Once that infernal halo was removed for good, I was introduced to a new mode of transportation: the wheelchair. The first wheelchair I had was your basic standard issue, nothing more, and I had to be pushed around by an attendant or by my nurse. I didn't like that, either, because I wanted to stop and chat with people I met. Then one day the therapists suggested I try what they called a sip-and-puff chair, which looked like any other wheelchair but had a straw that came up to mouth level. You were supposed to operate the chair with sips and puffs of air. You'd puff through the straw to make the chair go forward, sip air in to make it go backward—and blow some other way to make it turn.
I tried the sip-and-puff chair, but I looked like Darryl Stingley, No. 84, ace driver in the demolition derby. I drove that chair into walls, crashed into people and almost careened down a flight of stairs. "That's it for me," I said. "No more of this sippin' and puffin'. I'll kill myself."
One day a therapist in my exercise class noticed that I had the slightest bit of movement in my right hand and arm. Not much, but some. Maybe a millimeter. Maybe two. That therapist immediately began to concentrate on exercising my right arm and hand and developing whatever movement he had detected. He also informed the occupational therapists that I probably had just enough dexterity with my right hand to operate a wheelchair—if, that is, they could find a way to get my hand to work a control.
And so they invented a button that allowed me to control a chair. By myself.
"Darryl, have we got a surprise for you," a therapist told me several days later. "You're going to take a trip all by yourself. You can go anywhere you want. Just don't get lost." And then a couple of therapists lifted me out of my bed and plunked me down into the jazziest wheelchair I'd ever seen.
"This has got to be the Cadillac of wheelchairs," I said.
"No, it's the QE 2," a therapist said.
It was like something from another planet, with buttons and gadgets everywhere. It was powered by a big battery stashed underneath the seat. The seat itself could slide forward or backward. And if you dropped the back of the seat into a horizontal position, the footrest would automatically rise up to make, well, the foot of a bed.
"Darryl," a therapist said, "you can work this chair just by playing with this button right here." The button was more like a switch, positioned at the end of the little platform that formed the armrest for my right arm and hand. "See this," the therapist said, moving the button forward. My chair lurched forward about five feet.
"What're you guys trying to do, kill me?" I said.