Since 1981, most of my waking hours have been spent in a wheelchair. Of course, all my family and intimate friends are used to seeing me this way, and we’ve all had plenty of time to adjust to the challenges I face anytime I want to go anywhere, much less try something new. But I always wonder — what will it be like for people who knew me in my younger, wheelchair-less days, when I was an optimistic, energetic teenager going along with my friends, doing all the crazy things we did together?
I was born in 1949 and raised in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, already becoming known for the soulful, sensual, “Sound of Philadelphia.” The soul of America — that Philly sound that embraced the era of rock and roll in America in the ’60s and ’70s. In the early 1960s, the hugely popular American Bandstand show with Dick Clark, which originated in Philadelphia, was a massive influence on my friends and the teenage record-buying public of the country.
The ’60s was a fun and a unique environment. You had to be there to understand. Just talk to any baby boomer who was a teenager during the ’60s and they will tell you how fun it was and how fortunate they were to grow up in the 1960s. School dances and the dance crazes during that time were something else.
Growing up in that environment, I loved to dance! In Philly, where most new dances were shown first on Soul Train, I observed carefully, imitated and learned my first dance steps by practicing for hours in front of a full-length mirror. My high-school girlfriend Joyce was also an avid learner, and once we had mastered the dance steps of the Mashed Potato, the Bristol Stomp, the Pony, or any of the other complicated, coordinated line-dance steps that appeared so easy on television, we set out to teach all our other high-school girlfriends. We squealed with laughter and joy every time we were on the dance floor. Looking back, those seem like infinite, boundless, never-ending, joyous days. I danced for freedom of expression, and I danced for my life.
All that was years before multiple sclerosis became my teacher and lover, and my bright green wheelchair became my permanent dance partner. What is, is what is supposed to be, or it would not be. The rest is up to us, arguing with life. But, I have learned somewhere along the way that I just had to learn to trust life (and to trust God).
So when I received an invitation to my 45th high-school reunion for the Class of 1967 from Northeast High School, I seriously wondered what this experience would be like. Many if not all my classmates probably knew about my MS. In many ways, I knew, our relationships would be just as strong as before. I looked forward to seeing the whole “gang” — hanging with my old friends Jake, Steve, Marty, Stan, Bruce B., Shelly, Lisa B., Sherry, Eddie M., Louis, Karen, Lynne, Joyce, Fred, Bobby, Chuck, Helene, Howie, Stuart, and Skippy (who will always be Harry to me). I knew that we could talk and laugh about the good times and lasting friendships we shared.
All that I anticipated with relish as I eagerly accepted the invitation and began looking forward to this upcoming reunion. But what would I do when all these dear friends began to dance — as I knew they would? How would I feel then? I closed my eyes and sat quietly, aware of the rhythm of my breath.
It happened in April. As I entered the Radisson Hotel in my electric wheelchair, the air was filled with the soulful music of the ’60s and ’70s — Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer. I was instantly swept back in time to 1967, and my mind was flooded with the memorable times and defining moments that I experienced with my classmates.
My friend Joel was the first one to grab me on the way in. “Hi!” he shouted. “Do you remember me?” I replied, “Of course, I do, Joel! You’re still as handsome as ever!”
After that, it was all greeting and kissing and hugging. Essentially, we all looked the same as we did 45 years ago. (Well, sure, most of us are grayer. Some men are balder and some have bigger bellies, but of course the girls looked fabulous!) I loved how naturally the girls and guys teased and flirted with each other, just like they did back in the day. I did not see them as they are now in 2012. I saw each of them as my lifelong friends from high school, four-and-a-half decades ago in our world. As I individually connected to the light behind their eyes, the teenagers I knew so many years ago smiled knowingly back at me. I experienced the warmth of our human connection as we are all brothers and sisters. That love and connection we had, and still have, comforted me.
And then something extraordinary happened. Even though I’m in a wheelchair, people grabbed my hands, shouting enthusiastically, “Dance with me!”
Dance? Me? They meant it.
My wheelchair was not a factor. All my friends, these exultant party-goers, seemed blinded to its very existence.
That night, I never left the wheelchair while I was dancing, but my spirit was free from it. I was not ashamed, embarrassed, or self-conscious — only free and exuberant and joyful. I was totally in the moment.
Living with MS, a progressive illness, has forced me to accept sudden changes in life that are not always easy or pleasant to deal with. Accepting and loving myself — overcoming fear, embarrassment, and self-consciousness — was a significant milestone for me. I can honestly say that probably 95 percent of the things I was afraid of… turned out, I had no reason to be. Every day I am still working on that: dropping my fear and just… letting it go.
I realized I had not only given myself another opportunity to dance again, I had also given that chance to my classmates to see me, and be with me, just as I am today. We shared a wonderful past and were totally caught up in a splendid present.
At that moment, I was happy. Right here and now. Not tomorrow, not in 10 minutes or later, not after the reunion was over, but now.
By not judging by outward appearances, that was a magical night.
There’s more to come on this theme. Please let me know your thoughts, questions, concerns or suggestions, either by leaving a comment below, or by sending me an email.
This originally appeared in the Huffington Post in September, 2012.