Does a person with a disability always want help? Who decides what another person needs or wants? This is an essay about a brief encounter in a hotel breakfast bar that raised some tough questions about who is really helped when help is offered.
As free hotel breakfasts go, this one was exceptional. There was juice, coffee, bagels, eggs, sausage, fruit, yogurt, and, the crown jewel of the long, two-lane breakfast bar, a waffle maker. It was, as cheap travelers like us would say, deluxe in every way.
We were in Duluth, a town much like Milwaukee but smaller and rustier, its great lake heftier in some way and more vast. The hotel was packed with people like my husband and me who were going to the famous John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and hockey fans there for weekend college games. And there were two older men in wheelchairs, one with his wife, and one by himself.
The man who was by himself rolled into the breakfast bar area while I was waiting for two slices of raisin bread to toast. I beat a rhythm with a butter knife on my palm while I waited, like people do to try to hurry something up, but I was watching him at the same time. He looked to be about 75 with white hair, trimmed very short, and black, heavy-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt and khaki pants with one leg rolled up and pinned at the end of his amputated right leg.
He rolled slowly along the counter, gliding past the waffle maker and stopping where there were packets of instant oatmeal and pitchers of hot water and milk. I waited for him to make some oatmeal but instead he poured milk into the small bowl intended for oatmeal, wheeled back a few feet, drank the milk, and looked around for a trashcan.
My toast popped up. I took the slices with some butter and jam to our table in the adjoining room. When I started to eat, it dawned on me. The man in the wheelchair couldn’t reach anything. Not the eggs or the sausage, the fruit, the yogurt, nothing. The only thing he could reach was the pitcher with the milk for the oatmeal. Thinking I ought to help, I went back to the breakfast bar where he was still sitting between the two lanes of food.
“Everything seems to be kind of out of reach here. Is there something I can get for you?”
He shook his head no, murmured that he was fine, but stayed parked in the middle of the breakfast bar. I couldn’t figure it. Did he want something but not want to ask? Was he waiting for someone?
“There’s eggs and sausage. A lot of food. You sure you don’t want me to get something for you?”
He sat looking at me, slowly shaking his head, seeming very definite about not wanting anything, so I turned to go.
“An apple. You can get me an apple.”
The apples were the hardest to reach, sitting with bananas and oranges in a wire shelf bolted to the wall. I studied all the apples, wanting to get him the best one, but part of me could feel him thinking, ‘don’t take all day.’ But when I handed him the apple, he beamed, his face lit up like I’d given him a cupcake with a candle.
I thought maybe this was the opening to make him a plate heaped with hot food, maybe even make him some toast. I really wanted to get him some of everything and set it down at a table, a handicapped one, accessible, and then fetch him a cup of hot coffee.
“No. Just the apple. Thanks.” And with that he turned his chair around and wheeled away.
I went back to our table and ate. We talked about the sled dog race and how many layers to wear to brave the Duluth day in front of us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man in the wheelchair using both arms to power down the hallway. In his lap was the apple, the red of the apple vivid against his khaki pants.
It occurred to me that maybe he hadn’t really wanted an apple, that maybe all he had wanted for breakfast was just a quick drink of milk but, somehow, I didn’t think that was enough. I decided he should have more and he humored me. Maybe. I don’t know for a fact. But maybe.