Anyone would be familiar with jam, marmalade, butter, the ones that come in small plastic containers, served on airline meals in flight or breakfast at a hotel. Possibly a great part of the population has no big problem peeling the lid off, to get to the substance. Fading eyesight makes these triangles minute. All have their outer ear chopped off, a smooth radius blends both sides of the triangle, which is fine, it prevents scratch and cut injuries. Nature, especially living beings, rarely grow geometrical flat planes, surfaces (like ice, crystals, etc), and so all of our fingertips are rounded, the thumbs included.

This in effect reduces the amount of fingertip that could grip the small triangle. The radius has further reduced the triangle’s height. Skin itself slips off on the very smooth surfaces; instead, many try to dig in with the fingernails, for increased gripping power. One usually employs the thumb and index finger, while the other hand holds the container with the precious goods. Often it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and the whole container flies through the room. All too often, this small triangular lip can drive one to frustration and outright anger. All it takes is normal aging, some weakness, brittle fingernails, coordination and eyesight interference and most everyone will come across this eventually.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who is in the design and manufacturing business of food processing machines, but they were not producing such small products, more geared for different lines. One item I have come across deserves a mention, a twin pocket Tomato Sauce container with a raised edge on the discharge side. The pack, designed to fold, a little pressure forces the ridge to crack, and the user is in full control of the amount discharged. The different viscosities between sauces, jam and butter does not make this container ideal for all contents. These items (the jam containers and such) don’t usually bother me, but they bother many of the people I know (but rarely do they complain). Some call themselves affectionately the wheelies. Instead of legs, they have wheels, even if they have legs.

A dear friend of ours became a wheelie through age and lifelong hip joint problems. My late wife hid her own wheels behind a corner, every time we visited the dear friend in the age care facility. ‘We must not let her worry about me,’ she said, and arm in arm, slowly and carefully we ‘walked’ the five steps to the safety of a chair. Buying a set of wheels is an experience. The first one is perhaps the hardest to buy. No one likes wheels. My late wife hated the thought of it. I carried her piggyback or in my arms for weeks. ‘Just think what we could do?’ I said, ‘a park, the ocean, the river’s edge, the inside of a forest.’

For many, a wheelchair is a marker that lets everyone know where one is going. A bit like clothing, once the trendy clothes don’t matter anymore, another part of life begins, same when the hair becomes tired of chemical colouring. There are also many small wheelies, not one bit concerned about their hair colour, many have none to colour. And so was Julie. One day, and the day was always a Thursday, Julie comes into Oncology, her all black wheels roll silently, but Julie never is, ‘Hi guys,’ she calls out, ‘Good morning, I want to wish you all a Happy Day.’ Then she throws a red rose of hope, a ribbon and a red balloon onto each bed. ‘What’s the occasion?’ someone asks, ‘I’m in the clear, you hear, I’m in the clear.’ Her face said all. ‘Just needed to share my joy with you, and hope you too…’ She made everyone happy. Each clock ticks different, one accepts that, but seeing a kid of 16 with low batteries is painful, many clocks struggle to make 8 or less. Julie will turn 17 and that is joy enough to know.

Not all are weak or frail; many are strong healthy people, having lost the function of a leg or both, from one day to the next, often due to bike, industrial or other accidents. Caren is about 25, mostly wearing a singlet, her upper arms well toned; she looks strong and full of vitality, as any woman that age, gym, gym, gym. There are no handles on her wheels, no push bar or the usual gizmos. Her wheels are angled in, a wide wheelbase you could say, rock solid grip, the Formula 1 equivalent, definitely a sports model with exceptional handling capabilities.

Some wheels are not for life, transitional wheels will do until a new leg is fashioned and the art of walking becomes as normal. Paul was one of those, waiting for the stitches to properly heal. Every meal time he came as the last. He’d stop at the entry to the large hospital dining room (perhaps 60 seats), his voice strong enough the deaf could hear, or at least adjust their volume. ‘Oh my God, look at you lot,’ he calls into the room, ‘It’s like in a morgue. Don’t anyone make a noise, or they think you’re still alive.’ He had a habit of stopping at each table, greets each person by name, ‘And how is William on this beautiful morning?’ William answered, nodding with a grin. ‘And the delightful Mrs Carpenter, are we in a good mood?’ ‘Go away, Paul.’

‘Aye aye Captain, please hold still, here is your bib, and there the serviette and you are ready, Captain,’ The Captain could not speak, but he did acknowledge Paul’s assistance by moving his head. Paul was always on the move, he’d read out the menu, spy a bowl of bananas, ‘Who wants bananas?’ then he took count and delivered them all, before the kitchen staff had a chance to defend them. His place was beside the Captain. Paul made his bread, cut it all up, fed the Captain and cleaned whatever spills may happened. He also had enough insight to leave those alone that could not cope with his outgoing personality. In hospitals, three times a day is mealtime, and butter/margarine is the first to challenge the once independent men and women. Now they are patients, some are patient patients and endure to not be beat. Paul knew everyone and knew the likes most had. He opened many of the butter, jam and marmalade plastic containers on his regular route. One man like that can lift so many spirits at once. Live and let live, Paul’s philosophy.

Each new wheelie will go through time, traumatic times, understanding and learning to cope with new realities. 1.7million people suffered limb loss in 2007 (excluding fingers and toes, USA). A wide range of causes can lead to limb loss, limb difference (the congenital absence or malformation of a limb) or amputation: Crush injuries, bad breaks, diabetes, war injuries, drugs, blood circulation and many more. AK/ BK, above or below the knee will influence the future leg and ambulation. In below knee operations, higher percentages are expected to become walkers. Unfortunately, sometimes complications afterwards may require another AK amputation. Some legs feature microprocessors, control systems for swing and stance with weight bearing and position sensors, designed to aid smooth ambulation for AK cases, but this is not a medical paper.

Hospitals are well prepared for amputees of any type, at least by having wide corridors and doorways, lifts, accessible toilets and bathroom access, help buttons too, but the normal residence is not. Getting from the taxi to the house is the first trial, getting into the house another, even if there are only 3 steps. Most standard wheelchairs fit through doors, but expensive modifications may be required to get the house up to a safe level. Two access points for wheelchairs, in/out of the building in case of fire, manoeuvring through the corridors, able to enter and exit anywhere safely. The height of the kitchen sink, location and type of taps and fittings, ovens, appliances, shelf heights, washing machine, laundry, drying, switches, manoeuvrability in corridors, the height of the fuse box, all become new issues. A simple blown light bulb is virtually impossible to replace (pull down lamps help).

Just a few weeks ago, Jenny moved into her house, especially modified. With a couple of friends we helped her move the few miles down the road. Jenny seems to be in paradise now. He husband and children too are happy with the move. Jenny is a wheelie for a good many years, having several manual wheelchairs. She is a very independent woman (early forties). She moves from one wheelchair to her car, lifts her bodyweight from the chair into the car seat, and is ready to drive. Wherever she arrives, she opens her car door and flicks a button. A simple, but ingenious custom made device lifts her wheelchair (from the roof top) over the edge of the car, and via steel wire lowers it to the ground. She unfolds it, adds a firm bottom part into the seat area and transfers her bodyweight from the car into the chair. She has both legs, but no hip joints connecting them to her body. She does it so effortlessly and must have done it countless times.

Jenny also has a scooter that runs off a battery; it gets her safely to the local shopping area, several hundred metres away. There is just one road crossing that is a bit tricky and bumpy. She feels a lot more at ease if someone is nearby, just in case she gets stuck. Some hundred metres is a fair way on a slow speed scooter, there are no guarantees the weather will be the same, arriving at the destination. Summertime brings thunderstorms that come very fast, are vicious and many last just a few minutes. Once, a friend, who was not in a wheelchair, was hammered from all sides, by wind and lashing rain in my open carport. He could not even get to the next building 5 metres away. There was an unlocked door right behind him, safety within inches, but trying to scream the 5 metres to let him know, he could not understand a word. He was soaked through and through. The thought of being surprised on the road in an open scooter would get the heart pressure up (pea to golf ball size hail often part of the greenish storms).

Being alone at home is another of many issues that can fill one with fear. Just the knowledge that someone is nearby, in the next room, in calling range, is enough to calm such fears. The mobile phone is always charged and hangs attached on the clothing. Overall the manual (none motorised) wheelchair has many benefits, is reasonably cheap, fits folded into cars, is lightweight, self or push drive. My late wife too managed to overcome the ‘feeling’ that the word wheelchair instils. Calling it wheels or wheelie takes the edge off a little. She never had the strength to move her meagre weight, inside the house was about the limit. But each hill, the downhill side, she did enjoy being able to choose any direction she wanted. Learning to come to grips with the milestones in life, like parenthood, becoming grandparent, a pensioner, wheelie, all take some time before one ‘is’. Living it has its benefits, memories, the scent of a flower, the sniffing snout of a deer, the sound of a creek, a million totally normal things can be experienced by accepting the wheels as a means of transport, as device, that enables the going there. Shopping together becomes easy, the left hand pushes the wheelchair handle, right hand the trolley and somehow, they become a unit that moves as one.

Not everyone will feel comfortable in a simple wheelchair, especially if one spends a lot of time in it. Billy, whom I met recently, has the motorised version. She arrived in a special maxi taxi; a hydraulic lifting device at the rear of the bus brought her to the ground. No normal family car can cope with such a chair. There are only a fixed number of special taxis in the area, so waiting times of over an hour are not unusual. Pre-booking guarantees that one will come, but ‘when’ is another matter. An accident put Billy into the chair over 20 years ago. She has digital readout, a monitor showing her angles of seat, backrest, has adjustments under the seat, in the seat, massaging programs, but it is missing a coffee maker to get all 100 of my points. I have never heard of one of these fairly heavy chairs tipping over. Forward and behind the main drive wheels are large type castors that prevent tipping in the two directions. In Billy’s case, one could compare it with the extra wheels on drag racing cars, she’d understand that. She has another as well; it’s a drive-in motorcycle tricycle. And she can ride it as well, Hell yeah. Some of the motorcycle clubs around town do a lot of charity work, for kids in hospitals, Christmas, Easter etc, and Billy is often the honorary leader of the pack, followed by a few hundred noisy sisters and brothers, carrying fluffy toys and teddy bears, and Santa is going to get the cobwebs blown out of his beard as well.

Two months ago Billy tipped over, it was evening time, nice breeze in from the ocean, perhaps just a bit too dark to notice the hole in the footpath and the heavy chair tipped on its side. Her mobile phone safely at home, and so she was at the mercy of the Gods for the next hour. She did not sustain additional injuries, eventually, a passer by alerted the ambulance and all worked out OK. She’ll be busy in the next few weeks doing charity drives.

Jenny loves rock concerts, and would love to be able to see the stage with her favourite band. Mostly the tables and seats are arranged in a big arc around the stage (meals are served as well). Within an hour, people will be dancing right between stage and the tables, and that’s the end of seeing anything. Pushing your way through a group of dancers, and many are young kids having fun, letting loose, is fraught with all sorts of dangers for Jenny. She has a rare bone disease and any sudden jolts in her case is life threatening. We did manage to get to one side of the stage, she enjoyed it and I stood guard, so that none accidentally fell into her.

I met Patsy too and it took a little while to be able to communicate. When communication is hard to do, one speaks in words, not sentences. It takes a little practice, mostly on my part, in understanding her unique way of expression. Her wheels are also electric power and she shifts her body weight throughout the evening. I was amazed of the accurate control she had over her wheels. A small joystick on her left side, several switches, yet eating and drinking is not without its risks for Patsy. Everyone I know in wheels is an expert in controlling their machines, except some.

The newbie wheelies are different. Ted, at the turn of retirement, an around the world trip with his wife, planned for a long time, came to a sudden end, when hit by a stroke. Ted can not open any butter, jam or even squirt Tomato Sauce at meal time. How many times we sat together and his bread was flying off his plate? Every time, it did amplify his new condition resulting in much distress. Ted is still in the stage of digesting what had happened. Next to Ted, Chen, a man from Vietnam, had learned to manage with one moving arm. Every day his wife came in, brought him Vietnamese delights, steaming hot, unpacked a bag full of things, and best she could tried to explain what it is. Language was signs and pictures made by the hands. She mothered her husband, she mothered Ted, she could not do enough in giving. Three times a day she came. A person like that seems like an angel. Ted loved her in a way that she stood on the highest pedestal there is. Chen had an infectious laughter, nodding mostly, gesticulating; language without words, if it was right he was very happy, if not, he tried his best to get there. Chen was a fast eater, never took his time. Often, I thought of my older brother, who had acquired a whole assortment of sayings, idioms to do with food. ‘Eating whilst standing up is a crime against one’s health,’ is one of them, ‘Chew long and slow,’ is another. In hind sight, I could find much wisdom in some of his words, it would allow time for saliva creation, time for the stomach to register what is coming down and signal the ‘enough’ watcher. I thought I had a sweet tooth, oh no, Chen’s is a lot sweeter. He buttered his bread and sprinkled something on it, intrigued I enquired. It was a small mountain of sugar. No matter what he put after, the base coat was butter and white sugar. Within a few seconds he pushed one over the table, nodding, full of encouragement with his beautiful smile (I translated that as: ‘It’s not going to kill you, have a go’). The sugar crunched between my teeth, like rocks in a mining crusher. White is not my favoured colour in sugar. His wife did it the same way. Chen’s wheels didn’t mean anything to him, I rarely saw him drive it, and if he did, he bumped into things a lot. He only had one hand to use; the other was in permanent sleep. Moving the hand over, to turn the other wheel never really worked out with Chen. In his eyes one could see his pleading, ‘get me out of this mess.’ Chen accepted his wheels like a diver accepts a bottle to breathe from. He never fought with it; he was just not interested in it. His face always mirrored his inner calm, an easy happiness, no fights with anything.

Ted still needs time. I made sure I stayed long enough to sit with Ted alone. In a way I guess, he is still trying to rewind time, why, why now? His wife was on his mind, the gift he could not give to her, the future he would bring her now, like this, why? And as the dining room emptied we hugged, and streams of tears freed from his eyes. Such tears wash away a lot of poisons, so another friend explained to me once; he is a professor and authority on blood and heart, that’s another story. Ted has a heart of gold, a soft spoken man, probably a lifetime worth of love shared with his wife. Becoming a burden to her in time to come is his worst fear. In the afternoon of life some want to put their feet up and just watch the sunset in peace.

I had several extended stays in the same hospital; my first day was also when Tihana was admitted. Tihana is a wheelie newbie and can not really relate to it. She’s Croatian, and I suspect she had a fairly traumatic life. A lot of fear in her eyes, nothing to do with being in a wheelchair, she’s very shy and would have been content hiding behind a long curtain. It took a week of sharing meals to exchange simple human acknowledgment that were slightly more than avoiding eye contact. We spoke in gestures, too few. Her granddaughter was fluent in both languages and built small bridges.

Somehow, when I think of someone, I get this one summarising image of the person. With Tihana, it was when I walked past her room, she was reading something. I stood in the doorframe and said ‘hello’. She put the book down and smiled, there was a peace in her nod, a return smile. She did never use words, but this was as good a ‘hello’ as any. This is her picture in me, instantly available. My room was next to hers.

Thinking of Chen, one starts to grin for no reason, that’s Chen in one picture, his wife’s little pots are there as well, she endlessly fussing over him. Ted leaves an overwhelming feeling of the love he has for his wife. I never met her, but she is his treasure. Patsy has not yet her picture burned in me, I don’t know her well enough. Jenny has this huge smile, sometimes her small dog on her lap, but the community involvement, the massive amount of knowledge in her surrounding is what shapes Jenny’s view within, a very capable organiser down to the details. She is also advisor / consultant in wheelie and related matters, and knows the place inside out. Inspirational would be the word for Jenny, if it had to be condensed. Her skin is marked like a roadmap with straight lines crisscrossing another. Each line represented the need for another operation. Underneath all are the bones that will never be normal. How many lines? Does it matter? No need to count, no one has enough fingers and toes to count them.

My image of Billy’s is double sided, definitely a lady of style and poise, painted toe-nails, high heels, high fashion and the down to earth opposite of it all, outspoken, adventurous, actively involved in many charities and good causes.

The Captain is stored too. Many faces stored at instant recall, some without names, many trying to cope, who have not yet found a balance are there as a group picture. Paul is walking now, but still the image I have is his Banana distribution, a grin like a little mischievous kid, but always meaning well.

One man appeared to not let anything get in the way. No doubt he ran a business and that is what he was doing, straight from the hospital. It would not surprise me him getting back to his office, his managers asking ‘Where did you leave your leg?’ his response perhaps, ‘Leg, what leg? Ah, yes, give me last months’ balance sheets.’

Jess I met just once, in emergency, he was still wearing the colours of his club. I didn’t like all that much the messages in his tattoos, but they were clearly made in another time, the younger days of rebellion. Realities for Jess were his legs now, he still had both, solid red, hot, swollen, his toes turning colour. His Harley slid in the wet. He was on the ‘before’ side, trying to cope with that.

Caren is still pumping weights, looking great, so totally independent. Julie will turn 22 soon. She is no longer a wheelie; she has become a walker, so grown up and blond, somewhat different from the girl who gave all once a rose of hope, and she still shares her joy.

As I think of Caren, Speedy Gonzales for some reason pops into my head. Perhaps both share ‘speed’ as getting from A to B. Speedy Gonzales is not her name, but the first thing that came into my head is the first moment we met. Margret is a lively soul, nearly ran me over in a shopping centre with her scooter. She has the luxury model, decent headlights, a basket, seat with armchair and number plates, long antenna (a stick with a flag). She lives in the suburb nearby and we only ever meet in the shopping centre, so often now that one expects to see her there as a part of it, but she’s not. I am a little worried, as I have not seen her for some weeks, but no one lives in a shopping centre. She’s getting on in years, hope she’s OK. Margret is a joy to watch, she moves a yard and stops to talk to person 1, moves another yard and has a session with person 2. One can easily do the shopping, she may have moved some yards, not all too many, as each time she meets a face she had not seen, and catch up time is certain.

It seems she knows everyone in town, she drives to them, they go to her. Sometimes her smile and open laughter stops, she can listen, give one her full attention, then holds the arm and says, ’it’ll be right, you’ll see’ and crowns it with a heartfelt squeeze. She can walk some steps, parks her scooter outside the toilet, locks it and hopes it still is there when she returns.

After my wife died, our dear friend of so many years said to me with a smile, ‘I knew she was ill all along, she wanted to protect me. I knew.’ Love has many faces. Infection becomes the biggest enemy, and when it came to my friend, we looked at each other, both knowing. Her picture in me is of a healthy woman who happened to walk with a limp, from the day we first met, it had never changed.

In looking at what each went through, perhaps facing death is common in many. Many come out of such an experience with a fire for life, with an inner strength, a purpose of living that turns each day into an unforgettable experience. Loosing a leg is not a death sentence, but getting one is only fully understood by the receiver. Often illness is a delayed death sentence. It is also a life sentence. Death does not come until it gets here, until such time there is life. Lance Armstrong is still alive today, giving hope to millions that a doctor’s death sentence is not necessarily correct. And even if it were, it is one’s own choice to believe it or believe in overcoming it. The zest for life in all who faced adversities can be so infectious, and in that, I believe, each shares with all a unique gift.

© Heinz Ross, Gold Coast, Australia
29 Nov 2008



Joined August 2008

  • Artist
  • Artwork Comments 2

Artist's Description

Wheelies deals with some of the issues that can influence one’s life. Suddenly or over time, little things become big, big things reduced, loose their importance.

Artwork Comments

  • C J Lewis
  • Heinz
desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait
desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait

10% off

for joining the Redbubble mailing list

Receive exclusive deals and awesome artist news and content right to your inbox. Free for your convenience.