I met my guest blogger, John McCosh, and his wife Kristen at the Ms. Wheelchair American pageant almost ten years ago. Kristen was representing Massachusetts in the pageant and John was one of the amazing “Mr. Wheelchairs” as I called them that year. Our friendship developed over the next year during Kristen’s reign as the national titleholder. These days social media helps keep us connected. I am grateful John accepted my invitation to share a post for this year’s 30 Days of Thanks. After you read today’s post, you can follow John on Twitter: @johnmccosh.
The Perfect Wheelchair Trap
From our stateroom balcony, I watched the trail of crushed water our cruise ship left behind in a white boil. I was transported by the visual of the mesmerizing evidence of man made energy posted against nature’s historic depths trailed out atop an empty water horizon.
I thought about the liquefaction, the reinvention, the breaking, and the making of the earth; about Vesuvius and the changes the volcano would wreak; about Pompeii and Herculaneum. I thought about dusty Rome thanking the skies for rain.
Crossing the wine dark sea of the Mediterranean, I thought about how my home city, Boston, was more of a European city than I had, until recently, realized.
But I mostly thrummed with the emotion of having fallen into the perfect wheelchair trap.
My wife Kristen and I had spent the day in Marseille. The access coordinator on our cruise ship had said it couldn’t be done–there was no way for a wheelchair to get around, but, as we often do, we went anyway and made it happen.
We were dropped off by the shuttle bus at the mouth of the Old Port. The last bus back was leaving at 2:15 and all aboard the ship was 3:30. We walked down to the historic port and could see Notre-Dame de la Garde crowning the high elevation border of the city. We knew we wanted to make it there.
I wrestled up some old high school French lessons and found a hop on, hop off bus tour. We bought tickets and toured the city, passing the rock in the harbor that was the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. We made it to Notre-Dame. I pushed and pulled the wheelchair along a rocky slope beside a long set of inaccessible stairs as we made our way to the foot of the church and looked out over the sweeping expanse of France’s second largest city and its largest Mediterranean port.
We were having a great day.
On schedule, we finished the tour and did some shopping back at the Old Port and made our way through the ancient part of the city. What we didn’t realize was that the Old Town made a steady climb, over a hundred feet above the sea.
I knew we were on track to get to our bus in plenty of time, but when we rounded the last corner, by the Eglise Saint-Laurent church we realized there was no way down. The ancient stone wall was a modern wheelchair barrier. There were long, winding sets of steps but no ramp or elevator.
But we still had time. We crossed the footbridge to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, traveling right over our bus stop.
We had no idea the trap had been sprung. The French spoke enough English to understand we wanted to come in, but not enough to tell us you can’t exit to the street in a wheelchair.
Time was draining from the clock as we made our way through the building and the grounds. It was twenty minutes later when we realized we had to turn back!
We passed over the bridge again, back to the Eglise Sait-Laurent side—the side with out bus parked below. We considered backtracking through Old Town, but that was going to take too long. We zoomed down the road parallel with the bus route.
Kristen’s wheelchair was at full speed, me jogging beside. A quarter mile down the road we reached an elevator next to a huge set of stairs leading down to the lower elevation. It was broken.
A mild panic set in. We set off again, away from the bus, but parallel to the road to which we needed to descend. We checked a church for an access route as well as a set of stores, all the while making progress in the wrong direction, away from the bus. We finally made it to a thoroughfare, but there was still no path down in sight. We were stuck in a high place.
We were now more than a kilometer away from the bus. Even if we made it to the road we’d have to backtrack a considerable distance, and who knows what other barriers there might be.
We flagged down a woman who had just parked. We asked about transportation options, and she said it was difficult to get a taxi here, but she called anyway, our interpreter. The taxi said they were too far away but called another service.
We were forty-five minutes from all aboard. Our passports were on the ship along with most of our money and credit cards as we’d heard to be on the lookout for pickpockets and didn’t want to chance carrying them. Also, our two traveling companions were on-board with no cell service activated here. Our next stop was Barcelona, and I had no idea how we’d catch the ship if we missed it.
I spotted a taxi, my wife ducked out of site so the wheelchair wouldn’t scare him off. He stopped, and he spoke very little English but I was pretty sure he knew our ship. We broke the wheelchair down, taking out batteries, and collapsing the new wheelchair for the first time. We put it in the trunk and drove off.
We made the port, drove past the guards, and were virtually alone on the pier beside the ship with less that thirty minutes to spare.
On our balcony of the Norwegian Epic, I caught a reflection of my wife brushing out her long, blonde hair. We were on our way to dinner, and I knew I’d be thanking her for the adventure over dinner as we told our friends what had happened. And later, when we would walk the deck of that modern ship in an ancient world I’d think how much fun our life has been. I knew we’d talk about the trap we’d escaped and how thankful we both were to be on course together.
But for now I watched her traverse the low ramp out onto the deck, and I poured dark wine into crystal and proposed a toast to the sea.