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Nancy and I have always been positive, upbeat people. But living "trapped" inside a body that doesn't work perfectly, a body where, on occasion, you must exert super human efforts to accomplish the seemingly simplest of things- like getting out of bed- well, it can be a bummer.
And, to tell the truth, there are times when both my wife and I do get 'down' about our situation. Not that we ever engage in that "Poor me! What did I do to deserve this?" mentality, but anyone with physical limitations knows what we mean.
Having said that, we want to present you with two stories that fly in the face of "limited by virtue of disability." They are stories of such extremes that you will not believe your eyes, even when we show you the pictures. Look first at the photo above, then permit me to tell you about how it came to pass.
What you see before you is mainly a photo of Nancy in her Dune Buggy Wheelchair (Natural Access by Landeez), using the large, soft tires on all 4 wheels. But there is much more to this story, one almost of life and death, as you shall soon learn.
To set the scene, we are some 30 to 40 miles north of Churchill, Manitoba at Dymon Lake Lodge, accessible only by small aircraft as you saw in chapter 9.
I mentioned that we did not see any Polar bears on that particular "leg" of the adventure, but it wasn't because we didn't try!
On this particular morning, our group of 10 set out to cross the frozen lake in search of wildlife, especially bears. It had snowed overnight, adding perhaps 6 inches of soft snow to the base of several feet of snow already in place.
We left camp in single file, a guide with gun on the front, and another guide with gun bringing up the rear. In this country, you must NEVER go out alone or unarmed, as Polar bears have a habit of popping up from behind snowdrifts- as the cubs we showed you earlier.
We trudged perhaps a mile through the snow, and it began to snow again. I was pushing Nan in the chair- which handles snow, sand and irregular terrain rather well- but, at age 65, I discovered I must have left half my strength back in Washington, DC. I was tiring fairly rapidly.
We continued on another half mile or so, and I called to the leader that I could not go farther and would have to turn back. Rather than curtail the adventure for the rest of the group, he decided to continue on with them, leaving Nancy and me with the rear guard to return to the lodge.
We started back and after a quarter mile, I told the guard to stop a minute while I tried to improve our situation. I carry mountain climbing rope with our "travel kit", and always take it with us into the wilder areas of wherever we go. Now, I removed it from our bag, and attached a length of it to the front of the chair. Tying the free end around my waist, I began to pull the chair, the guard pushing from behind.
Got maybe a couple of hundred yards, then I called back to the guard and told him I couldn't pull any longer. He (32 years of age) changed places with me, though he kept the rifle. This time, I managed no more than 25 yards, when I called out to him that I was exhausted and really could go no further. I was panting for breath, and truly worried about having a heart attack out there in the snow, miles and hours away from any competent medical help. Never before had I worried about my health, but this time, I was truly frightened. What was to become of Nancy if I died there in the snow?
The guard had an 'ace in the hole'. He carried a Walkie-Talkie, and radioed back to the lodge, telling them of our situation. They responded they would come after us, and we sat down in the snow to wait for them.
The owner of the lodge came out, with his two children and 2 of their pet dogs. He brought with him harnesses for the dogs, explaining he and his wife had used this rig, tying the dogs into the harness attached to a sled when their children were small.
We did the same thing now, only this time, we tied the dogs into the harness attached to the wheelchair with my mountain climbing rope. Once commanded, the dogs leapt forward, pulling the chair so rapidly, I could not keep up. The photo is of the owner pushing, the guard controlling the dogs, Nan in the chair, and Nate is "supervising" off camera.
Like they say in the TV commercials, don't try this at home!
Were we insane to attempt such a trip? Don't rush to judge. Remember, no one knows better than you what you are and are not able to accomplish. Sometimes, as in this case, even you don't know what your limitations are. I certainly misjudged my abilities. But you have to try. Take a chance.
Although we were not able to complete this particular part of the adventure, look what a great story came out of it. And we got to see lots of Polar bears later.
Here is one final story everyone can relate to- and can be uplifted by:
In January 2003, we flew to Buenos Aires, then on to Ushuaia, Argentina (Terra del Fuego). With 138 other passengers, we sailed on the MS Hanseatic, headed for the Antarctic peninsula.
I hope you know what I mean when I tell you we could feel 276 eyes staring at us in disbelief as we came up the gangway to board the ship for this challenging expedition. Truth be told, I suspect even Nancy thought I must have lost my mind to attempt such a rigorous trip.
My feeling about travel has always been, "Do what you can do- when, and while you can still do it".
You and we both know too many people who wait too long. Then, for whatever reasons, they are no longer able to travel and thus miss some of life's greatest pleasures.
Besides, if we succeeded in this trip, then we could say we've been on all the Earth's continents!
Over the years, we have grown accustomed to people photographing us as we travel, so when our fellow passengers would snap shots of us from time to time during this sailing, we gave it no thought. Circumstances this time, however, were different from anything before:
On this adventure, there was a sizable contingent of Japanese passengers, 30 altogether. They kept pretty much to themselves, mingling only slightly with the rest of us, isolated, I suppose, by the barriers of language. They had an English speaking interpreter with them to ease this barrier a bit, but you can imagine how difficult it was for them to be in such an environment.
They also brought along a videographer/photographer who did an exhaustive job recording events of the expedition for them. We could not help but notice he took an awful lot of footage of us. It seemed every time we turned around, we would "catch" him focusing our way.
Perhaps two-thirds into the trip, a most unusual thing happened. The young Japanese interpreter approached us one morning and asked if we would honor them by being their guests at dinner. Although puzzled by this invitation, of course we accepted, and looked forward to the opportunity of getting to know them better.
Everyone was in the dining room on time and we could feel 216 eyes (276 minus 60) on us as we joined our new Japanese friends at their table. We had polite 'conversation' for a few minutes, then one of the gentlemen stood to address us.
He bowed, then, speaking through the interpreter, told us he, and all his countrymen, had been watching Nancy and me with increasing appreciation for what we were doing- and amazement at what we were able to accomplish. He told us that in their culture, many believe in life after death, a reincarnation, if you will, and they believed that if you were physically impaired or otherwise disfigured in this life, it was because you had committed something terrible in the life preceding this one.
However, he continued, getting to know us and see our obvious commitment to one another, and love for each other, he and the rest of their group had decided there is no possible way Nancy could be capable of doing anything in any life that would merit punishment of this sort.
So, first, he wanted us to know how inspired all of them were by us. Second, he told us he was with the Health Ministry in Japan, and it was his intention on returning home to redouble the government's efforts to ease the difficulties faced by physically challenged citizens.
Finally, he told us he had a wife back in Tokyo who was also confined to a wheelchair. She did not accompany him on this sailing because of the social stigma attached to such things in Japan. In fact, he said, she never ventured out of the house at all.
It was his intention, as soon as he got home, to show his wife the photographs and video tapes of Nancy and me so she could release herself from her "shame". And also, he was going to book the first available cruise to anywhere and take her with him so she could once again "be tall and brave' before her countrymen.
Nancy and I were both in tears.
Later that night, Nancy told me something I had never heard her say before: "You know," she began, "I have always said there is a reason for everything that happens in life. And though I do not question it, I have never understood- until now- why the strokes happened to me. I realize now G_D intended me to inspire others whose outlook on life is not as positive as mine. Others who, for whatever reason, don't have my strength and who could use me to inspire themselves."
I learned more and understood more about giving, loving and caring on that cruise than I had learned in my whole life up to that point.
Now, in keeping with what we've just shared with you about our own new-found understandings, I would be remiss not to include this little speech I gave on the final night of that magical expedition to the Antarctic.
Everyone had assembled in the lounge for a "farewell party", and, having gotten permission earlier from the captain, I stood up to make these remarks to him, the crew and our fellow passengers:
Dear Captain Wolter,
Surely every sailing presents you with different experiences and different demands. This sailing, January 26, 2003 presented you with quite a challenge, and we are positive it was one you do not often encounter.
Nancy and I have traveled all over the world with our wheelchair, refusing to let her disability become inability. But we do not accomplish this alone. We know we have much greater needs than virtually everyone else around us, and we know we must have help from others, often to do what would appear to be the simplest of tasks.
We have never had a more enriching or rewarding experience than this Antarctic expedition aboard the Hanseatic, nor have we ever encountered a more sensitive, compassionate and caring group of people as we found aboard your ship.
The assistance all of you have provided, passengers and crew alike, has allowed us to have this unique experience, giving us a lifetime of undimming memories.
We do not take such kindness for granted, and simply had to tell all of you what a great difference you have made in our lives.
Without your gracious and generous help, none of this would have been possible for us, and we would have missed the experience of a lifetime.
How fortunate for us you did not let that happen!
We give you our undying thanks. Nancy and Nate Berger
Most of us were crying by the time I finished, and we all realized each of us had been touched in ways we couldn't completely define- at least not at that moment.
For Nancy and me, it was, truly, the experience of a lifetime. We will never forget it