Chicago Dibs: A Family Tradition
“‘Dibs’ refers to the practice of holding a shoveled-out parking space after a heavy snowfall by putting chairs, laundry baskets, or other items in the street to mark the claimed space.”
— From the Chicago Dibs Tumblr Page
It nearly destroyed my family when my sister, Rose, slipped on some ice last winter and broke her spine. She had just gotten off the train from work and was headed to the gym. It was one of those weeks Chicago can have in mid-January where on Tuesday, the weather is twelve below zero and gray with snow banks piled up at every corner, then on Wednesday, it’s thirty-eight degrees and sunny with the snow banks transformed into muddy puddles, and then by Thursday it’s back to sub-zero temps with the puddles turned to ice.
The ice was solid and smooth, and the patch at the bottom of the steps of her L stop extended four feet onto the sidewalk. The city hadn’t salted. The CTA hadn’t thrown down any sand for traction. Rose, with her usual swift legs, stepped onto the ice. She slid a moment, her left foot shooting out, away from her body as her arms flailed in effort to grab hold of something — most importantly, balance. She twisted her body — over correcting and under-correcting before both her feet were away from her and up in the air as she fell back. Despite the fresh and fluffy down in her Canadian Goose coat I had bought her for Christmas, the impact split her spine clear through at the third and fourth vertebrae. And again at the fifth and sixth. Her head, well, her brainstem, smacked the edge of the bottom step.
I arrived as fast as I could. Rose had made me her ICE — ironically hilarious, I know — since breaking up with her longtime boyfriend, a guy whose name isn’t worth mentioning. The young mother who was behind her managing a toddler-stuffed stroller called 9-1-1 then used Rose’s phone to call her ICE contact. The ambulance was there and loading her into the back. I rode with her to the hospital.
She had an oxygen mask on and was strapped down pretty tight to the gurney. I held her hand. It was limp. Her eyes were her only form of expression, and they expressed absolute horror. I think she was crying.
Mom and Dad met us in the ER. They were, understandably, distraught. But as far as trips to the ER go, this one was one of the best. No waiting. Rose went right in to the trauma room past the sadsacks who would’ve been better off at a quick care center. And even then, she was out of trauma and up to ICU with an efficiency that can only be categorized as mythical.
There wasn’t anything they could do for her. It was clear from the moment she fell that Rose was paralyzed. She couldn’t even speak. She could blink. That was it.
Rose had always been an active person. Maybe the most active I’ve ever known. She had the controlled and concentrated energy of a thousand high school cheerleaders on Adderall. She was up at five every morning, always made her bed, would put in a full day of work as a digital advertising account planner — whatever that is, worked out at the gym four days a week, served on community boards for non-profits, served food to the hungry during the off-peak months, and painted — her apartment was adorned with her own work. My sister wasn’t a busybody, but she kept her body busy. Being paralyzed was the worst thing that could happen to her.
In an instant, her entire life was taken from her and she was locked inside of a body with no way to really communicate or do anything at all other than look around at all of us forcing a smile, feigning encouragement, and putting our lives on hold so we could tend to hers. As limiting as this was for her, it instantly became a constant demand for Mom and Dad, and me. “She wasn’t this much work as a baby,” Mom said. All Rose could do was watch and listen to us. And then piss and shit herself.
Mom and Dad kept up appearances that everything was okay, that Rose was "blessed" to be alive. The truth, I felt, was that Mom and Dad were blessed she was alive but that Rose saw it more as a curse. They moved her out of her apartment back into her childhood bedroom so they could take care of her. I knew this was hell for my older sister. I could see it in her eyes. She was always looking at me with that same panicked, fearful look she had in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. While Mom and Dad fell into acceptance that their life was now going to revolve around caring for their vegetable daughter — no traversing the Asian continent as they always planed on doing when they retired, no month-long vacations in the Canary Islands, not even time for Dad to take up woodworking or for Mom to finally watch The Godfather trilogy — I was focused on figuring out how to make Rose feel alive again.
It hit me about a month to the day after her accident. I pitched the idea to my parents: Rose would come live with me. We’d hire live-in help. I’d need a bigger apartment, something without too many stairs to the outside. This kept Rose in the city, which we all knew she loved — she could at least take in the energy it has instead of wasting away in a bedroom still decorated like it’s 1993. I would join organizations that worked with disabled people and champion causes that helped fund and find treatments for severe spinal injuries. I would include my sister Rose in all of this. She couldn’t add much other than being a symbol, but it was better than being in that suburban home stuck listening to Dad argue with Pat Sajak when he solved the puzzle incorrectly. It took some convincing but eventually, Mom and Dad went for it.
By mid-March, it was all set up. The look in Rose’s eyes was more calm, maybe even grateful. I knew I was on to something. Rose wanted to serve a purpose. She wanted to improve people’s lives and give all that she could to make the world a better place. And that’s exactly why my paralyzed sister Rose was perfect for being a dibs space-saver.
Anyone can kick over a lawn chair or an orange hazard cone or a trash can. I’ve seen it happen. People are assholes. Dibs is dibs, okay? But I’d like to see someone try and move a paralyzed thirty-seven-year-old woman in a wheelchair that weighs as much as a Smart Fortwo. Yeah, it won’t happen. And it hasn’t happened.
On big snow days when dibbing is necessary, I have Roshonda, our live-in nurse, help me apply ThermaCare heat packs to Rose over her long underwear then bundle her up in that really nice Canadian Goose coat and a blanket, and place her in my dibed parking spot when I head off to work, or to Target or Mariano’s or my girlfriend’s apartment all the way in fucking Bridgeport. Roshonda checks on Rose throughout the day to make sure that she’s not frostbitten and even sits with her for an hour to watch Game of Thrones on the iPad Pro I bought for her this Christmas. When I come home, I text Roshonda and she retrieves Rose from the spot, I park and we all head upstairs to hang out.
In her eyes, I know Rose is grateful to me that I found a purpose for her. If she could, I’m sure she’d say thank you. Instead, she just blinks and then usually shits herself. It’s the most either of us can do.