I acquired a fairy godmother after three decades of living as a committed rationalist: I never believed in fairy tales. As a child, I scorned tales of glass stilettos, talking frogs and mirrors, and sadly narcoleptic damsels. My empirical test of Santa Claus’s sandwich preference revealed that no one unusual was sliding down the chimney. I knew the Tooth Fairy was just a fabulist anodyne for the painful wiggling required of second-graders. I never believed in anything but natural intervention.
When Lucie Beaudet first wheeled into my classroom, otherwise unannounced, I had a moment of logistical panic. The students in my night course were tightly seated around a square table; little room was left. Before I could think of a solution, Lucie had parked her chrome-and-black wheelchair with the skill of a Cadillac driver in a crowded church parking lot.
My fairy godmother (or “FGM” as she later identified herself) had arrived. I resumed my introduction to Composition 101, the first night course I taught at Washington University in St. Louis, where I had moved with my fiancé. The course was required for several degrees offered through the night school, and in many ways the class seemed an adult version of a Montessori classroom. My students’ ages ranged across 40 years: from a 22-year-old computer programmer to a Naval officer in his 60s. Collectively, they had edited a city newspaper; promoted the opera; judged ice skating competitions; and managed a janitorial crew. They had raised children and ministered churches, tended bar and tellered banks. Lucie’s own experiences — as a Chanel saleswoman, a neuropathology technician and an obstetrician’s assistant — were extraordinarily rich, and yet not far from her classmates’ norm. With one exception.
Wheelchairs provoke unasked questions. Months later, accompanying Lucie to an art gallery, the grocery store or the university library, I was startled by others’ stares. The evident fact of Lucie’s disability had not faded from my view, but I’d ceased to find it relevant. It was strange, then, to sense the cocktail of discomfort, sympathy, benign or prurient curiosity in others’ looks. With auburn hair, cornflower blue eyes and an irrepressible laugh, Lucie is a vital presence, and anything but conventionally middle-age.
When she enrolled in my course, the 47-year-old Lucie had not been a student in three decades. She was as new to college as I was new to living in St. Louis, a Midwestern city of rectilinear streets, gated neighborhoods and racial tensions predating the Missouri Compromise. I had spent that summer both missing the liberal anonymity of New England cities and wondering if new acquaintances might result in a friendship or two. Half-consciously, I was struggling to find my footing in a life with my intended. At 27, I had little experience in the partitioning of coordinates, domestic and professional, or the zones of intimacy and independence negotiated in a shared existence.
So while I was the teacher armed with syllabi, lesson plans and expectation, I had acquired a student who, within a year’s time, would reverse the poles of our pedagogical poses. Chance, one of life’s more reliable variables, would serve us both well.
Whenever I teach composition, I recall my terror of middle-school math: days when I instinctively rhymed algebra with cholera and thought of binomials as double-toed gnomes.
Math phobia caused many late nights of broken pencils until Sister Andrew, a gentle nun skilled in the ways of exorcism, gave me a month-long tutorial. At last, quadratic equations no longer made me feel like Napoleon’s horse at Waterloo. But I recall that fear whenever I teach writing, an activity that can induce its own complex of anxieties.
Inscribing language — and the integrity of one’s perceptions — onto paper, vellum or touch-screen induces the willies in almost all writers. Giving one’s thoughts material form often reveals their inadequacy or inexactness, the frustration of the idea or meaning we had intended. To complicate matters, syntax and grammar have been out of educational vogue for at least a decade. When I first taught writing, I found terms such as “dependent clause” or “dangling modifier” sounded darkly ominous to students as if I were referring to clandestine divorce proceedings or to rustic tourniquets. So in the first weeks of a composition course, I try to get everyone writing — a paragraph or two for every class, in response to a range of texts and media. Students share from their written work while we review the genus, phylum and species of essays, paragraphs and sentences. Slowly, we enter the creaturely life of language.
Within the first month, it was clear that Lucie was one of the best writers in the course. Her essays about the euphemisms of laboratory science, the self-education of Malcolm X and the conceits of opera libretti suggested an unusually searching intelligence. Yet she often attached a written apologia to her assignments: for their brevity or perceived inadequacies.
Each week, I wrote back with comments and assurances that she needn’t worry about her performance in the course. I finally realized that Lucie wasn’t anxious about her grade, per se. She was writing with the sensitivity and the demand of a poet, judging each word she put to paper against the absoluteness of her intention. While I might encourage her to be gentler in her self-assessments, it was not my job to dissuade Lucie of her standards. After all, I shared them.
Nothing had prepared me, however, for the essay she wrote in October. I had asked the students to write a piece that drew from their experience. Out of habit, I had saved Lucie’s paper to the end.
“I awoke to the taste of grass,” it began. In four paragraphs, she detailed the accident that paralyzed the lower half of her body. It occurred when her fiancé was racing his Saab at breakneck speed — the young hot-head lawyer had just passed the Missouri bar. When Lucie begged him to stop, he sped faster. The car flipped. When Lucie regained consciousness, she was pinned under several hundred pounds of the Saab’s steel frame. Paramedics arrived, and the young attorney emerged from the wreck with a set of bruises. Lucie, meanwhile, could not feel anything beneath her ribcage. With complete fractures of lumbar and thoracic vertebrae, substantial blood loss and a third degree burn from the hot metal of the car’s muffler, her life was in question.
The last paragraph glossed a purgatory spent in intensive care; multiple surgeries; the implantation of steel rods to stabilize her spine; their subsequent infection; the surgical removal of the rods and an antibiotic battle against systemic infection. More than a year of Lucie’s life was spent hospitalized, some of it drugged beyond recollection. Narrowly, she had lived. She survived to remember the taste of grass.
I stared at Lucie’s essay until the words grew indistinct. I thought of a famous line in Ezra Pound’s Cantos: “As a lone ant from a broken anthill / from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor [I, the writer].” In that poem — with its heroic survivalist ant — Pound obliquely describes his imprisonment in Pisa, Italy, where he was kept under klieg lights in an open-air cage. And I thought of Lucie, physically immobilized in the fluorescence of an intensive care unit, a twilight zone in which space loses its civilian privacy and time is denuded of its circadian clothes. Like a prisoner-of-war, Lucie had known bare life and the hangman precariousness of a spine’s damaged cord.
I looked out of my study’s window at the row of unremarkable brick homes lining the street. If the body resembles a two-story house with its complementary lower and upper halves zoned for specific activity — for the pleasures of movement, sociality and solitude — I wondered if Lucie felt removed from the half she could no longer feel or will through space. What did it mean to lose sensation in half of one’s body, half of one’s somatic home?
It had been a decade since my own accident. Traumatic on an infinitely lesser scale, I had fallen from a running track’s elevated turn, damaging muscles and my sciatic nerve. Weeks before my freak fall, an Ivy League track coach had hinted that if I took three seconds off of my time, I would be admitted. In one moment, I was flying in sneakers, wanting to study history and classics at an Ivy League university. In the next, I was down for the count.
After a year of caustic pain, I had surgery on my back and leg, which left me unable to sit or walk properly for another full year — a year I missed of school. In those lonely months, I enrolled in rounds of rehabilitation, from whirlpools and scar tissue massage to a truly boot-camp version of physical therapy at a New England spine center, where I joined professional linebackers, victims of auto wrecks and those otherwise “walking wounded” in learning how to compensate for a serious chink in the armor.
By the time I met Lucie, I had learned how to manage my physical limitations well enough to handle graduate school, gentle exercise and lengthening writing hours. But I hadn’t learned how to mitigate the psychological wear of chronic pain. At times, I felt unable to hide its reality from my intended, who regarded my tougher days with a mixture of sad bewilderment and alarm. Months would pass before Lucie and I spoke of such things, before I got her tutelage in living gracefully with ache.
When she wheeled into my office the following week, I asked Lucie if she had considered writing a memoir. “This would make a terrific beginning,” I urged, her essay in hand. But Lucie demurred, and I followed her cue. Writing autobiography might offer what Robert Frost termed “a momentary stay against confusion.” But it also might recapitulate one’s garaged emotions and feel like a rummage sale of one’s veteran furniture.
Lucie received the highest grade in the course. Over the holidays, I mailed her final paper to her city apartment, never imagining it was an address I’d soon call home.
Friends who are psychotherapists talk about the importance of preserving patients’ anonymity outside of the therapy room. Encountering a patient at a local bank or neighborhood block party, they must allow the patient to decide how — and if — they will acknowledge each other. Teaching isn’t the same, of course, but when my term as Lucie’s composition teacher ended, I wondered if I would hear from her again.
To my delight, I did. Lucie invited me to coffee several times over the next semester, and we met to chat about her courses, to review her papers and to talk through her plan for a degree in social work or psychology. On occasion, I accompanied Lucie to the library. Reaching for texts on higher shelves or carrying our hot coffee to a café table, I caught a glimpse of some of Lucie’s difficulties. Though it has been two decades since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many college campuses are not genuinely accessible. Narrow hallways, unreliable elevators, bumpy brick walkways and steep ramps create an obstacle course worthy of a reality television show.
Getting to class through snowstorms and freezing rain, Lucie completed the winter semester with a 4.0 average. Emboldened, she doubled her course load. Distracted by our academic endeavors and the torpor of a St. Louis summer, we fell out of touch. Finally, in September, we made plans for a catch-up lunch.
The day before I was scheduled to visit with Lucie, a professor from my alma mater wrote that he had put my name forward for a temporary teaching position in creative writing at a New England college. Though I doubted my chances, I skipped home to tell my fiancé. In the self-reprisals of retrospect, I have wondered if this news — and its suggestion that I might, at some point, have a career of my own — was the proverbial final straw. After a three-year engagement, two cross-country moves, combined fates and bank accounts, the relationship ended. While he had a tenured job, I was a graduate student. He indicated that I could stay in the spare bedroom until I found a place to live.
The next 48 hours were a blur of grief and emergency thinking. When I called Lucie, she could tell from the warble in my voice that something was wrong. I told her of my predicament. “Miss Heather,” she began with a gentle bossiness I would come to adore, “do come to my house for dinner.”
Lucie answered the door with a flash of chrome and Chanel lipstick. “Come in, come in!” she sang out as I entered her apartment on the eighth floor of the Executive House, a building with a marble foyer, floral arrangements and uniformed doormen. Lucie’s living room was softly lit by lamps and a low chandelier. Tall bookcases with glass doors and an invitingly plump set of chairs — the sturdy leather kind with brass buttons — lent the parlor a William Jamesian air. At the far end, French doors opened onto a veranda with a view of the skyline, the city’s Gateway Arch featured to the right of center.
“Make yourself at home, and come tell me what you’d like to drink,” Lucie said, disappearing into a brightly lit kitchen. For the first time in 24 hours, I took a deep breath. The homey aroma of baked bread, cardamom and the sweet tang of reduction sauce led me to the kitchen, where Lucie was glazing fish and asparagus in a veritable cloud of steam. “When I bought this Chilean sea bass,” she said, an incipient twinkle in her eye, “the grocer reminded me that it is an endangered species. But I figured that was appropriate since, my dear, you are also an endangered species. Now, can I interest you in a chocolate martini?”
Shock had left me aphasic. That night, Lucie’s loquacity and pliant liquor coaxed me back to speech. Numbly, I recounted what had happened. Lucie was generous in her sympathies, unsparing in her assessments. The granddaughter of an Irish banker and a French chef, her invective was sharper than a tartly aged fromage. I laughed through my tears, and at the end of dinner Lucie plotted out steps for survival. In a few days’ time, I had secured a temporary apartment, part-time teaching jobs and a house-sitting assignment for the spring term. Shoring up my finances, I petitioned to renew my student health insurance and calmed my parents, apoplectic with worry.
But it was Lucie who would advise on every aspect of my improvised existence. With her help and gourmet replenishments, I taught four courses, wrote three book chapters, applied for fellowships and house-sat for faculty friends with five cats. When their Russian cat had a violent asthma attack, I called Lucie. When their tabby cat took a swim in the bathtub mysteriously planted in the backyard, Lucie coached me through Operation Feline Retrieval (on a broomstick) and a check of the vital signs. Weekends, we worked at her dining room table, fueled by endless cups of tea. She listened patiently to designs and redesigns of my dissertation. And when the owners of the feline quintet returned from England earlier than expected, Lucie insisted that I move to her guest quarters, where I stayed for three months, free of charge.
How had I lucked into such a fairy godmother? My relationship with Lucie — in its sisterly, maternal and filial dimensions — was unlike any platonic one I’d known. I worried that it wasn’t equitable. What minor assistance I could offer Lucie was no recompense for her generosity.
That spring, I won a one-year fellowship that would allow me to finish my doctoral degree at Notre Dame. It was time to finish my dissertation. I bought a second alarm clock, taught, caffeinated and wrote. Lucie was my support corps. Whenever she suspected that I was getting too squirrelly in the library, she would buzz my cell phone and request my presence at the entrance to the university. Ten minutes later, Lucie would arrive in “Bertha,” a giant SUV equipped with hand controls, and a field trip would ensue. Sometimes, we cruised through the city listening to riotous opera. Other times, we visited a set of paintings in the St. Louis Art Museum. Decadently, we shopped for designer shoes, coats and lace hose. We held spontaneous dance parties. In spite of myself, I had fun.
Lucie was a karmic rebuttal to my difficulty that year. Nor was I alone in adoring her. As her roommate, I got to know her circle of friends, culled from the ranks of local universities and science labs, her apartment building and book clubs. At her dinner table, I met Dr. Vernon Fischer, a professor of anatomy and a survivor of Hitler’s Kristallnacht; Ian Rice, an Olympic gymnast and a professor of kinesiology; Doris, an octogenarian Republican of scarlet lipstick and devastating editorials; Dr. W., a well-known nephrologist; and Paul, a handsome master electrician. In turn, Lucie’s friends showed me their favorite parts of the city. The master electrician drove me across town to visit a Carmelite chapel. The graphic designer advised on consignment shopping. I felt the godchild of a village.
In her walking days, Lucie had stood 5-foot-10. With her, I could talk candidly about the strangeness of living in an injured body. And it was from Lucie that I got belated, unorthodox training in pain management. Schooled in the occupational therapy of her own rehabilitation, Lucie showed me how to carry a book bag, exit a car, sit in a desk chair and follow an anti-inflammatory diet high in fish oils and leafy greens. More importantly, in her zealous commitment to music, mischief and the lives of her friends, Lucie suggested ways of displacing the liabilities of hurt into engagement, modest achievement, lasting bonds.
That August, I finished teaching my summer courses at Washington University and packed my car to the gills. Lucie tucked vitamins and protein bars into my purse, tipped the doormen to lift my suitcases and waved from the parapet as I left for Indiana. At Notre Dame, I would teach and write with intensity. But I spoke with Lucie every day, and biscotti and warm, winter tights arrived from St. Louis at regular intervals. On my birthday, a FedEx truck delivered a high-powered British toaster that jettisoned my English muffins 6 inches in the air. (Kitchen technology, Lucie opined, ought to make one’s early mornings interesting.) I traveled to St. Louis as often as I could.
When, on the first of March, I won a postdoctoral fellowship that would take me to Cambridge and the Harvard libraries, I called Lucie from the Notre Dame parking lot. We shared a virtual toast across the miles — from the driver’s seat of a small Volkswagen to her rooftop atelier. And Lucie assured me that I was likely to pass her course.
Heather Treseler is an assistant professor at Worcester State University, where she teaches poetry and American literature. She was a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010-11. Her poems and essays have appeared in several books and journals.