The lost and found wheelchair

IMG_0889As published in The Providence Journal, October 15, 2017.

We needed a wheelchair; otherwise, my mother would miss the show.

My daughter, Juliana, was performing in her last high school theater production, cast as Golde in “Fiddler On The Roof.” Mom, a longtime fan of Broadway musicals, knew the role better than anyone and said, with a grandmother’s certainty, that Julie was perfect for the part.

My mother had been less sure about whether she’d be able to attend. Two weeks earlier, a virus had slowed her down – an unwelcome add-on to the macular degeneration and breathing issues that she normally dealt with. But when I walked into her Warwick apartment on the Wednesday before Julie’s Saturday matinee, her voice was strong and her spirits high. She was coming to the show.

So we needed a wheelchair. There was no way Mom could make the trek from the parking lot to the auditorium at East Greenwich High School. And forget about any stairs.

My brother Rob mentioned there was a wheelchair in the coat alcove at St. Luke’s, our church, and when I called the office, the rector said we could borrow it. Julie was thrilled. Not only were her grandparents from Connecticut coming in for the show; now Nonnie would be there, too.

On Saturday, I went to St. Luke’s to get the chair. But when I looked in the coat alcove, it wasn’t there. I looked in another closet. Nothing. I looked in the office, the entrance foyer, the back of the church – no luck.

I looked at my phone. “Fiddler” was scheduled to start in less than an hour.

And then an angel appeared. My friend Ken was working with the youth group, making pizzas for a mission-trip fundraiser. It turns out he had a wheelchair at home, one his father-in-law had used for years. Ken said he’d be right back with it. Thank God! Thank Ken! He returned with the chair, and I slid it awkwardly into the trunk of my car.

The show was endearing in the way most high school productions are, with seasoned theater kids mixing with first-time performers. And thanks to the wheelchair, Mom was right in the front row to take it all in. When Julie sang Golde’s bittersweet duet with Tevye in the second act – “Do You Love Me?” – my mother fished a tissue out of her bag. I felt my eyes sting, too.

“You were marvelous,” Mom told her youngest grandchild after the show, giving Julie a kiss.

In deference to the cold, late-winter air, the two of them waited inside the glass-doored entrance of the high school as I retrieved my car. With the Elantra’s tailpipe puffing at the curb, I wheeled Mom out, helped her into the passenger seat, hustled around to the driver’s side, and jumped in to take her home.

That evening, when I returned to the high school to see the musical’s final performance, I noticed an unattended wheelchair on the sidewalk outside. Funny, I thought – it looks just like the one I borrowed from Ken, blue seat and all. What a coincidence.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon, as I loaded groceries into my empty trunk, that it hit me: There was nothing coincidental about the wheelchair the night before. In my haste to get Mom home, I had driven away without it. And now my mother’s voice came to me, straight from childhood: “You’d lose your head if it weren’t attached.”

I raced over to the high school and, to my relief, discovered the wheelchair orphaned in a wooded area by the parking lot. I wished the chair was equipped with a GPS tracker so I could review its adventures. I imagined hooting teenagers careening down darkened streets deep into the night.

As I hefted the wheelchair back into my trunk, I was thankful – for the generosity of friends, for the love and presence of grandparents, for the sweetness of young voices, and for the wheelchair itself, found and lost and found again.

It was a weekend I’ll always remember.

From Notes To Poetry: My Mom’s Writing


Imperative verbs.

That’s what I remember most about my mother’s writing – at least from my years growing up. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered instructions:

> Don’t forget your lunch

> Working late tonight – make dinner for James

> The dog got into the trash outside – please clean up the mess!

When I was in college and living in Ireland, my mother’s writing was more expansive, but still prosaic. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, Rhode Island weather, how business was going at her clothing store on Federal Hill… The notes were comforting to me, but I never sensed that my mom liked to write. Her handwriting appeared rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, Oh, if we could just sit and talk, that would be better.

And then, at age 71, my mom asked me to read something she was working on. “I guess it’s a poem,” she said. “A memory, really.”

William Zinsser calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” The Blanket is my mom’s word snapshot of her life circa 1965, when our family lived in a double-decker on River Avenue in Providence, downstairs from her dying mother.

My mom wasn’t great at spelling. She worried that she had never mastered verb tenses and punctuation and syntax. I told her that was the easy stuff – we’d figure it out, no problem. “Lots of people know how to write,” I said. “But not everyone has something to say. That’s what’s hard.”

Though clearly not for her.

*     *     *

The Blanket

I have been sleeping under my

mother’s deathbed blanket

for thirty-six years.


It is white with delicate pink flowers

that grow from bottom to top

along the fold that drops

over the edge of the bed.


It was my blanket, a gift from Nana.

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

its newness on my mother’s sickbed.


The newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!


Without her, who was to discover

the shoe-box cradle made

by a pre-school wizard?


Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?


Where would I find the approval she

gave me when, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby

into her arms?


The blanket, now thinning, with flowers

faded and ribbon missing, still covers

me as I journey into sleep each night.


I think I will lie beneath it until

the day I die.


– Norma Pantalone Walsh

March 22, 1933 – May 5, 2013


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