The first time I saw Harriet, she was staring back at me from the cover of “The New York Times’ Magazine.
It was a colleague who introduced me to Harriet. I was new to working with this man, 30 years my senior, who was trying to figure out who the new girl in the wheelchair was.
“There’s a woman who’s in a wheelchair just like yours on the cover of The New York Times Magazine,” he said.
My interest was piqued. I looked at the cover… and said, “Her wheelchair is nothing like mine.”
Then, I opened the pages. I read about her meeting with Dr. Peter Singer and was amazed at how she could respectfully debate him while respectfully and vehemently disagreeing with his ideology.
At that moment, I learned Harriet was gracious. From that, I realized I should be too… even with people who questioned my very existence.
The second time I saw Harriet, I was surfing the web. I happened across her biography, “Too Late To Die Young.” I couldn’t believe my good fortune in discovering that the woman who’d landed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine had written a book about her life.
I ordered it immediately.
When it arrived in my mailbox, I opened the book immediately. In a matter of hours, I’d absorbed it.
Upon reading the last page, I realized Harriet used her words wisely, and that perhaps, I should too.
The third time I saw Harriet, she was at my old university, speaking at the request of a dear friend who’d managed – somehow – to convince her to pack herself, her gear and her attendant to come see us.
I remember looking at her, feeling far too shy to talk to her. I tried hard to not be too indiscreet as I stared at her sharp cheekbones and keen eyes, the same features that had mesmerized the Times photographer.
That night, she entertained the crowd with her nearly true tales of her life. At that moment, I realized Harriet was real… in every sense of the word. I heard a woman who was complicated, yet a simple Southern gal. A woman who was strong, yet had vulnerabilities. In short, a person who represented the very best we humans have to offer.
The following evening, my friend invited my husband and I, along with a few others for an impromptu dinner with Harriet. I elbowed my way to the dining table to sit next to her, to absorb her wisdom. She didn’t disappoint.
I had one more conversation with her, a few months later. We talked about work, wheelchairs and the differences between Canadians and Americans. How could I have guessed it’d be the last time I’d have an opportunity to speak with her?
Then, the phone call of a few weeks ago. Catherine’s words were simple and blunt.
“Harriet… she’s gone.”
I found it hard – and still do – to believe. So, I re-read the first and last chapters of her memoirs and marveled at her perspective on life… and death.
From that, I learned that I should truly accept that all of us will die one day. That Harriet had lived her life to the absolute fullest. And during that life, she’d forced the able-bodied world to really see us.
I thought of the essays and the speeches, the protests and the activism. At the end, I realized that Harriet’s work will help motivate and dare I say it –- inspire — a new generation of warriors.
She’s taught many people many lessons. I’m fortunate to have been one of them.
So now, at the end of her life, Harriet has become immortal.