Up Front and Personal

Girl in a Wheelchair: Post-COVID Lessons

By Arockia Dhas Rayappan 

It was a rainy day. On my way to the residence, I saw “Danielle” in a wheelchair, playing with the raindrops at the main entrance of the Vanier Library at Concordia University, Montreal. She looked happy and relaxed. It is not unusual to see students either with an arm cast or a leg cast on the university campus. 

Presuming she was a graduate student who might have hurt herself playing rugby, I began a conversation with her. I soon learned that Danielle, a Catholic, was a New Yorker and Montrealite. She was healthy and disabled/challenged. She had a normal childhood like other kids her age until she was diagnosed with a sickness that landed her in an electric wheelchair. Despite consultations with the best doctors, her physical condition remained the same, and she remained in a wheelchair. 

Visiting the library was one of Danielle’s favorite hobbies. She loved it, though she did not end up always reading books during her visits. She was happy to visit the library and have a glance at the books and see students seriously involved in some academic work. By the time of our encounter, she had succeeded in self-managing her life. In a way, her parents had been training her to be independent through those visits. I found her to be mature, wise, discreet, and composed while she spoke of her family. 

I introduced myself as a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Delhi in India. Danielle smiled back, “Really, Father? I used to love going to church on Sundays when I was little. Now I cannot, and I don’t go because it’s difficult for my parents to get me ready for church. Sometimes I cause a lot of inconvenience to others in the church.” 

Those words of sincerity and genuineness touched me. I assured her and her family of my prayers even though, in my heart, I disagreed with her that she could cause any inconvenience. 

During our conversation, I asked Danielle about her experience during the lockdown and her thoughts on COVID, eagerly posing a few questions. Her instant reply was, “Tough! It’s tough! COVID times were tough. They weren’t easy.” She gave a pause. We were silent. The silence was meaningful too. I asked her, “What life lessons did you learn during the pandemic?” 

She replied, “It is very hard and difficult to spend time with people we love the most, but it is very important, nonetheless. And it’s worth it.” 

I probed further, “Who are these people?” She, with a saccharine smile, replied, “The people are my family. They could be your family too!” 

I started admiring her wisdom. Regrouping myself, I asked about the other lessons she learned during the lockdown. 

She said to me, “My friend’s parents who died of COVID will never come back. Those who died are dead. We will never see them again.” 

By then, my respect and reverence towards her grew twofold. She self-drove the electric wheelchair towards the van that would bring her home. I stood there till the vehicle that carried her moved far from my sight. Then, I began to reflect. 

Was Danielle the voice of those countless kids and teenagers and youth who had to stay indoors during the lockdown? Do we spend time with the people we love the most? The loving people in our lives could be Jesus, Mother Mary, Saint Joseph, siblings, family members, friends, colleagues, and co-workers. How much do we value them? Has the lockdown and aftermath of the pandemic made people come closer to Jesus and deepened their faith? 

I also reflected on the meaning of life and death. Will I not meet my family members after their death? How do I understand my belief in heaven after the pandemic? 

Instantly I was reminded of Jesus’ words to Saint Martha, “Your brother will rise … I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11.25- 26). 

Our Christian faith assures me that we would meet our beloved ones in heaven. The dead ones are not dead. We would meet them again in heaven. Then, I was struck with a thought: Can I learn some new life lessons from Danielle’s sharing? 

I was reminded of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (Matthew 18.3-5). 

Let us recall Danielle’s reply: “It is very hard and difficult to spend time with people we love the most, but it is very important, nonetheless. And it’s worth it. … Those who died of COVID, we will never see them again.” 

Does she affect our outlook on life, persons, faith, and friendship? Does she throw light on the way we live our faith? 

In a speech to his fellow cardinals before the conclave that would elect him as Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio invoked the image of Jesus knocking at our door. He acknowledged that this metaphor, drawn from the book of Revelation, placed Jesus on the outside, waiting to come in. But then the future Pope reversed the image and asked about all those times Jesus knocked from the inside trying to get out. He advocated for the Church to be one with open doors and not simply to welcome those who might want to come in. 

The Church must open its doors so that the whole people of God can go out to a world in need — out to those on all the peripheries of life, those on the edges of sin, pain, and injustice, those trapped in ignorance, indifference to religion, and those enduring all forms of suffering. 

May Jesus, God of the poor, the sick, and the disabled, gently knock at the door of our conscience. To his gentle knocks, let our response be Ignatian: generous, magnanimous, ever available, and totally obedient for the greater glory of God. 

Arockia Dhas Rayappan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Delhi, India. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. studies in Ecclesiology at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.