One of the curious places that reflection upon disability brings me is to the complicated ties that bind partners with the strains of autonomy and dependency and how like and unlike they are between parent and infant. All sorts of parallels exist. The wheelchair and the carriage, the need for help with dressing and bathing, the limitation of adult responsibilities about the house, the frequent height differential between child and adult and able spouse and the partner in the chair, are a small number of examples.
The infant is properly developing greater agency and develops trust over time that the parent will not only be there when needed, but gradually relinquishes control and supervision as her abilities grow and mature. The frustration of the “terrible twos” is the toddler’s attempts to get a good match between his emerging competencies and the still obvious need for close care and nurturing.
The ambivalence of love and anger expressed through tantrums by both parent and child is eased by the intuitive adult understanding of the natural necessity and passing of the phase.
But what of me, for example. I recognize and dislike my dependency. I feel shame and guilt for my irritation, the burdens I place on others, or my inability to provide the active companionship that most partners offer. I resist asking for help and, at the same time, expect that my need will be noticed.
Compare my relationship with people I love with that between myself and Bodhi. When he was a puppy I was reluctant to leave him. My separation anxiety about his being left was, others stressed, my own projection upon him. I maintained my physical strength through my obligation and love toward my wheelchair bike walking partner.
And now that Bodhi’s neurological deficit makes walking more difficult, and I cannot as easily “walk” with him, he readily accepts the compensation I offer in the form of extra treats. I know that sounds anthropomorphically silly, but Bodhi does not experience shame at his disability and no conscious need on his part to defend against his increasing limits and vulnerability. Nor do I get angry at his accidents and falls, and truly nor do others toward me.
Bodhi, Sanskrit for “understanding” or “enlightenment,” is my teacher in that most difficult of human realizations, practicing the necessary art of being mortal.