From the Lamp Magazine, Issue 7, St. Rose 2021
I was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder manifesting as a general weakness of my voluntary muscles. Along with it comes a variety of secondary difficulties as limbs atrophy and radical sedentation becomes a lifestyle. Weakness defines my life. And that’s not a bad thing. There’s a sort of vacuum created by weakness, an emptiness which cries for something more. The old canard about opposites attracting isn’t wholly untrue. Whatever one lacks can and often will be made up. My life attests to that. Even when I became fully wheelchair-bound at seven, my parents refused to have me sequestered off with the special-needs students. Instead I was incorporated into the life of my peers. A list of teachers worthy of a Hallmark movie restructured their classrooms, reinterpreted projects, and advocated for equipment so that I could be just another student. In elementary school, my friends took turns pushing me around in my wheelchair (sometimes to my great fear) and even helped move me about the playground when that chair got in the way. As I grew older, pals decked out my chair as a tank, built out ramps to get me on stages, and acted as impromptu caregivers during retreats. As my disability entered into the lives of others, those lives were given the opportunity to change, to transform. The parent knows this intimately—children are born and they must (sometimes against all odds) become strong. The very weakness of these little growing persons makes the parents’ strength. The children, in their littleness, give birth to the parent’s greatness. I became such a little thing, a kind of midwife of the strength in my teachers and friends. Strength without such a midwife is stillborn. I recall only a single instance of what could be described as bullying in middle school. It was sometime in sixth grade. I had taken up with a lunch-hour crew lorded over by an eighth grader we’ll call Tony. With Tony, we’d hang out and talk about the things middle schoolers obsess over —classroom activities, hallway eye-making, and the latest video game news, all of which passed as serious business. I got along well and was friendly with everyone. One day, I rolled out of the cafeteria to find the usual tables empty of my pals. I wandered around to see them by a prominent line of bushes that bordered a wooden patio around a great old oak tree. These weren’t our usual stomping grounds, but no one in the school minded people moving about. The guys were standing there cheering on Tony, bouncing from foot to foot in some sort of preparatory routine. From afar, I paused to watch as he sprinted at the bushes and leaped. A cry of excitement rose, descending into laughter as the boy’s foot caught a gnarly branch and sent him tumbling to the ground on the other side. I grinned, of course, and rolled on over, ready to get in on whatever they were up to. “Can’t let you through, Tomás.” We’ll call the kid who stopped me Steve. Steve was a tiny dude, even by sixth-grade standards, but large in the shoulder, with a kind of doggedness you had to admire. After this event, perhaps out of a sense of great guilt, he’d be a good friend for the rest of that year. “Club rules, Tomás. Sorry.” “What club rules?” “Got to be able to jump over something.” I laughed. Wheelchair jokes were starting to become a thing with me. I still enjoy them. But Steve got in my way as I tried to roll past. “I’m serious, Tomás. We just started the club. You’ve got to be able to jump. Can’t let you through.” Steve was serious but sorrowful. He was carrying out a duty, the role assigned to him of club gatekeeper. It wasn’t consciously hateful. Just unconsciously silly. Steve wasn’t blocking some door to a secret business meeting. He was just getting in my way from crossing an open stretch of concrete. And this club was a wandering mess of children looking for things to jump over. Not specific things. Just things. I tried to laugh at the whole thing, hoping Steve would laugh too and let me through. He did not. Then Tony and the rest came over. “Sorry, Tomás,” said Tony. “You can’t hang out with us. You’ve got to be able to jump over something.” I’m not sure how long we went back and forth but they got it into my head after a few minutes that this wasn’t a joke. Tony had come up with some idea for a club the night before involving the initiatory practice of “jumping over something.” The rest of his lunch crew, recognizing the natural prestige this would grant, jumped on board as soon as he declared it. None had, to my knowledge, thought about what this meant for their buddy in the wheelchair. Everyone will recognize the boyhood yearning for power, the desire to overcome the weakness in oneself and attain the strength of a man. There’s a naturalness to it, but also a danger. Strength needs the weakness of others. Instead these boys, seeking to become some sort of men, were banishing this weakness, which is to say, my own. So it hurt. I started crying, which just made it all the more painful. Then I rolled away. I do remember a parting quip to Tony, memory making it a powerful attack through my tears: “Saw you trip— guess you’re out of the club.” It was probably just an angry garbled insult. This was the first time I had ever felt really weak. Sure, I had enough insight to recognize that I was not going to have an altogether normal life. But to have it brought home to me like this, and made real by a sense of not belonging, was a new sort of experience. And that was the issue. All these other boys, guys I’d laughed and cut up with only the day before were now—not enemies, of course, but not mine. The whole thing blew up soon after. We were a small school and there wasn’t an easy place for a guy in a wheelchair to cry discreetly. Some classmates found me in a hallway. The gentler ones tried to cheer me up, while the more brash decided to get into a schoolyard brawl with the leader of the new club. This inevitably brought the attention of the teachers. That afternoon, our social studies teacher, a young Irish guy, came in red in the face. He was a favorite of us all, energetic, with the quick wit the best teachers use in order to appear omniscient. He probably knew the story had spread, so he didn’t single me out. But he took a moment to be very clear with us. “If I ever hear of any of y’all acting like you have the right to treat someone else like . . .” he paused. “You don’t do that, okay? We’re here to help each other. That’s what we’re here for.” Though this was the only incident of its kind that I recall, I’d be lying if I said that it did not pain me. I found that I became more guarded. My temperament had always leaned toward the phlegmatic and I was very much an introvert. Seeing how easy it was for my weakness to be the grounds for my exclusion, I discovered that it was simply easier not to become entangled with others. From this point on I also found that strength became something of an abstraction, a thing out there, and not in here. Yes, teachers always talked about finding your so-called “inner strength,” of gaining independence. This always seemed patronizing, a request to ignore one’s weakness and to play make-believe, a purposeful blindness to the quarterback’s deep pass, the dancer’s infectious jive, the runner’s sublime endurance. If this was strength I was very weak indeed. Things got better in college. I had made a last minute decision to live on campus and my parents, a pair of saints, moved in with me. The situation needed to be temporary, but we had no clue how to ensure it was. A fellow high-school alum, Andron, stepped up, taking on the role of caregiver—showering, dressing, and transferring me daily—and my parents could (fearfully, I must say!) withdraw to watch from afar. Andron was the first of many caregivers I had through college and after, many of them good friends to this day. They gave of their time and their strength to make up for whatever I lacked in my weakness. An especially poignant example occurred not long after college. Meeting up with some buddies for Tex Mex, I rolled out to find my vehicle gone, towed away at the request of a dutiful C.V.S. employee. It may have been my fault. Their very empty lot was marked “Not restaurant parking” (though the employee almost had a stroke upon seeing just who’s car she had gotten impounded), but either way, this left me staring off into the sky wondering how I would get from downtown Houston back to the suburbs. For all its charm, Houston lacks a robust, much less handicap-friendly, public transport system. Two friends, Ignacio and Jared, were already at work. Both had been attendants of mine. They were already pulling money from an A.T.M. and calling up a third buddy. William drove up in a big S.U.V. with a wide grin on his face. We weren’t close, but he was one of those guys who dropped everything to help out whoever he could, including when this meant loading an overweight invalid into his passenger seat, then wrestling a three-hundred-fifty pound wheelchair (without breaking anything!) into his open trunk. The three got me to the impound and paid for my minivan’s release. We still talk often about that night, and many others. They, with a sense of self deprecating humor, and I with a sense of barely held gratitude and I daresay love. What Tony and my other middle-school classmates didn’t understand that day, what these incarnate angels I call caregivers and friends intuitively appreciate, was that their strength was made for my weakness. So many things that may be humiliating in the moment—and bathing a rotund cripple certainly answers to that description, one imagines—give a kind of luster to their gifts, multiplying the talents so lavishly bestowed upon them. There are still Tonys out in the world, grown up to all appearances. These are men and women who mindlessly see the beauty of physical strength, of a life devoted to it, and seek to laud it by looking down on the weak. You know the type: the right-wing gym devotees, the Bronze Age mindset guys, the ones posting on social media about “gains” and protein and soyboys. It certainly has its appeal. And it’s also funny. Besides, there is a kernel of truth to it. The strength of the body, of a life of discipline and the attainment of might, is a good thing. It is even beautiful. But its beauty is not in self-aggrandizement. It is in the capacity to empty itself. This is the glory of strength, in shining forth in service to weakness. This is Christ in His resurrection. There, in His once broken but now luminous body, we see manifest the whole plentitude of power. Yes, we are drawn to adore this perfect vision of strength, a might that has trampled death. But to halt there is to misunderstand the full extent of that glory. For the Lord, at the apex of creation, and from the very heart of divinity, risen and ascended, still comes down into weakness: no longer His own, but ours, a humiliating descent, hidden in the taste of bread and wine and exercised by the hands of fallible men. By the Spirit, he enters and sustains the most wretched among us, lifting us by gentle and often painful steps to Himself. This is a stumbling block to all the Tonys of the world. Such power, such strength, such might is only made perfect by weakness. Pour forth, says Christ, what my Father has lavished upon you, upon us, and all glory will be had. In my weakness, with atrophied limbs and a sometimes faltering spirit, I’ve been privileged to see this truth made manifest. I have been blessed to be the empty vessel for stronger men to shine forth their glory. That they do so in all humility only makes their actions more beautiful. For this reason I have learned (a goodly bit of the time anyway) to love my weakness, a weakness to which another might respond, looking within himself and seeing anew the power he has been given and the possibility that it can be perfected.
Tomás Díaz educates homeschoolers and teaches college theology in Houston, Texas.