Imagine not being able to speak, gesture or otherwise communicate at all. Now, strap yourself in a chair and say goodbye to the liberation of movement. You cannot do or say anything. All you can do is sit there and exist inside your own mind. And wait. Wait for someone to feed you bland, pureed food. Wait for someone to push your chair five feet so you can see the television, not just hear it. Wait for someone to take you to the bathroom – then leave you there for hours. All you can do is wait for someone to discover you, or wait to die.
From first-time novelist Julie Shaw Cole comes Getting Life – the first-person narrative of Emily, a totally dependent resident of a nursing home.
Emily, after spending seventeen years in a nursing home – strapped in a wheelchair, unable to communicate with anyone but by blinking, force-fed ground mush on a daily basis – finally gets her "big break". And I do mean BIG.
After being left on the toilet for hours, the nurse who forgets where she left Emily comes back to remove Emily from her throne. The addled nurse doesn’t stop long enough to realize that after hours sitting in one spot, Emily’s legs and backside are very much asleep–which results in a tug-of-war to get Emily in her wheelchair. In pain from her injuries, Emily tries to let the nurse know that something is wrong, but the nurse just chalks Emily’s garbled noises and flailing as obstinance and promptly leaves Emily in her bed.
It isn’t until morning that the full extent of Emily’s injuries are known: multiple fractures to one of her legs, several contusions and a deep laceration. The discovering soul even makes the comment, "The night shift must do everything in the dark."
Despite the trauma, degradation and apathy that Emily is put through, her injuries are the catalyst for life-altering change that Emily didn’t even know she needed. Emily begins to push herself around the home with one ever-steadying foot, she learns to communicate with a message board and pen light strapped to her head, she even starts trying to talk (which goes against the admonishments Emily’s aunt used to give her for sounding like an animal).
Getting Life offers a rare glimpse into the lives of those the general public chooses to write off as incapable of anything but staring off into space. With compassion for all those involved, invalids to caretakers, Cole tells the story as it is– no blame, bitterness or anger– just the truth from multiple angles.
Cole walks the line expertly, just showing things as they are, not placing blame on anyone, except maybe the entire system. Still, this novel does not read like a sermon in disguise. Instead, it inspires the reader to walk in handicapped shoes, reconsider previous beliefs, and to have a little empathy for people that may have well been us, had the fates chosen to play out a different saga.
This story is eye-opening for anyone with friends or family members in managed care. Getting Life affords the reader the chance to see life from a different angle– the one where your outlook depends on who pushed your chair that morning and where they finally decided to leave you– staring at a wall or over a rose garden.
Throughout the book, I found myself rooting for Emily. I wanted her to make it, I wanted her to enjoy life. At the same time though, I found myself like many of the naysayers sprinkled through the pages. Could Emily possibly survive out in the real world? How would she manage? Was an equal life possible for those not on equal ground with the majority of the world?
Getting Life is an experience not to be missed. And I promise, reading this book will alter your preconceived notions about those with disabilities for the rest of your life, and hopefully make the rest of their lives more fulfilled.
Kudos to Julie Shaw Cole for enlightening the non-disabled world to the plight of those running the race with little or no mobility, but the knowledge that they can still win in the long run.