An unflappable optimist goes home

COLUMBIA, 8/24/11  (Remembering) --  Even when Columbia's city buses stopped running, stranding Christy Welliver (left) at the Tiger Hotel one winter's night a few years back, she never stopped smiling. 

Christy had taken public transit -- specially equipped to handle her electronic wheelchair -- from her home south of town to the Historic Preservation Commission's annual gala honoring notable historic properties.  
But the gala ran later than the city bus schedule, and as Christy put it to city planner Mitch Skov and me, she might just have to drive her electric wheelchair home on this frosty night -- a first for sure, but what else could she do?  

Then the Historic Preservation Commission's city staff liaison, Mitch -- a fit walker who hoofs it to work every day -- said he'd be happy to walk with Christy, all the way from the Tiger to her condo near Green Meadows and Murry's.   But the more we all thought about that -- my wife, my kids, me, Mitch, and Christy, gathered on the sidewalk -- the more it sounded like wishful thinking. 

But what else could we do?  Mitch walked to the event and was on foot, and my wife and family came in our minivan.  We could get Christy home, but what about her chair -- a small but intricate machine critical to her mobility? 

Despite the dilemma, Christy -- who had the neuromuscular disorder multiple sclerosis (MS) -- never let her smile fade nor her mind stop working.  "We'll just think of another plan," she said.  She thought about calling friends.  Maybe a cab.  Someone with a truck.

A truck!   I had ol' Blue -- the Ford F150 pickup truck, whom readers may recall getting stuck in the snow last winter at a very bad time.  But there wasn't any snow on this cold, clear night, so with Christy and Mitch waiting inside the Tiger, my family and I drove home, picked up Blue, and drove back. 

The plan seemed simple enough -- at first.  Load wheelchair into back of truck.  Load Christy into the family van.  Drive to her home, unload, and joila!  Mission accomplished! 

On her directions, I scooped Christy into my arms and with my wife, son and daughter helping, gently settled her into our van.  I was an old hand at this sort of thing -- my sister had muscular dystrophy or MD, a distant MS cousin.  Mitch, meanwhile, lowered the gate to my truck and prepared her chair for loading. 

We'll just lift it.  Up she goes!  That's it -- just LIFT it.  LIFT IT!   LIFT..!  

Well -- we tried to lift it anyway.  And tried.  And tried again.  Two big guys, we barely got the chair off the ground, and were sure we'd break our backs if we tried any more.  It was much heavier than either of us expected. 

I looked at Christy, waiting patiently in the van.  "Well -- I never lift it," she quipped.  "I only drive it."  She grinned. 

As I started envisioning one of us driving the chair to Christy's house, Mitch Skov figured out a solution based on the driving idea.  I had some two-by-fours and plywood in the back of my truck.  We slipped the wood out, built a makeshift ramp, and walking alongside it, Mitch moved the wheelchair levers and drove the chair onto the ramp. 
With BCD Lifetime Achievement Award

But whoa!  The chair wobbled precariously as it climbed, and we had to keep grabbing the wheels to keep them on track.  If it fell off, heavy as it was, we'd be in a real pickle.    

Mitch carefully inched the chair up and slowly, surely, it puttered into the back of ol' Blue.   My wife rolled down the windows to the van and we gave Christy the good news.

She smiled, winked, and with a slight intention tremor slowly raised her hand into a "thumbs up."

From there, it was a simple drive to Christy's place, where we lowered the makeshift ramp and Mitch slowly inched the chair out of ol' Blue and onto the walkway.  We unlocked her door and Christy, at last, drove home.  Between "thank yous" and a few tired laughs in her dining room, we all agreed that this was a story for the grandkids.  

Christy Welliver -- who not once all the many times I saw her ever had less than a broad smile on her face -- passed away at age 59 last week.  She was widely remembered as an accessibility activist, a human rights advocate, and a frequent presence at community events where her unfailing optimism and calm but resolute demeanor lifted virtually everyone. 

My family and I first met Christy at a function for then-statehouse candidate Chuck Graham, shortly after we came to Columbia 14 years ago. She reached out with a gentle, trembling touch I would feel again and again over the years, on the top of my hand or on my wrist, soft and warm, yet firm. 

She reached out again that chilly February eve, but this time with a kiss -- a peck on the cheek.  "Great job, everyone," she said, not ruffled in the least.  "I really appreciate it." 

Our pleasure, ma'am.  We were honored to oblige. 

-- Mike Martin