Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Fall: Intimations of Mortality

            It was a glimpse of my mortality. I knew about mortality in general, but not my own.
            I was helping prepare for my granddaughter Laila’s birthday party. My job: to assist in blowing up the helium balloons. We were working in the little gatehouse at the entrance to the apartment complex – about 30 yards from the clubhouse where the party would take place. Cars were whizzing through the entrance. I was to take about a dozen of the balloons to the clubhouse, and when there was a pause in the traffic, I set out at what I thought was a dignified jog.
            I made it about 10 feet when suddenly my shoe caught on a strip of concrete in the asphalt and I found myself lurching forward. For a split second everything was fine, as I have lurched occasionally in the past with no harm done. But then I thought, “Wait a minute here! I’m going down! I’m actually going down! These things don’t happen to me! I’m an athlete (or was one)! I’m healthy! People tell me I look young! People envy my life – as well they should! So what am I doing falling in the street?”
            My thoughts were interrupted by the pavement. It hurt. I was lying on the asphalt, and I had apparently cut the heel of my hand because it was bleeding. And my knee hurt. I was down.
            A car stopped at the gate and a very nice gentleman got out of his car, helped me up, and asked if I were OK. I assured him I was and started to explain about my granddaughter’s birthday balloons, but he did not seem interested in my story. I limped the rest of the way across the entrance, and he proceeded on his way.
            As I walked toward the party I was desperate to find someone to blame. Someone else to blame. But there were no speeding cars I was dodging, no poorly designed or constructed pavement. I was wearing the wrong shoes, some weird clogs, but they did not cause me to trip. Could I blame the balloons? No, they probably, in a minute way, eased my fall.
            Nope. It was me. Fallible me. I immediately thought of a similar moment 3 years previously, when I capsized a canoe in the Bow River in Alberta. I had the same, “This doesn’t happen to me” feeling as I was going down, but there I had plenty of places (other than me) to lay the blame: the river, the barely submerged concrete in the river, and the guy who never should have taken us out onto such a river. But this time it was all me. I fell. And I am going to die.
            But not today. And not from falling with a bouquet of balloons in my hand. But some day . . ..
            I thought of the moment in War and Peace when Prince Andrei, mortally wounded in battle, is in disbelief that this could be happening to him, who everybody loves. I was not sure that everybody loves me, but the disbelief was the same.
            When I arrived at the clubhouse, nobody seemed aware that I had realized I was going to die. No, instead they were busy with crepe paper, food, and the speakers and electronics that were to be the centerpiece for the karaoke-themed party. I handed off the balloons and, holding up my battered palm, said, simply, “I fell.” Kim expressed sympathy and concern – but only for my injuries, not for my impending death, which she did not know about. I reassured her that I was fine, that nothing was broken – except my dignity and my immortality. I was glad that she did not see me fall, and I was especially glad she did not see me fall while she had a camera in her hands. Scott hustled me off for a bandage.
            I returned to my balloon duty, a new man. A new old man.
            As Kim shared the story of my fall over the next few days, she somehow turned me into a hero for not releasing the balloons. A comic hero, perhaps, but still. No, not exactly a hero, because she also said that passers-by might have thought I was a clown. Kim has a lot of insight, and I think that once again she got it right.

Tony Packard reports:
I’m taking a falling down class at the fitness center (Balance for Seniors). I’m the only male in a class of ten.

Comment from Peter Wintersteiner:

As a youngster, I lived on a bicycle. I rode miles every day on back roads, past fields and woods. OK, it was Central Jersey, so it wasn't that far from some big highway, but back then there really was countryside, too: the Rutgers Ag Farm, which is now malls and parking lots. Later, I had a bike at Amherst, then I spent the summer of '64 in Europe on one I bought in Cologne. I rode from there to Austria, even up and down an Alp or two. Later on, my wife and I bought nice Fuji 12-speeds and enjoyed them in a leisurely manner. No Alps, though, or even Appalachians.

By the time of The Fall, the Fujis were 30 years old and had fallen into disuse. My kids never rode much--there's little countryside in the inner suburbs of Boston--and other pastimes took my attention. But when my grandson was small, he would toddle around the neighborhood with me whenever the weather favored it. He lived with us then. When he was past toddling, he would pedal his Big Wheel as I walked alongside. When he was past merely pedaling, he would race ahead and I would painfully try to keep up. At least I always knew where he was because of the racket. 

Time to break out the bicycle. A little oil here, a new tire, tighten a few nuts--all was shipshape. No longer would I be left in the dust. Actually, with years of grime in my helmet, I did get one dust shower. But who needs a helmet to accompany a four-year-old anyway? We had a great time. There was never any traffic. He took to riding as fast as he could and then making sharp U turns, but he never fooled me. He tried a dirt path but I was up to it, skinny tires and all. Whenever he stopped, I circled, awaiting his move. 

One day he stopped and didn't make a move, he just sat there. I circled, tighter and tighter, slower and slower, waiting for him to make up his mind. Then, all of a sudden, a curb sprang up right at the edge of the road, where it never had been before, a totally useless curb because there was no sidewalk. It shot a glancing blow at my front tire before disappearing. Then everything disappeared. The next thing I saw--I know not how long thereafter--was my grandson's frightened face staring down at me. I'd not fallen off a bicycle in 60 years. We walked home.

So I wore the helmet after that, but the same thing happened again. My grandson is older and now he rides with his friends instead of me, which is better for all concerned. I pay attention to the doctor when he tells me that my nervous system moves its warning messages from my extremities to my brain in a much more leisurely fashion than it used to. That translates roughly into "sometimes you don't know your center of gravity isn't going to be centered anymore until it already isn't", or something like that. The sense of humiliation has been replaced by a sense of humility. It can happen to anyone (our age).

Just ask John Kerry, surely a more avid and experienced biker than I, whose accident not long ago was of the same nature. Of course, he was riding with the Secret Service in the Alps while negotiating an international treaty, not with a four-year old on a level suburban back street while looking forward to dinner. But he broke his leg, for goodness sake. I just bumped my head. I didn't know they had curbs in the Alps.


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