From the day I first received my power chair to today, it has been my responsibility to ensure that my chair is plugged in at night. Although someone else has to actually plug the chair in, it is my job to make sure that it happens. I have to ensure that the batteries in my chair are recharged each night. There have been some nights where I have been negligent in my duties. When I have, more often than not, I “run out of gas.” One of the first times it happened was during my junior year of high school.
The next morning in school, about second period I noticed something was different. The power meter on my joystick showed my chair only half full. Usually at this time of day, my chair was still showing a full charge. I was a little concerned but thought that half a “tank” would be enough to get me home.
Unfortunately, as the day went on the meter continued to fall. By lunchtime I barely had an eighth of a charge left. I knew that to make it though my day, I would have to conserve every bit of energy I had in my chair. I didn’t go outside to hang out with my friends. I didn’t go back to the lockers. I took the straightest and most direct routes to my classes and ate lunch near the classrooms.
By the end of my final period I was running on empty. The fastest I could manage was barely a crawl. I felt I had conserved enough energy that, with a little luck, I could make it to my van. Knowing how long it was going to take me to get to where I parked my van, I left my last period class fifteen minutes early.
Slowly, I exited the school and began down the sidewalk that would take me to the road I needed to cross to get to the parking lot where I’d left my van. My chair was yearning for power and the motors sounded like the moan of a sick animal. I thought things were going slowly when I left the school, but that was fast compared to how slowly I was moving by the time I reached the road. I could see my van; it was just across the street, and as soon as I got there, I was home free.
I started across the street. I was slow-moving, but I was moving. It was at this time that I learned an interesting engineering concept. When they build many streets and roads, often they build them with the smallest upgrades on each side so that when it rains, the rain will hit the middle-of-the-road. Because of this miniscule grade, that you literally have to stare to see, the water will run from middle of the road down into the gutters on each side.
Going up the grade on the road was enough that once I got to the middle of the road my chair was spent. It was completely out of juice. I heard a click, and all the lights on my hand control went off. Of all the places I could have had my chair run out of juice that day, the middle of the road was the very worst. Although I had left school before the final bell, by the time I was stuck in the middle of the road, school was not only out, but the kids were in their cars heading home.
In addition, the road my chair stopped moving in was the main route students took to get home. Just then I heard a roar that felt like it made the street rumble.
I lifted up my head and turned to see what was coming my way. Much to my dismay, I saw one of my classmates barreling down the road in his 1975 American-made something that looked every ounce of its hundreds of pounds of Detroit steel. It was obvious he hadn’t seen the “school zone” sign as his souped up motor brought the vehicle toward me at well over the prescribed 20 mph.
Fear really entered my heart when I saw that his radio was turned up as loud as it could get, with his arm and attention around his girlfriend, and he hadn’t taken either off of her since he left the parking lot.
The Jason Hall story began to flash before my eyes.
As the final chapter of my life flew through my mind, ending in a vision my chair and body flying through the air in opposite directions, I heard someone come to the back of my chair, lift up the handles underneath the motor, put it into neutral and push me out of the way.
My friend, James Johnson, got me out of the way literally in the nick of time. The car missed us by the smallest of margins. The car was so close, we could felt a rush of air as the driver unknowingly passed us by.
We stopped on the side of the road to catch our breath. Once we had, James grabbed a friend, and helped me get my chair into my car. That day I was grateful that I had a friend like James Johnson,
I had been in trouble that day, real trouble. I was stuck and had gotten myself in a situation in which, on my own, there were simply no more outs. I didn’t have any options, but I had a friend.
A friend who was watching what I was doing. A friend who knew me well enough to know exactly where the neutral levers were. He was a friend who was willing to put himself in danger to give me a push and move me out of the way.
If we are to be true friends, then like James we have to be willing to watch out for those we care about. We have to invest time and energy into their lives so when we see them struggle, we know exactly how to help. We have to be willing to endure some risk that we might reduce theirs.
We have to be willing to give a push.