Dating Disabilities

Should I date a man in a wheelchair?

If you have ever been online dating, you know the feeling in your stomach when you read that email on First Date Eve that goes something like this: Before we meet, I thought I better tell you something. Oh brother. Is the next sentence going to reveal a need for a therapist rather than a date? I’m questioning my sexual orientation. A quick lie to get out of the date? My dog died this morning. The confession of a profile liar? I’m actually 50 pounds heavier and 4 inches shorter.

For the six years following my basically drama-free divorce, I had done everything I could to, as my friends had said repeatedly, “get out there.” I went to church more often (you never know whose hand you might shake during the “peace”), completed a few sprint triathlons (all the 40-somethings are doing them), joined a gym (though it’s hard to meet guys while wearing earbuds), and looked busy-but-available with my laptop at Starbucks and Panera Bread. Match.com, eHarmony, FishintheSea all knew me as RealDeal568, because, well, I’m the Real Deal, and while I would find a boyfriend here and there for a while, nothing stuck.

After a two-month respite from the online introduction world, on a rather pathetic, quiet, Friday evening, I decided to activate one of my profiles again. And there they were. The newly separated guys just looking for fun, the divorced guys out of money, out of emotions, feeling like they were out of time, and the never-been-married fellows who will never-be-married. I remembered a lot of them from the last time I had signed on, and I just couldn’t do it. So next thing you know, I was typing my credit card number in for a Christian-based site assuring me that God would find the man for me during a 3-month membership for $92.

Mark’s profile was solid. After determining he was not recently released from prison (online dating tip #1: avoid profiles stating, “I found Jesus after spending many months in quiet contemplation”), I was looking forward to meeting him because he had shown me through specific, well-written examples (so refreshing when compared to the typical “Being a dad is awesome” comment) that he was smart, successful, local, a very involved father of two children, athletic, and funny.

So as I kept reading the email I received from him the night before our first date, I wondered what challenges God had in store for me this time. A lot of my friends said I shouldn’t tell you, but I don’t think it’s right to surprise you with this. This is my first time trying this online dating thing, and I wasn’t sure what to do. He went on for two paragraphs with more details about how he’s #1 in sales at his company, was the General Contractor for major renovations and an addition to his home, was a coach for both of his kids’ softball teams, and had just completed a marathon. Finally: What you should know is that I have done and continue to do all of these things from the seated position — in a wheelchair.

He had been paralyzed from the waist down three years earlier while playing in a dads-only ice hockey league. It was just an after-work Thursday match, and he flew into the wall head-first.

I looked down at my laptop and took a deep breath. I didn’t know anyone who used a wheelchair. I thought about my dad smiling as he zipped around his senior community on one of those electronic scooters during the final year of his life, but that was it. Could I marry someone who was in a wheelchair? Did his arms work ok? Did he drive? What about sex? Whoah. Slow down. It’s just a date — it’s just brunch! Thanks for telling me, Mark — I’ll see you tomorrow.

I arrived first, ready to tell the hostess that we would need a special spot, but everything was already set. Our table was near the entrance, and a seat had been removed, so when Mark wheeled himself in, he just made two quick left turns and was in front of me. Nice looking, big biceps, smart, funny, nervous. We tried the standard getting-to-know-you questions, but quickly slid into details about his accident and how his children were adapting well (his younger son was only a baby when it happened), but he had been divorced for over a year because his wife of 11 years “couldn’t handle it.” And then I started spinning. Couldn’t handle it? Couldn’t handle him. I really wanted to judge her — she was supposed to stay with him through sickness and health, remember? Yet I my marriage didn’t make it through 8 years of marriage either, and certainly didn’t face this type of stress.

As we left the restaurant, I was able to take a good look at the wheelchair. It seemed sleeker and lighter than the metal ones I had seen. I thanked him for brunch (he paid), bent down to kiss him on the cheek, offered to help him get in his car (was that wrong?), and walked to my car when he cheerfully said he’d be fine. I wanted to sneak behind some parked cars to see how difficult it would be for him to get into his car, which I assumed was a minivan with a special wheelchair lift or something like that, but I didn’t.

As usual, I reported in immediately to my best friend about my date. She had encouraged me to go on the date because it seemed the polite and politically-correct thing to do. Now, she was worried. You can’t handle this, so don’t get his hopes up! If his wife couldn’t manage this, why do you think you can? You’re just feeling sorry for him. Would you go out with him again if he wasn’t in a wheelchair? Harsh, but good questions that I had already considered as I wondered when he’d call again.

I was about to go for a jog on the boardwalk two days later when he called to asked me to see a play with him the following week, and the good girl in me couldn’t say no. Maybe this was my calling? There were a lot of nurses in my family; maybe I had what it took. I got down to the bottom line: if he wasn’t in a wheelchair, I would see him again, so let’s go for date #2.

A casual dinner first, where, again, the seating had been figured out before I had arrived, and then he drove me from the restaurant to the theater. His car was a sleek, cranberry-red Cadillac sedan, which could be driven with various hand paddles that were on the edge of the steering wheel. I watched him skillfully work the paddles for a minute, then I stopped looking. Stop thinking. Stop worrying. It’s a date.

At the theater, he quickly pulled out his wheelchair from behind his seat, and within seconds he had gracefully swiveled out of his car and into the chair. How was he able to adapt to all of this so cheerfully? He told me he was back on the phone with customers only a few days after the accident — from his hospital room. He couldn’t feel anything from the waist down, but within hours of the crisis he was already solving problems and figuring out next steps. I’m a lot like that, actually. After a tree hit my house during Hurricane Sandy, I got right on my phone and things were fixed quickly, without drama. If I could just get the wheelchair out of my mind, Mark and I actually had a lot in common. I kept that hopeful thought in my head as we sat in great seats (an “accessible” seat with a “companion” seat next to it) to watch a horrible play. Again, at the end of the date I bent down to kiss him good night, this time on his mouth. If he wanted more than just a brief kiss, what could he do? Grab my arm? Reach up to touch my face?

On the third date, he asked me to meet him at his home, which, luckily, was a one-story ranch when he bought it years before the accident. As he opened the door, he looked handsome and more relaxed than during the other dates. I, on the other hand, already had nervous sweat under my bangs. The tennis volley in my head was exhausting even before I got there: I’m leading him on. No, I like him. This is too much. But he’s sweet.

He was so proud of all of the work he had done to make his home wheelchair accessible. Low counters in the kitchen, wide hallways, a metal triangle pulley system over his bed to help him get out of bed. The bed.

Mark saw me glance at it. “Did you know that the elbow is an incredibly sensual part of the body?” I managed a weak smile, but all I could think about was how to Google that. Sexy elbow?

“There’s more to me than my elbow, but I’ve been reading a lot about…options.” I knew what I was being tested, but I couldn’t relax. At the end of the night, a longer kiss, with me awkwardly straddling the wheelchair, was the best I could do. I walked fast back to my car.

He called to cancel our fourth date two hours before we were supposed to meet. Familiar reasons in the land of 40-something dating: things were complicated with his ex, money was getting tight, his kids needed to be his focus, he realized he wasn’t ready for dating, but was so glad he had met me and “gotten out there.” RealDeal568 had heard them all and used a lot of them before. I wished him the best, put the phone down, grabbed my sneakers and went for a run.