Living with a handicap: ten months on

There is a man who walks the roads around where I work. I see him sometimes around lunch hour. His left arm seems to be twisted, against his will, straining away from him. The thumb points outwards and the palm faces away and it looks like it hurts all the time.

For the longest time I’ve been too fearful to ask. Afraid to engage. Because it’s not just the hand. He has lots of problems. There’s the stoop. He’s virtually doubled up. And the shuffled limp. And the padded, bright yellow safety helmet that suggests a wrong softness within. It lets little wisps of old man white hair poke out here and there. Today in the slim breeze by the rail crossing those wisps seemed to reach for me and repel me at the same moment: Stay away. I’ll make you confront your good fortune and your cosy life and things might not ever be so comfortable again.

I should have stepped back.

But I am not myself these days. Changes happened back there somewhere. If the little boy in The Sixth Sense could see dead people, then I seem to have acquired the gift of seeing live ones. Ones who had hitherto been marginalised by the fit, healthy Leni Riefenstahl-sponsored part of my brain that refused to look directly – really, truly look – at anybody with an obvious mental or physical condition. What if they tore my comfort zone from around me? What if… what if I caught something from them? The cells of my fit body would recoil from the very thought of such grotesquerie.

Until Jacob.

Leni Riefenstahl my backside. God has no more love for my beautiful chromosomal symmetry than he does for my ‘damaged’ son’s awkward perfection. And something happened inside at a level that I don’t ever expect to understand. I saw beyond, to what the old man was. Not some sideshow freak, but a man with more difficulties than me.

The barrier was still down, the DART pulling out from the platform towards town. The helmet looked uncomfortable. I leaned down and saw the person in his eyes. I’ve been so foolish for so long. I smiled a smile that reflected, I hope, the love I felt for humanity.

‘How are you getting on today?’

‘Oh fuck off and ask me arse.’