I have dreams where I can walk again. Sometimes it’s like the injury never happened. Other times I simply stand up from my wheelchair like it’s no big deal, walk to where I need to go, and then sit back down in the chair that stayed beside me as though attached to my body by an invisible force. But even in my unconscious state, I always know it’s fantasy. Because somewhere inside, I always say to myself “Don’t get too excited, it’s just a dream.”
When I slide into consciousness, it isn’t with disappointment, but a desire to hold on just a few moments longer to the feelings and movements I can’t conjure when I’m awake. Because after five years of life with a spinal cord injury, it’s hard to remember what it’s like. The feelings; the movements; the uninhibited way I existed in the world—it’s all very foreign to me now.
Maybe there isn’t much time or space in my life to dwell on such thoughts—and I’m positive there isn’t much purpose—but sometimes I close my eyes and search for the things I never imagined would only be mine in memories. Yes, things like running and walking. But also how the spray from the shower felt on my hips. Or the way thick, knit socks warmed my feet and how it felt to sit on the kitchen counter and wrap my legs around my husband. But no matter how much I try to remember, I often come up empty, asking myself, How did that feel again?
I thought that in the almost 29 years of my pre-paralyzed existence, the most common and repetitive sensations and movements would have been ingrained so deeply inside of me, they would be impossible to forget. Turns out I was wrong. Every step I took—whether a gentle tip-toe into my children’s rooms to check on them after they fell asleep or a rhythmic strike into the pavement as I ran through the neighbourhood—was done on autopilot. It never once occurred to me to commit any of it to memory. That there might be a time memories would be all I had.
Now, where memories fail me, I have my dreams. Dreams where the feelings feel tangible and natural again. And when I’m in that blurry space in-between sleep and awake, I carry the feeling on in my semi-conscious mind. I imagine the instant response in my legs when I want to swing them over the edge of the bed—and the shock of cold that radiates up from the bottom of my bare feet as they touch the floor beneath me. And I feel it—so real it almost fools me into thinking it’s happening.
But when I’m fully awake, the feelings disappear. I move into the intrinsic routine that’s replaced the one I used to know. My arms respond instantly and swing under my legs that rest heavy in the bend of my elbow when I lift each one off the bed. The cold shock comes up, but it’s not from my feet on the floor. It’s from my fingers as they wrap around the metal rims protruding out from the wheels of my chair. I feel it. And it’s real.
The human body is strong—adaptable—and yet, it is fragile. Thinking of its susceptibility to the long list of diseases and injuries can be both an exercise in gratitude and the trigger of a panic attack. I know the body I have now will deteriorate to some degree. I know I’m not immune to further damage or illness. So whether it’s the weight and warmth of a coffee in my hands, the twisting of an elastic band around my ponytail or the way I lift my body from my wheelchair to the couch, I’m trying to take notice. I want to appreciate and put to memory the sensations of even the small things my body can do. Because you never know when it will be tough to remember what it’s like to feel.