Just three days before her June 12 wedding, Ruby Varela flashed a wide smile, saying that out of all the day's anticipated festivities, she was most looking forward to walking down the aisle.
“Nobody knows I'm going to really walk down the aisle,” beyond her immediate family and husband Sergio Torres, father of their three children, she said.
Varela has been in a wheelchair for the past 14 years, becoming a T-12 paraplegic after a car crash. For the past three months, Varela has worked out at the gym daily and has gone to physical therapy twice a week to build her upper body strength, allowing her to use orthopedic leg braces and a walker to walk down the aisle at her Little Rock parish, St. Theresa Church.
“I’m super proud of her because she’s working really really hard to be able to walk,” Torres said. “She wakes up at 4 in the morning to go to the gym … she’s amazing.”
A sign in Spanish that translates as, “When I’m weak, Jesus makes me strong,” would hang on the front of the walker.
“Don't get me wrong -- I love my wheelchair because that's who I am,” Varela, 35, said. “But you know, it's just like a statement saying, ‘If you put your mind to it, you can do anything,’ basically.”
In 2007, Varela was 21 years old, hanging out at a local lake.
“I remember it was raining. I guess the truck slid out of the roadway, so we ended up rolling down. I was in the backseat,” she said.
Her now-husband was driving.
“So I guess I got the worst part. Because I went back and forth, back and forth.”
Varela was conscious but in disbelief. She told the doctors treating her she was five months pregnant and remembers her legs feeling a unique sense of heaviness. As a T-12 parapeligic, Varela has no control of her legs and “no sensation basically below my waist.”
“I just was like no, that’s not me. I’m going to be fine,” she said when doctors told her she was paralyzed. Varela and Torres were married in a civil ceremony after the wreck. On June 12, through convalidation, exchanging vows in front of a priest, they entered into the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church.
Her mother, Maria Varela, said it was hard to watch her daughter go through the pain of the accident while being pregnant.
“I saw that her life had completely paused,” her mother said, with Varela translating. “I didn't know what to expect because I had never lived through an experience like this. … I never lost my faith. I would always thank God because she was still alive.”
The aftermath changed everyone’s lives and ideas of the future.
“It was hard because I was there with her, but at the same time thinking a million things, ‘What are we going to do, what’s next?’” Torres, 31, said. “Maybe I was depressed too. I used to drink alcohol; it’s not a cure, but it helps. But it’s not the help you want.”
Varela gave birth at seven months to her first son, Sergio Torres Jr., now 13.
“I believe that after I had the baby is when my depression really hit,” Varela said. “Because it was like, ‘This is my real life, and I have to take care of myself, learn new things and take care of a baby that depends on me 100 percent.’”
The feelings of hopelessness dragged on while she grappled with postpartum depression as well as grieving the loss of her mobility.
“You think about why didn’t God just take me? You think about all these things. But my family was my main support. With their help, obviously I was able to keep going,” she said.
Routine tasks like taking a shower, brushing her teeth and going to the bathroom were challenging, as she struggled with instability of her torso. She had to adjust to being a new mom and a new way to function with the changes in her body.
“I didn't know how to make sure I wasn't going to fall off the chair or like lean forward without being scared, ‘Oh, I'm going to fall.’ That's the struggle, especially when you're trying to hold a baby or even brush your teeth,” she said. “It's a new learning process.”
Varela battled depression for five years. Before social media became popular, she was isolated, learning how to navigate her new life with little guidance from others who had been through it. She would pray, but the words were hollow.
“I was not even really looking forward to the next day or trying to be a better mom ... you're just losing yourself, not caring, just letting life go by,” Varela said, adding she fell into alcohol abuse and other harmful coping methods, “just because you feel it’s the easy way and it heals, but it doesn’t. It just makes it worse.”
Eventually, she turned to God. She called her mom, asking her to take her to church to talk with a priest.
“I don’t even remember exactly what he said, but you just feel that relief. This is what I needed,” Varela said.
Today, she talks to God, prays the rosary and makes sure to have nightly prayer time with her children.
“I want them to know he's the one that can only really help you,” Varela said of God. “And I always tell them, ‘That's the only one that at the end of the day is going to be there for you and hear you out. You have a problem, he’s the only one that can help. I'm going to be here, but God is always above everybody.”
The life changes have helped her grow as a person and as a mother.
“Everything,” Varela said about enjoying being a mom. “It is just so fun to see them grow every day, even though they drive me nuts sometimes. They’re just their own little personalities.”
She shares nuggets of wisdom with her children, stemming from her accident: always wear a seatbelt, do not judge others, say hello, wave or interact with children who might have a disability.
“At first, I was ashamed of my chair. You don't want to show it or if you take a picture, ‘Don’t take a picture of my legs’ or me in the chair. And now it’s just like that’s what I want. Thanks to the chair, I’m able to move around,” Varela said.
It’s the same lessons adults should recognize, to break some of the misconceptions about those in wheelchairs.
“They think ‘Oh, she'll never get married’ or I'll never have kids or she'll never be happy or she's dirty. Or she can't take care of herself. Just so many things, you’d be surprised,” she said. “... People will look at me funny. You know, there's a lot of people that look at the wheelchair, they don't see that person. They think that ‘Oh yeah, just because you're in a wheelchair, you can't do this.’ No, you can do a lot.”
For those suddenly faced with a disability or life-altering event, Varela said attitude is everything.
“It will get better one day; it will get better. And I know it seems like it's forever, but time really does heal,” she said. “And attitude makes such a difference. If you see everything in a good way, it will be in a good way.”
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