opt out of exploring the area around our hotel. Rain comes several times during our stay.
Seeing the wide expanse of the Atlantic from the hotel balcony allows me to gain some perspective on my life. Even though I have experienced a multi-year, dismal cycle of surgery and rehab for osteoarthritis, I am finally able to travel and enjoy being by the sea. This respite will help me to move into the future with hope.
I am very grateful to my husband for literally packing me up and bringing me on vacation. Despite the challenges, getting to the beach again is so good. God's marvelous creation is truly a gift.
A graduate of Lancaster Theological Seminary, Jill is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. She is now retired after serving as a chaplain in hospitals, hospice, and retirement communities. She is currently a freelance writer living in Lititz, PA, with her husband, the Rev. Timothy D. Speicher. They are members of Lititz Church of the Brethren.