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Chronically Upbeat

Life From a Sitting Position

The Emmy-winning TV producer and author writes about living with a chronic illness.

Now a startling admission: I am a wimp. When I was chased through the streets of Warsaw covering the rise of Solidarity for CBS News, or when I ducked bullets in Beirut and El Salvador, I learned to be resourceful. I also came to know mortality and the truth that anything can happen. But now I am covering a different war, with an enemy hidden in my body. And this is the first enemy I truly fear.

I talk to Allen Rucker, who has transverse myelitis, which some people call MS of the spine, another autoimmune disease. "It was frightening," he says of the moment when he realized that he was paralyzed. Soon enough, he was introduced to his new wheelchair, the mode of transportation he would use for the rest of his life.

"I always considered the wheelchair liberating," he tells me. "My favorite recreation was to wait until three in the morning and tool around Cedars-Sinai Hospital looking at the incredible art on the walls."

This was Allen's private proving ground, his way of easing into his new life.

"Richard, with you there will be nothing sudden about this," he tells me. "You already are preparing yourself for what might be."

Allen pauses for emphasis.

"You are on this gradual course," he continues. "You don't know it, but you will find it liberating. There is true mobility in a wheelchair. It's not a horrible thing. You should lighten up."

Right.

"There always will be the stigma," he concedes. "People will still think you are a pathetic person. There will be a sense of pity, a sort of death by kindness. You will learn to ignore it."

Hard to imagine. And pointless, too. What will be will be. I have better things to do than play out worst-case scenarios. I understand risk. I loved toying with it when I was younger.

And yet the wheelchair is so threatening, perhaps because it's the final public signal of unbeatable weakness and the irrevocable admission that I have lost the war.

I have stood up to this illness for my entire adult life and lived my way. I cannot make my peace with the finality of sitting down.

Richard M. Cohen is an Emmy-winning TV news producer and author. His column is published on AARP The Magazine Online every two weeks.

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