November 1992 – Transitions – two months after a life-changing diagnosis:
At the end of November, my doctor transferred me to the rehab section. My medications kept me doped up. I wanted to sleep, but every morning a physical therapist shook me awake. I ignored them.
I rarely saw Carlito which added to my misery. But, I did not want him to see me in this condition, and the family that he stayed with told me he was doing well.
Another day, another annoying physical therapist.
“Ms. Curra, time to get up.”
I had no desire to open my eyes and buried my head under the covers. After a few days, one therapist lost patience with me.
“Ms. Curra, if you don’t cooperate with us, you will be sent home in this debilitated state,” Tara admonished me. “Is this what you want for your child?”
Point made. This persistent therapist won, and after three weeks of intensive therapy, I could maneuver a manual wheelchair and even walk for short lengths using a walker. If not for the persistence of that angel-in-disguise, I would probably still be withdrawn, shut down, and in a nursing home today. Tara discharged me five days before Christmas 1992, prepared to care for my son and live in a wheelchair.
The wheelchair van bounced me around. Carlito greeted me upon arrival.
“Mommy, you’re home!”
His wide toothy smile enlivened me as he jumped into my lap. We hugged and kissed each other; I did not want to let go of him. Then he pushed me to our front stoop, where five towering steps led to the front door.
“Now what, Mommy?” We were perplexed.
Mike, the father who had cared for Carlito and brought him home, flexed his muscles and grinned, “That’s what these are for.” He scooped me out of my wheelchair, carried me through my door, and up my fourteen-step staircase.
After that, friends and neighbors helped me up and down, but this couldn’t go on forever. I scoured the classifieds and finally found a small two-bedroom apartment in a ground-floor basement of a home. The Section 8 program provided enough funds to pay the rent.
My boss, Christine, had held my position at work open for me, and one of the accountants offered to drive me to and from the office. But the muscle cramps, leg tremors, and ant-crawling sensations constantly assailed me, while medications kept me in a haze most of the time. Any energy I could muster I needed to care for my son. I regretfully could no longer work.
The supervisor generously sent me a check for $600, the equivalent of a month’s pay, which I used for the apartment security deposit.
My monthly income dropped from $1,200 to $425, and Prudential dumped me. They considered my illness to be a pre-existing condition. A hospital case manager handled my transfer to Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income from Social Security.
Now I had to figure out how to survive on $425 a month as a single mother with a growing boy who had a voracious appetite. Food stamps barely kept food on the table. We ate Ramen noodles, boxed macaroni and cheese, canned tuna, hot dogs, and Spam. Carlito thought this was swell.
I could not afford a hand-controlled car. My driver’s license converted to a state ID. Few people were available to give rides during the day. Waiting for a wheelchair-accessible bus sometimes took hours. Carlito pushed my forty-five-pound wheelchair and me up and down hilly streets for blocks and blocks. Crossing the street was a hurdle; there were few curb cuts in those days.
My ever-positive Carlito made a game of popping my wheelchair over the curb and into the street to get to the other side. He often wore his roller-skates. Whenever we rode downhill, he held onto my wheelchair and let it pull him on his skates, causing me to laugh with him. That kid made our days an adventure.
Blizzards were common in Baltimore, which confined us to home for days on end. The seclusion gnawed at me. If I had to go out, I wheeled through snow or slush. I put my head inside a brown paper bag to get my stress-induced hyperventilation under control, locking myself in the bathroom during those times. The isolation agitated Carlito as well. He grew tired of his coloring books and Legos, and it bored him to watch more than a few cartoons on our twelve-inch black-and-white TV.