When Down Becomes Up

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on July 14, 2022 # Lifestyle

Aging with a disability — everyone seems to be saying — is not an easy burden to carry, but is it all that different than the everyday coping behaviors we have to invent just to keep on persevering, no matter our age?

I remember a moment in my early 20s when I drove onto the UCLA campus looking for a place to park in the days before handicapped parking places. I was going to be late for an important class since no parking space was available within moderate rolling distance. I noticed all the students hurrying inside the buildings. They disappeared quickly, leaving the campus nearly empty, and I had not yet found a space.

I felt like giving up. How could I ever compete when it seemed I was always the odd man out? When I finally found a place, I took a deep breath and just sat there in my car. I had only been a wheelchair user for a year and already felt defeated. I started to feel sorry for myself. Then my memory tracked back to the day I was injured — lying in the wreckage of a small plane next to my friend, the pilot, who had just breathed his last breath. I was dizzy, felt sick, weak, and was certain I was about to die, too.

When I looked out on the empty campus, a peaceful feeling began to wash over me. I had survived, and I had my life to be grateful for and a chance to begin again. Suddenly the thought of being late to class seemed trivial, not in the least important. I began to notice the birds in the trees and a busy squirrel nearby. That was the day I decided that I had something no one else had, at least no one my age that I knew at the time. Instead of feeling isolated and left out, I began to feel confident in my ability to keep persevering, and to not get upset about things of little importance in the long run.

From that moment on, I had my touchstone, a place I could go in my mind to reawaken feelings of gratitude and good fortune, and no one could ever take it away from me. I began to slow down deliberately and concentrate on whatever I enjoyed, rather than what I felt obligated to do to stay in the race. What race? Who was watching? I was on a different track, my track, one that no one was familiar with but me. I had to make my own life somehow, and that meant I had to find not only what I enjoyed but what I could do independently, and do it as well as I could.

It turned out to be a life of writing, which means a life of paying attention to the details of not only my life, but the lives of others. I had to immerse myself in living for the moment in order to have something worthwhile to say.

Nothing has changed since that day, except I have aged, and am still learning. I still have down days, some of them related to activities I can no longer do due to loss of strength and endurance. I still have those moments when I think back to the day I thought I was dying. Or the day six years later when I thought I was losing my mind. Or the day I fell backwards in my chair and hit my head on hard pavement in the middle of the night. But after a day or two, or a week or a month, I find myself once again choosing to go on and feel grateful for the life I have been fortunate to live.

I don’t have a word that sums up what we all have as humans when we feel down and need to pull ourselves up and keep going, but if I were to choose one, it would have to be resilience. I believe we all have it. As humans we have the creative power of imagination and the ability to envision a path ahead. It is the path to true independence, and when we embrace all that we are and trust that it is a blessing, we can always rejoice in another day.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website, All You Need.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.