When I think about kindness, I think about Renah and Jayne, both felled by polio and wheelchair bound, at a time when I most needed kindness. Twenty years old, a recent transfer from Simmons College, I arrived at Wayne University and made the impulsive decision to move off campus into an untenable roommate situation. Friendless, far from my New England family, I returned to the thirteen-floor, converted hotel dorm in need of a home.
Dressed in a skirt and sweater, knee socks and saddle shoes, I knocked on Renah and Jayne’s door and was greeted by Renah’s welcoming smile. The lilt in her voice, her innate curiosity at my “preppy” attire, tempered my anxiety as I explained that the housing director had suggested I check out their room.
“Sure, we have an extra bed, by the window,” she said, as she gripped the thick rubber wheels of her chair, nodding for me to follow.
“We have a new roomie,” she called out to Jayne, reading in bed, a hand pulley above to lift her to a wheelchair bedside.
I embraced them; they embraced me. The timing was perfect. That year was filled with lessons of gratitude; our day-to-day consideration of one another filled me with ease. We told stories, shared worries. My new friends taught me how laughter can face down hurt.
At least once a week, I would grab the handles of Renah’s chair to walk the block to a storefront restaurant where we joined our little gang for a “real” meal. The wait staff, customers, everyone knew Renah and as her new “preppy” friend from Boston; I was folded in.
Long before the passage of The American Disabilities Act of 1990, there were enormous challenges for the physically challenged student attending a university. Ramps were not a given, nor were elevators in multi-floor buildings.
At her core, Renah was an activist who could look you straight in the eye and compel you to deal straight with any demeaning innuendo or impediment involving her ability to navigate her life. I recall her persistence as she negotiated a third floor change in a classroom location from the third to the first floor so that she could attend an advanced sociology class.
What would she and Jayne make of the “what is” of now—our Trumpean president, a braggart who boasts how women cannot refuse his advances, his reckless leadership? What would they make of the cascade of women truth tellers sharing their stories of male sexual predators stalking and accosting them in the work place?
In my fantasy, Renah would have kicked Harvey Weinstein right where it hurts. A young woman in a hand-driven wheelchair, she learned to be tough to the core to face the unfair and unkind behaviors she encountered.
It is humbling and gratifying to realize all these years later how the lessons of living side by side with two kind and strong-willed women have infused my resolve to stand up and assert, to write and resist the tyranny of entitlement and abuse.