Independence Day

It’s the 4th of July.  It’s an action and adventure film.  It’s the hit song by Martina McBride.  That might be “Independence Day” for you, but for me, it’s something else entirely.  “Independence Day” is rooted in a dream, commemorated on May 1.

There is no cake with candles.  I don’t receive cards or gifts.  Oftentimes, there is no ceremony or activity to celebrate the day.  But the day is special to me, nonetheless.  I hope you don’t mind if I tell you about it.

Every year when I turn my calendar over to the month of May, I am reminded of May 1, 2007.  It doesn’t matter how much time has elapsed.  I am taken right back to that early morning as I stood shivering on the lawn outside my first apartment.  The caretaker had just placed the gold, metallic key in my hand, and I wrapped my fingers around it.  It was official!

It had taken a great deal of effort to get to this point.  First, I had to break down disability-related stereotypes.  “Are you sure you’re ready to live on your own?  How will you buy groceries, go to the bank, get to church without a car? Will you be able to afford the rent?  What will you eat?  How will you cook for yourself?

The questions didn’t all come at once but they were there nonetheless.  Some of the questions even came from family members.  I perceived their doubt and uncertainty, their care for my well-being— and it pushed me upward and outward.  I was tired of explaining the reasoning behind my decisions.  It was time to show instead of tell.

My parents helped me move in that day, and by late afternoon, almost everything was situated.  Only a few boxes of books and other trinkets were left to be unpacked.  When my parents said goodbye, I took one look at those boxes and groaned.  I was weary of the moving process, so I sought a diversion.

I opened my closet and pulled out my newest companion: a fold-up grocery cart.  I would get groceries, I decided.  After all, if I was going to be successful in living independently, I needed to eat.  I unfolded the cart and started out down the street, pushing it in front of me.  I made it the block-and-a-half to the store without incident and made my way inside.  It was my first time grocery shopping all by myself, but I wasn’t all that nervous.  I knew that I needed some bread, orange juice, and cereal, and I managed to find everything I needed without asking for help.

I made my way up to the counter and began to unload the contents of my cart onto the conveyer belt.

“That’s a handy little cart you have there,” the cashier remarked.  “It’s so great that you can take that with you when you get groceries.”

I nodded without saying anything.  No doubt, she had noticed my white cane extending out to the side of the grocery cart.  I prepared myself for the well-meaning but patronizing comments I knew she would utter next.  It would be something like: “It’s so great you could be out and about today.  Is there someone here to help you?  Can you sign the receipt?”  No doubt, she would conclude with the expected: “You’re such an inspiration!”

But instead, she broke out into a smile (that by the way, I could clearly see) and said, “You’re so confident.  Good for you!  How long have you been living on your own?”

I froze there for a second.  I think I was gripping the receipt she had just printed for me.  I looked at her then with utter seriousness and said softly: “Twenty minutes.”

“What?  Really!?  Well, congratulations!”

And in that moment, I knew she was genuine in her response.  I think I will always remember that encounter in the grocery store as the first milestone in my journey to independence.  Because you see, I hadn’t obtained independence just by moving out on my own.  Independence was a gradual process and constantly ongoing.  In the coming weeks and months, I would learn what it truly meant to be independent.

There was a trip to the bank, paying my first phone bill, changing my first light bulb, vacuuming the living room for the first time, cleaning my own bathroom (including the first time I needed a toilet plunger, which is another story entirely), cooking my first meal, and so much more.  Then came the bigger factors: realizing that I could come and go as I pleased, planning parties and gatherings that I could host, playing and practicing my music to my heart’s content, and staying up late if I felt so inclined.

But the challenges proved to be the greatest asset to my independence.  I received my first burn on my hand from handling hot food.  I learned the hard way about the dangers of Internet and phone scams.  I made difficult phone calls and advocated for my needs.  I worked hard to promote my books and sell my music.  And when long-term allergies set in and my health deteriorated, I knew I was the only one who knew best how to take care of me.

So on December 1, 2010, I made the difficult decision to break my lease and move out of my mold and dust mite-ridden apartment and make a home elsewhere.  The move wasn’t something I had time to prepare for, so I took the first opportunity that came along.  I moved into a retirement community, occupying a far smaller unit than the apartment I had grown to love.  I relinquished some of my furniture and had to cram everything inside, but I was relieved to finally be able to breathe.  Over the next three years, I found peace and began to rebuild my life— health-wise and in my relationship with God.  He and I had come through quite the rough patch; through it all, I had rededicated myself to giving Him everything.  My voice was not mine but His alone.  My success was not due to my own efforts but His provision for my life.  My independence was not a result of anything I had accomplished on my own; it was because He was with me.

Then in June, 2014, the biggest change occurred.  I was able to leave the retirement community to take hold of an opportunity I was eager to embrace.  Sharing a home and renting from the owners has given me the greatest boost in my journey to independence.  My current living situation is about as stable as it can get.  I am grateful to those who made it possible.  For almost two years now, I have marveled at the freedom that comes from not being limited by income guidelines.  There are less prying eyes and nosy questions.  I have a place to park my bike and a kitchen where I can entertain and gather with friends.  I have a bedroom that is just a bedroom, not an office/bedroom or studio/bedroom.  It is a sanctuary; it is home.

I know my current living situation doesn’t define my independence, but it serves to remind me that I have come a long way over the past nine years.  I am blessed to have journeyed thus far.  Here’s to the next nine years of independence.

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