I can't say I knew Chris well.
We had a relationship that fell somewhere between passing acquaintances
and casual friends. He had a way of popping into and out of my life.
His van service ran the show, dropping him at appointed places,
picking him up at appointed times, so Chris would be here one minute,
gone the next. The limits of our disabilities helped make our interactions
fragmented and compartmentalized.
Read tributes to Chris Hewitt by Raymond
J. Aguilera, Angie McLachlan,
and Mark Moody.
I last saw Chris
at a conference eleven days before he died. I was behind him in
my wheelchair, one I use part-time. He turned around to leave and
in passing he whispered something I could not hear because of deafness
in one ear and the softness of his voice. I wish now that I had
made him repeat what he said.
I knew Chris first
through our mutual connection with the Twelve Step program and later
because we had writing in common. I was learning to write with the
Intergenerational Writing Workshop in San Francisco when Chris attended
a reading of our work. Afterwards he called to praise my piece,
a short essay about being a queer crip man, something he thought
was good enough to be published here in BENT.
That was the first
time I experienced a personal disability/queer connection with Chris.
We discussed our disabilities only a few times. I was never sure
he wanted to and often felt inhibited at asking him; I've learned
that disability can sometimes be too difficult and too personal
for some men to share with each other, but I am gratified he spoke
so eloquently of it in his poetry.
I felt a deep connection
with Chris because of our shared vulnerabilities, although mine
paled in comparison to his. I'm reminded of a time as a small child
when I found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest. It was so
young it could not hold up its head and struggled on the hard concrete
to move back to safety. I took it home and tried to care for it
but was gently reminded by my parents that sometimes we don't know
enough to care for something properly and even when we do, some
beings are just too vulnerable to survive.
I feared I was too
vulnerable to survive, for I too often fell on sidewalks; sometimes
I bent my braces and was unable to get up. I could not trust my
body to overpower gravity. I could not trust my body to keep me
from feeling burning shame when I fell in front of family, friends,
strangers, and worse, boyfriends. My body was unable to protect
me from the judgments of it made by others and it failed to keep
me from my own judgments of it as well. My body, as my closest friend,
was not a friend I could depend on, another feeling Chris and I
From the first time
I saw him, long before we met, Chris was a reminder of my own vulnerability.
He chose to live his life with seeming disregard for all its countless
vulnerabilities: dangerous intersections and treacherous trolley
tracks; wheelchair failure; screwed-up van service; unopened doors;
stares (both spellings); a full bladder; thoughtless remarks, cruel
remarks, demeaning remarks; private acts unwillingly made public;
losing good personal care attendants; enduring lousy personal care
attendants; the knowledge that he had already outlived his life
expectancy; and the worst vulnerability, falling or being dropped.
A few years ago
I visited Chris at San Francisco General Hospital. Once again he
had been hit by a car. In pain from broken bones, he had to be moved
frequently to prevent bedsores. Two hospital attendants asked us
to step outside his room, taking no notice that, through the open
door from the corridor Chris was naked to the world. I was surprised
to notice how much longer his body was, stretched out on the hospital
bed, than the accordion fold of his body I was accustomed to seeing
in his power chair. His skin was creamy white and there was nothing
about him that I found "untouchable."
Chris had his own beauty. He was proud of his hands, writing that
people with his condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, often have long,
slender, beautiful fingers. He was right, he did.
It's only as an
afterthought that I could have joked with Chris about his unlucky
relationship with automobiles. I could say, "Chris, now that I use
a power wheelchair too, maybe we could be two queens playing bumper
cars." I can only guess at his response, but it might be "Go to
Chris was, by no
means, a perfected human being. His reliability was often in question
and on more than one occasion he irritated the hell out of me by
running over my toes or backing into me without asking where I was.
"Chris, get a rear-view mirror, damn it!"
There is nothing
neat or tidy about disability; in fact, it's often quite the opposite.
I helped Chris pee a couple of times. He got more pee on his pants
and fanny pack than ever hit the urinal. I say this only to emphasize
the huge social vulnerability, in addition to the physical one,
that he lived with daily. He had to ask anyone, absolutely anyone,
to help him with some of the most personal things he needed. I can't
imagine doing that every day. He gave new meaning to Blanche Dubois'
assertion, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
Some might call
him brave, courageous, heroicbut those labels sound too much
like Charlton Heston-John Wayne crap to me. Nor did he possess the
kind of Superman heroics non-disabled people enjoy attributing to
us, not, that is, unless you see his wheelchair as the phone booth
in which he transcended his vulnerabilities to emerge wearing an
invisible cloak that protected him in an unfriendly world. Heroic?
No, I think Chris would rather have been thought of as pretty rather
I believe that what
kept Chris going was something more powerfully ordinary than heroics.
He wanted to live, to have friends, to write, to be a part of life,
and in order to do those things he needed to carry all of his vulnerabilities
with him on a daily basis. That's what I'm in awe of, his willingness
to live his life with all that he had to carry, day in, day out,
In what has become
one of his best-known poems, "The
Lifting Team," Chris wrote about being lifted, at the moment
of death, "up, up, high up into the fields of stars."
I like to think that Chris found his Lifting Team and will be carried
and cared for by them until he returns as the mighty poplar tree
he wrote about in another poem, "Reincarnation,"
the tree that, like Chris, is vulnerable, sensitve to every gust,
but is strong and beautiful nonetheless.
© 2004 Michael
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