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I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio

by Kelly Davio

I’m pretty good at falling. Over the past few years of living with a progressive neuromuscular disease, I’ve learned how to come down on the flats of my hands without jamming my wrists, and even if my knees bruise, I can always wear something that covers the worst of the marks so I don’t look like the victim of some kind of alarming knee-related crime.

I’ve had a lot of time to work on my form. At times, my tumbles were such a part of daily life that my husband even came up with an Olympic-style system for rating my falls. He’d hear a thump as I hit the floor in some far corner of our home, then come in to help me up, but only after giving me a mostly arbitrary score of seven or eight-point-five after assessing how I’d stuck my landing. If that sounds cold, it wasn’t. We found it funny; the sicker I got, the more we both needed a good laugh.

There came a point when I couldn’t get between pieces of furniture in my house without taking a spill, and no matter how practiced I was at landing well, I was starting to feel the effects of daily falls—an ache here, an unhappily pulled muscle there. At my worst, when I needed to get farther than five or six feet at a time in a public place—say, from one end of a parking lot to a building—I’d end up hanging off my husband’s arm like a pet sloth.

Finally, I had to admit I needed a cane; there were times when I had no shoulder to hang from, and I needed a better strategy than hoping I’d magically stay upright every moment I was alone.

So, I did it: I ordered myself a green paisley cane. Fifteen bucks, two days, and some free Prime shipping later, and I was in business.

I loved my new cane. I could stand up more quickly, walk across a parking lot without beefing it in front of an oncoming SUV, and get across tricky rooms without having to hold on to walls like a creeping insect. My life was monumentally improved.

Who knew a fifteen-dollar piece of aluminum could do all that?

*

Some months after I started clacking along on my spiffy new assistive device, I attended the AWP conference in Seattle: it was a big, teeming mass of creative writers, many of whom I’d known professionally for years. Before entering the massive conference center, I gave myself an unconvincing little parking lot pep talk: maybe nobody will notice you’re sick this year! It’ll be fine! Heaving myself out of the car with my cane, I felt like a grade school kid worrying about what the schoolyard bullies would say about her coke-bottle glasses—my new accessory was a necessity, but something that made me uncomfortably visible.

Yet I was a grown woman, among a sea of other grown people. Surely nobody would point out what was so obviously embarrassing to me.

I shuffled into the conference hall, repeating it’ll be fine in the back of my brain while I missed session after session; there was no way I could move quickly enough through great swarms of people to make my way between distant points of the building. So I stopped to chat with people.

There was a great deal of noticeable name-tag scanning when I greeted folks I’d known for years but who didn’t recognize me with those drugs that aged me, hair that had thinned considerably, face puffed up with steroids, and my body thirty pounds lighter than it should’ve been. I got tired of saying a boisterous hello to people who either couldn’t recognize this version of me or wanted to know, “what happened to you?” Exhausted and demoralized, I ducked into a panel discussion—one where, mercifully, there was somewhere to sit.

One of the speakers on the panel was talking about the importance of believability in fiction, and led into a point with, “as the writer Kelly Davio said…”. I listened with horror as she repeated what was no doubt some poorly considered remark I’d made on Twitter. The look on my face probably resembled that of a wombat being asked to do calculus.

But it seemed the panelist wasn’t calling me out, but actually illustrating a point she was making. To my unending surprise, I’d actually been trotted out as some kind of authority. When I left the talk twenty or so minutes later, I felt a hell of a lot better about myself. I was, after all, The Writer Kelly Davio. I had been quoted!

With this new feeling that I was somebody—despite being an unrecognizable, cane-hobbling shade of myself—I ventured back out into the chaos of people to try being social again.

It was while shuffling through the corridors with my renewed sense of confidence that I felt the fist in my back. A man walking behind me had, for no reason I can imagine, punched me between the shoulder blades.

I flew forward. I came down, knees cracking hard on the concrete floor, trying to fall so that I wouldn’t injure myself, but failing in the brute surprise of it all.

As the meat of my hands swelled up from the impact, my mind played catch-up with the reality of my body on the ground. I tried to sort out what had just happened—this had to be some kind of freak accident, didn’t it? But what kind of accident involves punching someone? Who goes around swinging balled-up fists in a crowded room to begin with?

I looked up to see the man who had just hit me laughing as he loomed above me in his ugly red sweatshirt. It didn’t seem like the way a person behaves after a freak accident.

I waited for any one of the scores of people standing around and gawking to offer me some help. Any moment, I thought, someone would confront this man who’d just clocked me in the middle of a packed convention center. Of course one of these hundreds of other writers would offer to help me stand up, or even simply ask if I was okay.

But each of the people who’d just watched a strange man hit me turned back to their business, and the crowd bustled on as though I wasn’t there.

I watched their pretty shoes step past me as I crawled, on hands and knees, to reach my cane. I watched them maneuver around my body as I scooped up my absurd little conference tote bag and its ridiculous bookmarks and pens and submission guidelines that had spilled out all over the floor. I watched dozens of people pass and pretend not to notice as the man who’d just punched me reached down and picked me up off the floor, pressing himself against my back in a way that made me want to vomit or shower or both.

*

This is the part of the story when I am supposed to rise up from the ground like some kind of avenging spirit. It would make for a good scene if I’d dragged myself up by a festooned tablecloth on one of the trade show stalls—perhaps taking half of an MFA program’s table display with me—and let the man have it. It might be even better if I’d let the pamphlets and poetry collections and mailing list sign-up sheets fly around me as I lashed out at him, wielding my aluminum cane like a weapon (though of course I wouldn’t hit him. I’m not a violent jerk, after all).

Yet that’s not what happened.

This is the part of the story when I gathered my things with as much dignity as I could scrape together and walked straight ahead. A man who’d apparently been watching my clobbering unfold from his table a few feet away asked if I’d be interested in purchasing a year-long subscription to his publication. I politely declined. I’m not sure why he deserved my politeness.

This is the part of the story when I found the women’s bathroom, shut myself in a stall, and cried.

What a disappointment: a 30-year-old woman sniveling in the restroom like a humiliated child. I know what’s expected of sick and disabled people, and this wasn’t it. We’re to be inspirational, never to break the illusion of perfect equanimity, and—above all—to accept unacceptable circumstances without making a fuss.

Yet if I broke an unspoken social code, so did the mass of people who stood around and gaped at me that day. It would have been just as good a scene, after all, had any of my fellow writers asked if I needed assistance, confronted the man who’d hit me, offered to call security, helped me to a safe location, or even just smiled at me humanely.

This isn’t a story about human kindness any more than it’s a story about fortitude.

This is the story of how I learned I wasn’t The Writer Kelly Davio any longer. I wasn’t someone to quote—I was something to walk over. And why? What I’d thought had made me awkwardly noticeable had made me, in fact, invisible.

Who knew a fifteen-dollar piece of aluminum could do all that.


Kelly Davio

Kelly Davio

Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013. Her work has appeared in venues including Best New Poets, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Toast. A long-time Seattleite, she now lives in London, England.

 

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36 replies »

  1. This, right here, is one major reason I haven’t attended AWP in years. As many of us know all too well, it’s not just not an accessible space, it’s often a downright hostile one. I agree with several other commenters that writers and other artistic types can be particularly opportunistic. It’s an overwhelmingly isolating space even for the able-bodied, and I’m so sorry the coldness of hive mind affected you in this way. Beautifully, and necessarily told.

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  2. It’s horrifying how appalling people’s behaviour can be. The fact not one person stopped to help you is mind boggling. And, the guy who hit you? Wtf?? I know myself well enough to know I wouldn’t think twice about helping you, or anyone else. I’ve done it at these conferences, and done it in every day life. What the hell is wrong people? I’m so sorry this happened to you.

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  3. I think crowds of people are less empathetic than a small group. In a large crowd people feel more anonymous and likely to think someone else will help. They may feel that it could be dangerous to interfere since they don’t know either of you. I have difficulties walking for more than a short distance and I would not be brave enough to attend a big conference like you did. I commend you for your courage and hope this terrible incident with such a cruel man who evidently has no conscious will not stop you from doing whatever you want to do. Recently when I had a scary incident, I said I would not travel alone again, but was told that I was admired for my courage and independence. I’m sure you are also. If possible, have someone with you, but when you can’t, don’t let that hamper your enjoyment of attending an event. Be as aware as you can of what is going on around you and the people who are around you. This man who hit you must have had some weird sense of humor. To laugh at knocking down a person with a cane is totally insane.
    Your writing of this event is excellent and I will share this with others. Thank you for writing it.

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  4. I am glad you so eloquently said what any of us with mobility issues, Fibromyalgia, autoimmune issues, chronic fatigue, depression need to read. The conditions often lead to more junk. For me, the newest is choking on most things, Lymphocitic Colitis, an ulcer, frequent hospitalizations now to move it along . Unfortunately, we do become invisible or we receive less than kind words and actions from others.

    I’ve spent time in a wheelchair, used a walker, still need a cane on uneven or unfamiliar territory. I fall. Almost daily. My paramedic son once told me I finally learned to stop, drop, and roll like an expert.

    Large writing Conferences are difficult for the reasons you mention. I choose smaller ones. I will explore more about your journey and your writing. I am very impressed with your bravery. You don’t feel it but your words spoke it loud and clear.

    Take care of yourself. Is there an online group, blog, or other supportive places for us. I would love to read more about your journey and its successes despite the downfalls

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  5. You have incredible courage and humour, a beautifully written awful story. The thing about empathy is it has to be modelled and practiced and children have to witness the action of helping, of saying “stop that” of someone making sure no one ever is treated as you were on their watch. We are failing each other, our children and anyone even slightly slowed by illness or circumstances. I am so sorry. Please keep writing.

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  6. I’m saddened but not surprised by the lack of support from other writers. When shit hit the fan for me health-wise this year it was not my NYC writer or music friends who showed up. I’ve been blown off many times because of my lack of “status.” I feel like many writers are somewhat opportunistic at times, only interested in helping those they can be helped by. It’s really sad that they aren’t more supportive of each other regardless of status. I pray for you that you do find the support you need to get through this, just know that it may not come from where you expect it, and be open to that. You are in my thoughts & prayers. Keep on writing for yourself, not for them.

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  7. I wish there were such a thing as fast-acting karma, so that insensate bully could have been forced on the spot to know what it’s like to perform involuntary pratfalls, hang on someone’s arm like a pet sloth, or creep across a wall like an insect. (I usually don’t wish people ill, but in this case it would seem fair.) And I’m SO sorry that he’s diminished your faith in your fellow humans — at least temporarily. But he hasn’t knocked you down for good. If anything, you have risen like an avenging spirit to prove that you are still *very much* The Writer Kelly Davio … and you’ve reminded the rest of us that, sometimes, not acting makes us complicit in a heinous act. Thank you for writing this powerful piece, Kelly.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, you have told this so well, and I’ve had two similar incidents. I fell outside of a medical building, and scores of people walked right on past me. My glasses had shot off somewhere under a car, and I was having trouble pulling myself up because I had fallen on my hip. Not one person held out a hand to help me up, and this was right in front of a medical center and doctors’ offices. The other was at AWP where I felt that same sense of wandering around as a stranger in a crowd despite knowing a fair number of people. Thanks for taking the time to tell the story.

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  9. I have mobility issues as well thanks to sle lupus. I am also only in my thirties. I experienced much the same using a cane or walker. Now I have a mobility assistance dog. Mine is a mastiff, I know others that use great danes. Having a living cane that can adjust to my needs and pull me up when I have fallen is great. But the best part is that the asshats like the one you mentioned think twice about being a jerk to the disabled woman because of the big ass dog by her side.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This made me feel sick. Both that poor excuse for a human, and the bystanders who did nothing.
    As a cane user who is a lot more able-bodied, your experience heightens my anxiety (already have GAD & panic disorder) of what would happen if my legs did give out under me.

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  11. Sorry about the assholes. I had such a conflicting sets of feelings for me- because it meant that most of the already few cat calls I experienced stopped when I started using a cane. On one hand, thank ! that shit is annoying/scary. On the other hand, it meant people stopped seeing me as a desirable object and more like an inconvenient object. So. Feels. But it’s liberated me to push myself and to do the stuff I want without worrying about falling, or becoming too exhausted to make it safely home/to my room.

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  12. Really? no one helped you? Did you do anything about this? I read this and my mouth is just open in awe. I use a wheelchair and whenever I’ve fallen around people, they have helped. I can’t believe that someone would knock you to the ground and everyone just keeps going. This is sick!

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  13. Ugh! Being sick/in pain sucks. And it really does make you feel like a shadow of your former self. Like I used to like myself because I did xyz things, and now that I can’t do xyx things I kind of don’t have that much left to like sometimes. And then you manage to get yourself to the point where you’re like, wait, I am still pretty great, I do still matter, and then some fucking asshole comes along and literally or metaphorically knocks you right down, through carelessness or deliberate malice. Whether it’s that lady I keep getting when I call the insurance company or the guy who sits a few seats down from me who makes all the ableist, racist, queer-phobic comments.. Ugh. Most people don’t realize, I think, how they affect people around them. And then there are the ones who totally do, like the guy who attacked you – and that’s even worse; I’m so sorry!! 😦 If nothing else though it has made me try to be gentler with people.. since I know how much I appreciate it when people are gentle with me. Sigh.

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  14. I’m so sorry this happened to you, and particularly that no one helped. I am happy, however, that you wrote this beautiful piece and that I got to see it.

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  15. Kelly, so beautifully written and so stunningly real and terrible and I’m sorry I wasn’t there to pull you up, buy you coffee, and yell at that idiot who pushed you. Everyone is afraid. Everyone has disabilities of one kind or another, and I think there is nothing more important than what you are doing–refusing to be invisible, telling your truth. Signed, the writer who has asthma, a vocal cord disorder no one can figure out, and terrible hearing from meds.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This astonishes and pains me. I was there – and I’ll be in LA this year – and can’t imagine, can’t begin to imagine what you went through. I hope you are well. I’m so sorry for what you’ve experienced.

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  17. Wheelchairs, canes and cognitive impairment and the like transfer people like us into a parallel universe. I’ve held back writing about these ugly encounters in my own life. Thank you for making your experience visible. Thank you for encouraging a dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Inspired, Tiegan? For real? Inspired? As a fellow cane user who used to work for the conference-presenting organization, I am not so much inspired as appalled, horrified, disgusted… what part of these people’s behavior toward the author of this piece was inspiring? Or are you just one of those paid trolls who thinks a punch in the back to a cripple is “wonderful” entertainment?

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  19. Hi Kelly,
    Unfortunately I can’t offer comforting words like, “I would have helped you if I was there,” because as you related, the entire conference population walked around you and neglected to help. I experienced this myself when I fell down a flight of marble stairs, spraining my ankle. I was at a user conference put on by my company, and even co-workers walked right past me, even after looking me in the eye.

    A lot of us comfort ourselves with what we imagine is our own boundless compassion. But the fact of the matter is that most of us are not living in the present at all. We are wrapped up in our private universes, and the people around us simply don’t exist unless we need them. As writers, we of all the rest should be more sensitive to the behavior of people. Don’t we observe their behavior, so as to be unflinchingly honest in our work? No, not if the bestseller lists are accurate. We prefer worlds populated with people that don’t exist, or reflections or our self image, to the truth.

    This is a beautiful piece of writing that has served to ensure my eyes remain open to the world. Thank you. And be well.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. What the hell??? Surely the normal response would have been to help you up, first of all, and second, to tell that guy off, maybe even have him arrested. There must be some reason why no one reacted. They must not have understood what had just happened. Maybe they saw you fall, then saw him “helping” you up, and assumed it was an accident and that everything was fine. Of course there are places where a woman can be thrown around by a strange man and no one will intervene – certain seedy bars, for example – but I wouldn’t think the AWP was one of them.

    I was at a crowded nightclub once and some random guy – who I never saw, so couldn’t identify him – shoved me in the back hard enough to send me sprawling across a table where several people were drinking. No way it was an accident. The people at the table reacted by giving ME dirty looks because I had knocked over their drinks. I stood up and said, “I’m fine! Thanks for asking! Assholes!”

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  21. Wow, Kelly. This is the first thing I’ve read by you. I’m really moved. Please pardon me if I make some comments; take what you like and leave the rest.
    1) you are still a writer
    2) that man was a creep, a bully, and a puling worm who’s eschewed the right to be called ‘human being’.
    3) I’d like to think I would have stopped to help you. (I also like to think I would have asked to borrow your cane, then thrashed him with it, then carefully wiped the blood off and handed it back to you with a smile, but here we dwell in the realm of fantasy). At the very least I would have asked him ‘what the FUCK is wrong with you?”
    4) There is absolutely no excuse for this to happen – no matter how many introverts were in the room, no matter how many people thought ‘someone else will handle this’. We are here to help and care for one another. I am SO sorry this happened to you!
    5) The true sickness in the room wasn’t yours. You were not diminished in any way by someone else’s casual display of cruelty. I love that you are honest about your experience & your feelings, even though you don’t consider this a ‘heartwarming story of the triumph of the human spirit’.
    6) I hope you go back to that same conference this year, and read this story out loud. Make sure you glance around the room and see if anyone is squirming.

    I haven’t been pushed down since a day on the playground when I was 9, but I vividly remember that boy standing on my skirt, holding me down, that fear and helpless rage. A decade later I ran into him in college, and he tried to make a friendly overture – “Hi, it’s good to see you!” (Did he even remember being a relentless bully? What he’d done to me? Would he try to make it up to me? Would he try to do it again?) I wasn’t gonna give him the chance – just gave him a ‘hello’ with a look that would curdle milk and stalked away.

    I hate mean people.

    Liked by 3 people

  22. I feel very sad, and wished I had been there to help. This brought tears to my eyes. I bought my own black floral cane in 2015, as I have Vertigo, and it can appear at the most inconvenient times, and is worse in social occasions when I am stressed. Without balance I have to walk to a safe place, without looking too drunk or falling over in the street. It shouldn’t frighten me to go out alone, especially at night, but it does.
    The onlookers who did nothing to help you should be ashamed. I know this has effected your confidence, but hold your head up high, you have so much t be proud of. I agree with Jackie Fox.

    You are Kelly Davio, a wonderful and inspiring writer, and you are NOT invisible.

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  23. you are indeed a wonderful writer. This account upsets me greatly. Although I haven’t fallen (yet) I need a cane to walk even to the street (a block away). Mine’s just ordinary aluminum. I wish someone had clobbered that guy and maybe everyone who ignored you. thank you for writing this.

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  24. I wish I’d been in that corridor. I would have helped you up (after asking if it was okay for me to help). I would have wished for the opportunity to kick that man in the slats.

    Also, though I don’t know you, I agree with Jackie Fox: You are the writer Kelly Davio. If you were not, you wouldn’t have moved me and shifted the course of my day with this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Never doubt you are still every inch the writer Kelly Davio. An incredible piece. May that asshole rot in Hades. And as far as all those others, Edmund Burke said it better than I can: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Shame on all of them.

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  26. What those people did by walking around you was no less heinous than what that man did to you. I’m so sad that we live in a world like this. I know this probably won’t make a difference but I know there are people out there just like me – who would have made sure you were Okay, tracked down a Conference organizer, and made sure the bastard was thrown out if not charged with assault. I know differently-abled people don’t need saviors, but as someone with challenges myself, we sure as hell need allies.

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  27. You have no idea how very in tune I am with this piece. While I have not endured the atrocity you endured, I am so sorry, I know the invisibility. My aluminum is purple and has flowers. I am 44 with fibromyalgia and got mine just this year. Thank you for writing this.

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  28. A wonderful retelling of real events… I couldn’t feel more inspired after reading this, and my eyes were glued to every word.

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