It’s a beautiful, sunny day and I’m rolling down the swept sidewalk of California Adventure, Disneyland. With me today and doing the pushing to my wheelchair’s rolling is a family friend and we’re heading to the next ride she wants to do. It’s a “mad mouse” style roller coaster, which means it’s relatively small, with tight turns and sudden stops. The kind of ride you love as a kid but now might hesitate before riding. The line leading out of the ride appears to be long, but the sign assures us a mere half-hour wait.
I hesitate, but not because of the line.
Since when did going on a roller coaster involve a self-examination as to what body part it might hurt? I do not recall this being part of the safety briefing on my last birthday. How is one supposed to plan for this part of aging? Much to my discovery on this recent visit to the Magical Kingdom, the first minute of any ride is spent trying to determine how best to handle the shaking, the bumping, the yelling, the children, etc. without questionable levels of bruising (on me or the children). Not to say that I didn’t enjoy my stay in the Mouse-lands or that I wouldn’t want to go again tomorrow but I hadn’t expected it to hurt.
Next time, I’m wearing padding.
Because I’m in a wheelchair (unlike Hobbits, I am not made for walking long distances), my hesitation at the ride is utterly meaningless if the one pushing me in the wheelchair still wants to go on the ride. To her credit, she asks me if I want to go on the ride.
Yes, I will attend Goofy’s Sky School. Yes, I hear the screaming. No, I’m not an expectant mother. The sign is insistent on this last point.
Having determined our willingness to trust in the design of Imagineers, we proceed to enter the ride queue. Except we don’t enter the queue. We don’t even get in line. The ride operator, bedecked in his Goofy’s Sky School uniform, hands me a lanyard with a card-badge-ID-thingy. I look to the operator with confusion, my assumption is I’ve been deputized by Disneyland to deliver justice. As I wait for further orders, the ride operator clarifies the matter.
“Have a fast pass.”
So, no justice deliveries, I take it.
With that, the ride operator opens a separate gate leading to a short queue for the ride. Ten minutes later, we are on the ride. One minute later, I become aware of why expectant mothers shouldn’t ride it.
If Goofy’s Sky School is an aviation academy by day, then by night it’s Gut Punch Alley.
How, you may be asking, unless you’re an expectant mother, do I get one of these fast passes? There’s a system of picking a Fast Pass up in the morning at special kiosks when the park opens. The fast pass lets you essentially skip the line one time later in the day. Line queues for popular rides can be upwards of two hours, so it’s totally understandable why any sane person would just save their money and roll down the windows on the freeway for much the same effect, but I guess if you want to experience proprietary, one-of-a-kind thrills, the queue time is worth it, and the Fast Passes doubly so.
We didn’t have Fast Passes. We weren’t even in the Kingdom near the time they gave out the last Fast Pass. And yet, simply by showing up, we got the Fast Pass service, ahead of others, for little to no reason other than the ride operator decided to cut us a break. He did something nice for us, and I accepted it without quibble. What a beautiful day.
But really, there should have been quibbles. A lot of quibbles.
In case you weren’t aware, when you roll into Disneyland in a wheelchair, you automatically get a few perks. They have a system where you sign up for a ride you want to ride and you are put into the queue virtually. After the estimated standard waiting time, you are allowed to show up to the ride and within fifteen minutes you are on the ride. You know that new Cars ride they just put in? That sucker has a waiting time of two hours. We went on two rides and I won a Woody doll (the horse racing game) in the time the normal Disney goer waited in line for just the Cars ride.
The Cars ride, Radiator Springs Racer, is pretty fun. I haven’t seen the movie yet.
With this system of virtual waiting in place, the park gives people like me a great advantage over the rest of you. Am I saying the ride operator shouldn’t have given us the skip? Maybe. At the time we were virtually queued for Radiator Springs, so I cannot help but feel we didn’t deserve it.
Then again, life is unfair. And sometimes it’s unfair in your favor. But with that mentality, how does one sleep at night?
I sleep pretty well, although not always at a night. If you must know, and I insist you must, I have sleep apnea and use a machine called a Bipap to maintain air pressure in my lungs whilst I slumber so I don’t stop breathing and die. I’m pretty firm about the not dying, but the breathing is always negotiable. Hooked into the Bipap is a source of oxygen providing two liters of O2 because my lungs are fancy like that. If you’ve ever worked with healthcare, these terms will make sense to you. If you haven’t, write everything down and look it up later. The point of this is to emphasize that I have baggage when it comes to sleeping. Actual baggage, which is different from literal baggage.
Literal baggage is when you travel with a book. I never fly without a copy of either 2001: A Space Odyssey or Asimov’s Foundation. Two books perfect for maintaining tribal unity when you crash land on an island, but, like the flight that crashed on the island, we’re getting off course.
Another act of kindness that will stick with me longer than the whiplash from Goofy’s Sky School happened on the night I believed in Christmas miracles.
It’s a December night in the Atlanta airport and I’m getting off an extremely delayed flight hoping to make one of four possible connections. My earlier connecting flight has left already, apparently my Christmas homecoming isn’t enough to wait an extra two hours. A quick check with the gate attendant in Atlanta confirms my second-worst fear. All but one of these connections are gone. The wheelchair pusher assigned to me, I’m in a wheelchair because that’s how I roll in airports too, understands we may have a mad dash ahead of us. When she looks at me, I’m compelled to make my case that I’m worth the extra effort. With my big blue eyes, I inform her that I believe in Christmas miracles.
She can’t hear me. I repeat my belief in Christmas miracles.
“Yeah, it’s Christmas.”
To be fair, if I’m seeing Christmas decorations and I have amnesia, that kind of reply would be useful, but I’m in full control of my faculties for now. I repeat myself a third time. I BELIEVE IN CHRISTMAS MIRACLES.
“Christmas miracles?” She rechecks the board for the correct gate. “Yeah, you’re gonna need one.”
There are moments in life when you want to cry, but after spending three hours sitting at the gate in California, four hours flying to Atlanta, and five minutes trying to point out the correct gate, one just doesn’t have the time to weep.
Eyes dry, we move swiftly down the terminal. Determined, my pusher knows where she’s going. As we pass other workers of various stripes, and some without stripes, they call out support to our speedy progress. Perhaps it’s the season, perhaps it’s my blue beauties, perhaps it’s just the last run of the day, for whatever reason, my pusher picks up the mantra.
“We believe in Christmas miracles!” When she says it, I begin to believe. When we pass others, she repeats it. They cheer. It feels like one of those movies where people cheer at strangers in airports. Faster and faster we seem to go. The clock on the flight leaving is counting down, but we are on pace to make it!
We believe in Christmas miracles.
The anti-climax of arriving at a gate with minutes to spare is not lost on me, but for the moment, my attention is on making sure I get on this flight. It’s to Lexington, a town two hours from my intended destination and three hours from where my original connection was supposed to land. Unlike Goofy’s Sky School, the Gate Agent Academy taught proper quibbling techniques when a hottie in a wheelchair tries to pull a fast one.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one in want of a seat on an already tight flight.
“Are you aware this plane is landing over two hundred miles from your original destination?”
Yes, but I’m headed to Huntington, I reply, and this information is passed from one agent to another. I imagine the agents as the Sisters of Fate from Greek mythology, or more accurately, Disney’s Hercules, and find the comparison apt.
“Did you know you can fly out tomorrow at 9am to Charleston?”
Remember my trouble with sleeping? I can’t just crash at the airport hotel. I have bags to handle and my portable oxygen machine, the one I travel with, is currently out of commission. My parents have my old one, so it’s not an issue when I’m going home for the holidays, but it is totally an issue when I’m stuck in Atlanta.
I tell the gate agent that I really need to be home for Christmas. Her expression forbids the term “miracle”, but she hands me a ticket. It says “Stand-by”. She tells me I have a seat. I believe her. The other gate agents leave to check something. As I wait to find out which seat I might have on this last flight, the entire gate closes. Across the way, another gate for the flight opens up. Shit.
The herd migrates without dignity to the new gate.
I abandon the wheelchair and make my way on foot. On shoe, really. Crowded around the new gate, the agents in charge announce the lack of seats. Not good. I wiggle my way to the front of the crowd mostly by going unnoticed. A disorderly but recognizably sovereign queue forms, but now I’m off to the side angling for attention and about to get cut out. On the periphery, I wave my boarding pass to get attention The agent nearest the machine that goes Bloop sees me. She takes my pass, prints me a new one with a seating assignment.
Five minutes later I’m sitting on the plane going home for Christmas.
Did I deserve it? Maybe. It’s not like I wasn’t in front of the crowd before the line formed. And I can’t spend the night in a hotel very easily or well. I got baggage! I mean, it’s Christmas okay? My Grandma misses me, right? Grandma?
Assume she said “Right.”
Perhaps the stronger argument isn’t whether or not I deserved to be on the flight, but that I certainly deserved to skip the line at the Goofy’s Sky School ride a lot less. And yet when I compare the two events, I think you know which one I feel the guiltiest about. I don’t know if I actually, or literally, believe in Christmas miracles. And my grandma would never approve, publicly, of chicanery to get on a flight ahead of other people. Every time I’ve flown home since I think about that night in Atlanta, and of the people who were left behind.
But I really did not want to stay there overnight.
So how do I sleep, really? When I feel the pangs of guilt, I feel them, and then I let them go. If they stick around, I remember all the times I got something I didn’t deserve when I didn’t need it, and I pretend that’s what I’m feeling guilty about. Because when I put myself in the shoes of the gate agent, the shoes of my fellow travelers, and I look at myself, I can understand how they might be okay with letting me go ahead of them, even when I feel I don’t deserve it.
Life is unfair but sometimes we have the chance to take control, even for a moment, and make life unfair in someone else’s favor.
That’s how I live with it, at least. To look at it as charity, sympathy, or anything else as a way of denying their help is to rob them of their moment. In order to impart kindness on others we have to allow others to impart kindness on us. It’s the other side of the golden rule we rarely discuss, our human assumption posits us as the doer of good deeds and others as the receiver of good deeds, but this isn’t the way life works. Sometimes, you just have to accept their help and accept you have nothing to offer in return. Where else do you think compassion comes from when the roles are reversed? Toss the ego, chuck the snark, and consider for a moment how much of your human kindness has been shaped by those who have helped you.
For my part, the only true regret I have is not being able to thank them enough.
To the ride operator at Disneyland, thanks for the Fast Pass. To the wheelchair pusher and the gate agents in Atlanta, thanks for getting me home. And to the people in the crowd at that gate in Atlanta, well, frankly, I’m really short and you fools never looked down.