I am gardening, meaning tearing out more plants, and thinking. I am thinking specifically about yesterday in the garden center.
I went in because I was worried about the fish. When we returned from a week in the heat and sun of Malta, a handful (I am speaking figuratively here) had milky white spots on their bodies, below the back fin, on the top of the head, and visions of four years ago lept to fire the neurons in my panic center. I had Googled various ways to say "milky white areas goldfish", but it evoked nothing common in the host of goldfish diseases. I was going to buy an antibacterial product and treat the fishpond fountain.
On my way to the "bassin" area at the far back of the store, I passed a young man we would have called "crippled" when I was 5-years-old, and my mother was teaching me, with an embarrassingly draconian method that consisted of hissing at me in the shopping center parking lot after I pointed at a young "crippled" woman, and calling more attention to me, and therefore the young woman, than I had alone by my gest that "one does not do this, ever." That said, I never, ever did it again, and I still remember. He was wearing the store's signature green short-sleeved polo shirt. He moved away one way, and I continued past the large pond display to the shelves of products to treat the water and the fish who live in it.
There were three. One handled the bacteria that cause fin rot and rot, period, and came in two different sizes. One large enough for 3 treatments, and another for two. I did a swift mental calculation. The former was vastly more economical, but would last, oh, 12 years. The other would save me less money, and cover a good 8 years. The last time we went through fish infirmary hell was two years ago, making... then, I noticed the other two products for various other conditions. Fungi and God knew what. Three products, as many as 12 years, varying amounts of money spent, and I wasn't sure for what purpose. I set down my keys, wallet and opened Google. Images of goldfish with diseases swam before my eyes. None looked like the "milky white" patches (?) developing on a few of our fish.
In the background, a voice reminded someone that a customer was waiting for him in the fish pond department. I imagined an impatient customer, looking at the selection of various sizes of the various products and theor prices, and turned my panicking gaze to my iPhone screen, wondering how many sites written in English by the non native English-speaking about sick goldfish I would have to consult before I found what had befallen my fish, images of 40-something container ponds flashing before my eyes, and then I turned and gazed at the pond display.
A woman walked away. Perhaps, I thought, the fish pond department person was still there and might be helpful. I approached, peering around the end of the shelves.
There was the person "porteuse d'handicap" (this is how "handicapped" is presently said in French official government texts). Very heavily porteuse.
"Vous travaillez en rayon bassin?" I asked, hopefully.
"Oui," he nodded. I considered the line of his mouth and facial features, where something was not quite right, dysmorphic, the strange and rather horrible angle of his right arm, his wider than usual hips and shortish, bent legs, and the way he leaned forward on the flat-bedded, wheeled thing to cart heavy stuff around the store. There were too many angles to make balance and movement possible, it seemed, let alone easy. The way he leaned on the cart appeared casual, but it occurred to me that it was a very possibly a strategy to stay standing and move about more easily and efficiently than anything else in a garden center would permit. Rather ingenious. It also occurred to me that I had never been assisted in a store by someone so severely handicapped. I realized that I was distracted, and in a way I would not been usually, and that he was waiting politely for me to tell him what I wanted.
I explained what my fish had while he listened, his eyes fixed on mine. He nodded again.
"Ca n'a l'air de rien d'inquiétant," he said to me. He added that it could be that they were just changing color.
"Even the orange ones, that had already changed color?" I asked.
"Yes, those, too."
"Even if it appears fuzzy and milky, and not absolutely white?"
"Yes, even then."
"So, I should just keep an eye on them and see how it goes?"
"Yes," he said. "I am not worried about them yet."
I nodded. "OK, I'm very attached to them."
Today, I looked searchingly at my fish. A lot. And I thought about him a lot, too. Pruning a seriously overgrown branch from an absurd dogwood that has no place where it is, and will go the way of the Bergenia cordifolia in the borders, I realized that it was the first time I had been assisted in any store by someone so gravely affected by a physical deformity, a handicap, the thing they give horses who are too good to equal the playing field, but which to humans represents an unevening of the field.
I know little of specific conditions, but I remember a child for whom I was hired to help care while I was a college student in New York City. He had suffered a significant lack of oxygen during his birth, and was left with severe Cerebral Palsy. This young man, too, possibly. My husband, an ob/gyn, listened and said it sounded more like an incident in embryonic development, very early in the pregnancy.
"Perhaps. It doesn't matter, but I felt --", and here, the word I wanted absolutely escaped me. I had felt what? Now my husband looked at me searchingly, waiting for me to gather my thoughts and go on.
"No, not exactly moved."
"I'd have felt moved," he said.
No, it wasn't moved. How to explain that the fact that he was working directly with the public, not assisting someone else, nor helping in a back area, put him on just the level field with me that took away any reason or need to feel moved? My husband was still waiting.
"No, not moved, and not admirative, either."
"I'd have felt that way," he said. "It cannot be easy to put oneself before the public with such a degree of physical deformity."
I understood what he meant, but what did it signify? Aren't we to be past all that, somehow? Post-racism, post-sexual orientation? Post-handicap? Didn't this represent that? After exchanging the other day with a gay aquaintance, the author of a blog Riding Rainbow, in a thread on Facebook about gay people moving to a new stable, and helping them to feel welcome and accepted, she wrote in a blog post, "If you want to just come out and say, 'I know not everyone in the world is cool with gay people but I am,' I will feel better around you than I would if you said nothing." She suggested that the ideal way to do this is just to casually mention a gay friend or family member, "My uncle's husband rides, too, and he was the one who got me riding." This surprised some of her readers, who thought she would say that it was better to say nothing.
I thought about race, and how I understood that this would not work with racial differences. And the handicapped? Neither. The thing, it seems to me, that changes with homosexuality is that it affects someone's life in ways that race or a handicap will not. It's affects the individual's social life. The new gay rider at the barn will wish to speak about her partner or wife like anyone else, and know that this is perfectly accepted, and that she will be welcomed at the barn, as well. But, is it similar if we consider race and an interracial couple? Ought it? If not, then ought it with homosexuality? I don't have the answers. It seems that they are for us to find together.
I also thought about the horrible things I see daily on Facebook, the arguments dissecting who is more guilty, the Israelis or the Palestinians, who is the "oppressor" and who the "oppressed", in an endless parade of historical atrocities, the culbapibility or not of GMOs and meat-eating in the condemnation of our planet, the shipment of our race, buggy, camp and otherwise unwanted horses to slaughter, puppies beaten and then held over flames until their bellies are burned, and the requests for help to save them, and I thought about this young man, working at the garden center, listening to my problem and advising me, and I felt much better.
Truffaut did a wonderful thing by allowing a disabled person to use his abilities and manage his lesser abilities, and this is still not something one sees regularly, even at all. I admit that I looked at his face and body and saw what it told me. I don't know if that is wrong, but I know that when I walk the aisles of the store, other people's eyes also look at me, and they sum up what they see.
What I saw was someone who needed help to stand, who lurched when he walked, and who could not easily, or perhaps even at all, move his right arm from where it twisted behind him, but who was there, who had showed up, however more challenging or difficult it was, and who was helpful, useful, and reassuring. I still did not know what to tell my husband I felt.
Once, such a person shocked and drew curiosity, certainly on a sales floor. Perhaps still. Today, however, he holds a job, something many perfectly able-bodied find distasteful here, "work" having become for some a four-letter word. Work brings purpose and dignity, helps us to exist in the world and participate economically. It brings recognition. Ask me, I know. It's been years since I enjoyed that.
Perhaps I will write a letter to Truffaut to thank them for their open-mindedness and humanity, but is that not gratuitous? Ought it not be a matter of every day occurence and fact that anyone able and wishing to work be hired? I am fairly sure they receive a subsidy to help offset the cost of this hire, but by all means, take it and hire more pleasant and willing souls, even if they cannot stock shelves and get from aquariums on one side of the giant store to fish ponds on the other in seconds.
"The fish seem otherwise fine," I told him.
"I am not hearing anything that worries me," he repeated.
"Merci beaucoup, et bonne journée."
He turned and headed in one direction, and I headed past him to leave the store, for the first time ever leaving the items on the store shelf.
|Another bag full of Bergenia|