The Wheelchair Woman

by Noelle Sterne

May 2017

The whole thing lasted no more than ten seconds. I’d stopped at the supermarket for a few necessities before rushing home for an important client call. Throwing my groceries on the counter, I paced back and forth, almost hopping, sandwiched between the customers behind and ahead of me.

The cashier, with only time to consume until she could punch out, waited for each of my items on the conveyer belt to reach her and scanned them with perfect lethargy. When the customer ahead of me left, I stepped to the end of the counter, grabbed two plastic bags and started packing, hopefully telegraphing to the cashier to hurry it up. Finally paying, I flung my bags into the cart and started to the exit.

That’s when I saw her. She sat in her wheelchair near the end of the checkout counter, her aide mumbling and fussing with a sweater behind her. She looked to be about my age, with faded brown hair in haphazard curls around her face, her skin gray and drawn. Her left arm lay crumpled and awkward against her side. Her legs, obviously useless, were hidden under a cloth blanket.

Our eyes met and locked.

Out the door, I careened my cart toward the parking lot. Her face lingered in my mind’s eye. My immediate reaction was to pity her, but she probably got a lot of that. What if, though, she was glad to be alive at all, still able to sit up, get out, feel the sun, and see other people? Who was to say, whatever the appearance, that she wasn’t satisfied with her life?

I felt sudden shame at my annoyance about getting groceries. I could run out, jump into the car, and fling the bags around like a circus juggler. I remembered my indignation after a stint at the gym. I’d lifted heavier weights than usual and felt real pain. How dare my body betray me? Or when I got a cold, I had no patience with all the headaches and honking and soggy Kleenexes.

The woman’s face hovered before me. Thinking about her – and myself – I felt a sense of great gratitude. For the life I had chosen, for my health, my profession of writing and editing and passion to always improve, my hard-won habits of diet and exercise. I’ll never know about her choices in such matters. Or whether, indeed, she too was grateful for her life.

On the walk to my car, I realized something else. In that seconds-only look between us, I’d felt a commonality, a recognition that we’re here on this earth at this moment for a few more years, whatever our immediate physical situation. What gives us the right to judge each other? We are the same.

I slowed down, breathed in, savored the warmth of the sun on my face, and pushed the cart without effort.

Opening the car door, I placed the bags on the seat next to me and got in. No longer hurrying, I held the wheel with both hands. This was the moment to feel fully, the moment to choose, the moment to be so thankful for. Driving home, I kept seeing the face and eyes of the woman in the wheelchair. And sent her love.

Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor,·Noelle Sterne·publishes writing craft and spiritual articles and essays in print and online. With a Ph.D. from Columbia·University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates wrestling with their dissertations to completing their tomes (finally). Based on her practice, her new handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties in Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, mid-2015). Excerpts appear before publication in several magazines. In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go·after Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

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