The Saturday before Easter Mary took me on a long trip. We went to visit our older daughter and our son-in-law, and our three adorable grandchildren. Their home is around seventy miles away from our house.
I know that seventy miles from home doesn’t seem like a long trip to most of you, but anything further than our mailbox is outside of this hermit’s comfort zone. I was somewhat hesitant about getting in the van after our last trip to look at a new neighborhood that is being built nearby didn’t turn out so well.
Unlike the newer smooth-driving minivans with wheelchair ramps, we have a big not-so-smooth-driving Ford van with a hydraulic wheelchair lift. My wheelchair weighs about three hundred and fifty pounds, and I weigh about a hundred and sixty-five pounds. So the lift has to raise and lower over five hundred pounds. Using the controls, Mary lowers the lift so my wheelchair can back onto it. She then raises me to the level of the van where I can then back in. Our van and the wheelchair lift are twenty-one years old, but both work well. Usually.
It was difficult for me to look around the new neighborhood because, like every other muscle in my body, my neck muscles are extremely weak, so with every turn of the van, my head swung back and forth. To people following us, I probably looked like a life-sized bobble-head figure. But, other than having a neck ache when we returned home from our brief excursion, everything went fine. Mary just had to get me out of the van and get me back into the house. If it were only that easy.
After raising the lift halfway, I saw a panicked look on her face. “The lift is stuck!” After she pushed the up and down buttons over and over, I concluded the obvious – I’d be spending the rest of my life stuck in the van. We taught our girls never to call 911 unless it was a real emergency. This situation wasn’t like a heart attack or a car accident, but I knew that Mary and her eighty-six-year-old mother were not going to lift me and my wheelchair out of the van. Mary called 911 and explained the situation, telling them not to hurry, but…
Within minutes I heard sirens in the distance, and they were getting louder and louder. As I sat there hoping that God would somehow keep our neighbors from hearing the sirens and seeing the flashing lights, a big firetruck parked in the street and an ambulance pulled in the driveway. Just ten minutes after Mary made that “no need hurry”call to 911, six men and a woman were standing in front of me scratching their heads.
I have an old manual wheelchair in our garage, and they were able to lift me out of my wheelchair and plop me in that wheelchair. They were then able to lift my heavy wheelchair out of the van and transfer me back. We are so thankful for first responders, I just wish they didn’t have to use sirens and flashing lights. I don’t know for sure, but I think some of my neighbors might have gotten a glimpse of me for the first time. Mary got the lift repaired the following day, and it works great now.
This was actually the second time we had to call 911 because of this wheelchair lift malfunctioning. The first time was a scary situation. About five years before this incident, on our wedding anniversary, Mary and I decided we would pretend that we were a normal couple and go to see a movie. Everything went fine until we exited the theater and saw the pouring rain. Thankfully, our van was parked only about a hundred feet from the doors of the theater. Handicap parking is great. I turned the speed of my wheelchair all the way up, and we made a mad dash to the van. Mary quickly opened the doors to the van and grabbed an umbrella to hold over us as she operated the lift. She’s the best!
Within two minutes I was on the lift being raised up to the level of the van where I would quickly back in, and we’d be out of the rain and on our way home. It didn’t quite work out that way. We heard a popping noise when she was raising me up. “That can’t be good,” I thought.
The lift went all the way up to the level of the van, but there was a two-inch gap between the lift and the floor of the van. This has never happened before, the lift is usually flush with the floor of the van. But, my wheelchair is great, I can roll over high thresholds and other minor obstacles like toys that our grandchildren have left lying around. I figured that getting over a two-inch gap would be no problem.
However, I failed to realize that the lift and the wheels of my wheelchair being wet would make jumping this gap really difficult. I still had the speed of my wheelchair on its highest setting, but couldn’t get over the gap and into the van. I tried again and again. I would inch my way to the front of the lift then quickly pull the joystick back. But when the small back wheels hit the gap, the big wheels would start spinning.
I kept trying. The rain increased. Umbrellas don’t work very well when the wind is blowing. We were soaked. “A few more tries and we’ll go back into the theater’s lobby and wait for the rain to stop,” I told myself. I tried again, and the strangest thing happened, something I couldn’t even imagine. Apparently, the engineers who designed this wheelchair lift didn’t envision this happening either.
When I pulled back on the joystick, the small back wheels got stuck in the gap, and the big wheels began spinning just as in previous times. But, instead of the wheelchair going over the gap and into the van, the floor of the lift shot out from under me, sailing over the parking space next to us and landing against a curb. The boy inside of me thought, “THAT WAS AWESOME!” Then, that pesky rational voice in my head quickly took over, wondering: “If the floor of the wheelchair lift just went skidding across the parking lot, what was holding my wheelchair and me three feet up in the air?”
I glanced over at Mary who looked like she was in shock: “Bill, don’t move.” She obviously forgot that I was paralyzed. Trying to remain calm, she explained that only the outside edges of the tires of my wheelchair were resting on the narrow angle iron that used to support the floor of the lift. If my wheels had not been perfectly centered on the lift, the wheelchair and its occupant would have fallen to one side or the other. It turns out that the only thing holding the floor of the lift to the narrow supports was a strip of double-sided tape.
After examining my precarious state, Mary determined that she could not lower the lift because the small back wheels were stuck in the gap and lowering the lift would dump me out onto the parking lot and the three hundred and the fifty-pound wheelchair would likely land on top of me. She called 911, and some big firemen showed up, crawled over the back seat, and pulled me into the van.
I am so thankful for things like wheelchairs, wheelchair lifts, and especially for this computer that allows someone like me to communicate and type blog posts. But I’ve learned the hard way not to put faith in technology or any man-made things.
Was God holding me and my wheelchair up when the floor of the lift shot out from under me?
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein
It was so strange to be sitting in my wheelchair three feet up in the air with seemingly nothing under me. But, because the outside edges of the two big tires were resting on the narrow angle iron, there is a natural explanation for my wheelchair being suspended in midair. Therefore, I can’t claim that it was a miracle that the wheelchair didn’t fall when the floor shot out from under me.
However, Mary and I believe that this was a miracle because God has been “holding us up” throughout the twenty-two years of my having ALS. Just when we need assistance, He sends family or friends or, in this case, firemen, to help us.
We know that the life of faith can often feel like we’re suspended in midair. There are times that followers of Christ can feel like God has left us hanging. This is where our faith, trust, and hope in Christ are tested and strengthened.
Hang in there. God has not forgotten you.
“Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)