My mom and I zigzagged up the road through Great Cottonwood Canyon, the air getting cooler as Salt Lake City grew tiny in the distance behind us. The fall colors were peaking and we took turns pointing at the shimmering mountainside as the morning sun hit endless golden leaves. We eventually came to a small rustic lodge, parked, and sat in the cozy lobby area as we waited to be seated at the restaurant inside.
A small family sat in the corner beside us, a mother and father with 2 small children. We exchanged polite smiles and the father asked, “Are you two from around here?” He had a warm, kind demeanor. We explained that we were locals on a day trip, and returning the question, learned that they were traveling for their daughter’s surgery the next day.
I looked at the little girl who had just indicated that she was the one to have surgery. Guessing she was nervous I said, “Guess what? I’ve had spinal surgery, too!”
“Really?” she asked, clearly surprised. Her smile widened a bit while we sat and freely spoke about our unique bodies and their needs. There was no pity between us, just connection and mutual understanding - like two people talking casually about having grown up in the same neighborhood. While we chatted, she adjusted her hair in her hoodie, and I noticed that she had a limb difference of each upper extremity. My heart warmed - not in the infantilizing way that disabled people so often receive - but because I felt validated by this person’s mere existence. I looked down at my own paralyzed hands sitting humbly in my lap. “Same,” I thought.
The conversation with the family was uncommonly familiar. Before we were each invited to be seated at our respective tables they asked, “Do you have any recommendations of places to visit while we are up here?” I explained that at the top of the mountain was a beautiful lake with a boardwalk and that we were headed there ourselves.
Over the next hour, we found ourselves passing each other on the boardwalk, laughing at the same ducks diving for bits of food in the mud and finally found ourselves together at a clear, glassy brook feeding the lake. “You know, it was such a blessing to run into you all today. It just makes a difference to have someone who has been through it”, the mother said. We expressed that the feeling was quite mutual. We said our farewells and right before we left, she said, “Can I get a picture with you and the girls?”
We gathered together and leaned in. As I sat smiling, I noticed that despite being so much older and in a body that could not be more different, I felt more understood by this young person’s experience than I do most adults’. As we watched the family walk back along the creaking boardwalk, I said, “You know, that was so lovely”.
Our meeting left me with a renewed awareness of just how impactful my spinal cord injury has been on my life - in the best way. The response I so often get when I tell people about my injury is “Sorry, that sucks”, but I always think with gentle intrigue, “But… does it?”. Disability is the source of some of the most meaningful experiences of my life, which often includes connecting with others. That certainly doesn’t suck - it’s something I treasure. And I believe that this is the case for so many of us who have experienced struggle and suffering, disabled or not. It’s after experiences like these that I feel a wave of gratitude and think, “My life has gone exactly the way it was supposed to go.”