Parking Lot Life Lessons

“To speak, or not to speak; that was the question…” -- Me, badly paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Not long ago, I encountered a situation at the corner of Multiple Sclerosis and Moral Dilemma that required a quick decision without much time to reflect—a sketchy prospect for me even under the best of circumstances!  But this happened after one of “those” nights of particularly intense pain when I’d unfortunately missed the tiny window of opportunity to take medication in order to sleep and reasonably function the next day free of side effects (“reasonable functioning” being especially important that weekend because I needed to drop Oldest off at a basketball tournament before undertaking a 3-hour drive).  The next morning, I made several vulture-esque circles around the overflowing parking lot(s) before finally deciding on a handicap parking spots in front of the school gym.  After depositing Oldest with the team, I headed to the parking lot and passed a small group of his classmate and their parents, who happened to be closely followed by another man whom I recognized as the head coach of another basketball team from our town.  I’d heard he’d undergone some type of recent knee surgery, and he was using one of those “kneel and move along” kind of scooter apparatuses during his recovery and physical therapy.

I was almost in my car when I heard his loud comment, laced with disdain and dripping in judgement:  “Ok that kind of thing just ticks me off… Why the h*** is she parking in that handicapped spot?!”

I instinctively knew that although I wasn’t necessarily meant to hear the comment, it was meant to prove a point—whether I was faking, lazy, or a despicable combination of both, I certainly didn’t appear at face value to deserve parking where I was.  Aside from being embarrassed that people I knew were within earshot of Coach Scooter (or stunned that a coach for impressionable grade school athletes could make such an ignorant statement), I felt hot indignation that someone had the nerve to comment that I found using what Oldest calls “Superstar Parking” a matter of quick convenience, rather than downright necessity.

Unexpectedly, my issue with handicapped parking “privileges” had evolved from occasional clandestine use into a personal question of whether to address such an ignorant comment or swallow my indignation move on.

I could see the father of one of my sons’ friends speaking to Coach Scooter, who was gesturing pointedly in my direction.  I actually found myself hoping the dad was enlightening this guy to the reason behind my handicap parking designation, and my cowardice surprised and disappointed me.  I briefly but grudgingly considered speaking to Coach Scooter myself before ultimately deciding against it:  I was already so exhausted, I still had a long drive ahead of me; I was embarrassed enough already… and why make a scene that could cause my son grief?  I backed out of the parking lot and started on my way.

Face the Situation or Berate Myself?

That lasted about 3 blocks—because I knew I had to go back and face the situation or berate myself for the rest of the day for being a Big Huge Wimp.  See, I’ve matured enough to accept that it is nobody’s job but mine to stand up for myself, and that seizing an opportunity to speak is often the only option available in fighting the good fight.  Frankly, the only thing different today from the other times I’d used handicap parking—when I would see with my eyes and feel with my heart the disdainful looks of others as they mentally criticized a thirtysomething woman who looked perfectly capable and entirely mobile—was Coach Scooter had at least the audacity, if not the stupidity, to openly say what other people generally just kept to themselves.

And as I parked my car again, I admitted to myself why I’d hesitated to speak up the first time:  the reason I knew the origin of such shameful prejudices about individuals who “looked just fine” while using those designated spots was because before my world had been irrevocably altered by MS, I had once possessed such thoughts myself.

So I figured I possessed just enough bravery, recklessness, and hard-won self-respect to embrace this chance to speak up for myself, but also as a tribute to anyone who lives under the quiet shadow of other people’s patronizing judgment.

Karma has a terrific sense of humor and likes a good audience, so when I returned to the gym I found Coach Scooter Man mere feet away from where my son was sitting with some of his teammates!  For an instant I almost abandoned my decision to speak because it could mortify my son in front of his friends, and I was already nervous this unplanned advocacy thing was happening in public.  But instead I gave Oldest a reassuring smile, took a deep breath, and faced Coach Scooter.

Explaining the Invisibility of MS

In a tone as respectful and non-accusatory as I could manage, I explained I’d heard his comment outside about the woman parked in a designated handicapped spot.  I asked him to please remember that while his disability was both noticeable and likely temporary, many others live with invisible agonies that are permanent and progressive—and there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t gladly hand over our handicap parking placards if it meant we could live disease-free.  I wished him a speedy recovery, and hoping to make him feel really rotten because he coached a Catholic school, I finished with this: “I’m a single mother with MS, and I’m raising 3 boys.  Maybe you’ll remember this conversation and consider praying for my sons and me whenever you see a handicapped parking spot.”

(OK, yeah that might have been laying it on a little thick.  But hey, if I’m barely an advocate; I’m definitely not a saint!)

It’s a good thing I didn’t have high expectations for the outcome.  I wish I could say Coach Scooter apologized—he didn’t.  In fact, he went from playing dumb to denying the comment had even happened to throwing the blame on someone else in his company.  And I wish I could say he respectfully heard what I had to say—but he didn’t do that, either.  He did, however, manage to patronize me with his tone while repeatedly trying to talk over me by saying “it was all good”.  Honestly, I wanted to smack the condescending look off his face as I assured him that I would be the one to decide if “it was all good”—and it most certainly was not—but I kept my comments more brief and respectful than he probably deserved.

I gave Oldest a quick wave as I left and was almost at the door when I suddenly felt a strangling hug around my neck.  It was my son, who had caught up to say, “Mom, I was kinda worried when I saw you come back in the gym.  But I heard what you said to that coach, and I’m glad you told him he shouldn’t judge who parks in handicapped spots.”  With that, he gave me another big, awkward squeeze of pure adolescent love and happily bounded back to his teammates where he belonged.  I remained fixed to the spot, suddenly aware that perhaps the person most impacted by my efforts as an “activist” wasn’t Coach Scooter at all, but my own child.

To Speak, or Not to Speak

I find it much easier to decide which one to do when it comes to my job as a mother, but as an advocate, I’m less confident.  Will my words matter?  Is the physical, emotional, or intellectual effort even worth it?  Am I going to do more harm than good if I share my insight?  How funny that I seldom question myself like that when it comes to doing what’s necessary to parent my kids!  Instead, I stumble awkwardly through each and every imaginable situation that could possibly unfold courtesy of the personalities of 3 wildly different sons:  drawing on the inner strength God always provides me when I think I just can’t “give” anymore to the task at hand, critically assessing my own past choices in an effort to do better next time while hoping some nugget of wisdom I share with them might be the one that “sticks”.  But mostly, I am totally making it up as I go!

So maybe for me, speaking up about my illness is really a form of respectfully parenting a naïve public.  It isn’t easy, it is almost never fair, nor is it generally appreciated (making it alarmingly similar to my actual job as a mother)!  It’s pretty weird to think that simply by raising my kids and trying living the best life I possibly can, with regards to the information and experience I’ve gained as a woman (who just also happens to be chronically ill), might itself be a form of MS advocacy.  But if I’m lucky, maybe the investment will positively influence the decisions of the 3 young people I’m trying to raise—in addition to enlightening a few boorish older ones who should already know better.

What are your experiences with deciding whether “to speak, or not to speak”?  Have you ever regretted speaking up, or later wished you had done so?

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