“So, how much did you pay for them?”
Four over-inflated rubber wheels stared at me from the top shelf in our garage. Smooth and grey, the tires looked like fat, curled up seals. Gary bought them online for our daughter’s wheelchair. Ariela had died a few weeks earlier. She was twenty-six. I wasn’t ready to purge our home of her stuff, but Gary was.
“A lot,” he said. He looked around for a ladder.
“You know, you have to take off the regular tires and bolt the axle to the bottom of the chair before you can attach those balloon things. That’s a lot of work just for a walk on the beach,” I said.
Gary nodded. “Yeah, I know. It seemed like a great idea when I bought them. The ad said they were simple to install.”
“Did you know if they would even fit her chair?”
Gary shrugged. “I just didn’t want to repeat the scene at Muir Beach.”
“Honey, that was five years ago. Have those tires been here that long?”
We had hiked the paved area in Muir Woods that day and stopped off at the beach to use the restrooms and watch the waves.
I rolled Ariela out of the bathroom and continued rolling to the end of the parking lot.
My feet sank into the soft sand. Her thin wheelchair tires would do the same. “Sorry, Ariela,” I said. “The world’s not a very accessible place.” Ariela was nonverbal. In the absence of her words, I often verbalized the obvious.
She blinked, her sign for “yes.” She knew.
Soon after, Gary bought the tires.
Ariela loved the wind and mist at the water’s edge. She volunteered at Crissy Field for years. Maybe you saw her. You couldn’t miss her dog, Benji, a scrawny terrier following her wheels. She patrolled from the South Beach parking lot to the Warming Hut and back, a few yards from the Golden Gate Bridge. She went once a week, always wearing her fleece parka with the green and yellow badge from the National Park Service. She was prepared to answer questions if anyone asked. No one ever did. People are intimidated to talk to someone who sits in a wheelchair and speaks with a computer. Ariela didn’t seem to mind. She rolled her two miles on the paved path, never able to cross the rocks onto the beach. She reported unusual activity to the ranger. At least that’s what she and her aide told me. Judging from her credit card statements, I suspect they spent a lot of time over coffee at the Warming Hut.
After inventorying our garage, Gary and I drove back to Muir Beach. I was stunned at the expanded and repaved parking lot greeting us. A new accessible bridge stretched from the lot to the beach. At the end of the bridge a firm, plastic runner was fixed into the sand, a carpet stretching out to the water.
A wooden storage shed had been added to the side of the restrooms with a sign, “Beach Wheelchairs,” and a phone number posted above a keypad lock.
“It’s all accessible now,” I said to Gary.
Gary found a plaque mounted on the bridge. “Dedicated April 2013. We could have brought her here last summer. She would have loved this place.”
“Right,” I nodded. I dug my hands into the pockets of my sweatshirt. “She loved late afternoons at the beach, when the wind picked up.”
We talked about all the things she loved and all the things we wished we had done with her. More hikes. More sails. More sunsets at the beach. Our shared regrets bind us together. We wince when friends say, “You did everything for her.” Only Gary and I know all the things we didn’t do.
The truth is we hadn’t gone on any hikes with Ariela for at least five years. She preferred to spend her time with her friends. She’d grown too old for us, or maybe we had grown too old for her.
When we returned home, I called the number on the shed. Better to give the tires away than to keep them as a reminder of what once was possible and now no longer is.
Harriet’s work has been published in A Cup of Comfort for Children with Special Needs, the Huffington Post, The Big Roundtable and Brain, Child. She will be reading her work at Listen To Your Mother 2016, San Francisco.
Harriet is a believer in magic and miracles, whichever is most appropriate. She lives with her husband, Gary, and their incorrigible dog, Rico, near San Francisco, California.
You can follow her blog: www.tellmethis.co and on Twitter @HHeydemann.