I met my friend Andrew in Miss Moyes’ music class at The Hobart College. It was my first day of school as an exchange student in Tasmania. I was overwhelmed and feeling lost on the campus. At home in New York, I was one of sixty-four students in my grade. Now I was one of 1,400 students – and the only one using a wheelchair. Andrew walked into class, smiled at me and sat down in the desk next to mine.
G’day. You’re new!
I quickly learned Andrew had a dry wit, and usually got a stern look from Miss Moyes when he made me laugh with his comments during class. Over the next two months, Andrew and I got to know more about each other. He was someone I could trust to tell me the truth when other students tried to teach me slang words which meant something completely different in Australian English than American English.
On our last day of school, we had a party in class. Andrew asked if he could sit in my empty wheelchair as someone had taken his seat. I have a few photos from that party. Andrew is seated in my chair in all of them, smiling broadly.
Andrew and I saw each other again when I returned to Australia in 1996. As a graduation present to myself upon completing graduate school, I spent three weeks in Tasmania visiting my friends and host families. Andrew was living in Sydney and offered to host me for a few days before I flew back to the United States. I jumped at the opportunity.
I was no longer able to walk in 1996, but Andrew quickly adjusted to my new “normal.” Sometimes when extended amounts of time pass between visits with friends, my changing abilities take some friends by surprise. Andrew asked me questions about my disability, which we had never really discussed during my exchange year. For the first time, I honesty acknowledged my anger and disappoinment with a body which did not cooperate with all my mind wanted it to do. He listened with an empathetic ear over tea in his living room.
You need a night on the town! We’ll go out tomorrow.
I have so many fun memories from those days and nights in June 1996, but the one which makes me laugh the most involves my night out with Andrew. I can’t remember the names of all the bars and pubs we visited on Oxford Street. What I do remember is being slightly more than tipsy as I was carried in my manual wheelchair up a flight of stairs by two drag queens while Andrew climbed a few steps below us.
No worries – I won’t let you fall all the way to the bottom if they drop you!
As soon as I knew I would be returning to Australia, I contacted Andrew to see if he would be available for a visit if I spent some time in Sydney. My friend Ulla was also planning to come to Sydney. The three of us, along with my cousin Kelly and Ulla’s boyfriend Carlos, spent two fun evenings together. We talked nonstop, laughing over wine and food. The hours passed quickly and all too soon we were saying farewell as I prepared to fly home again.
Andrew – thank you for all the many laughs you have given me during the past twenty-five years. Through our friendship I have learned important lessons about tolerance and diversity. The many laughs we have shared are some of my best memories from my times in Australia. I promise to return the favor when you come visit here. I can’t promise to find drag queens willing to carry a wheelchair up a flight of stairs at 3:00 AM, but I’ll do my best!