Falling is the great divide for the aging. I’ve been falling all my life, but now even a single fall with no injury is no longer just an accident or a careless mistake. It’s also an occasion to question my ability to make my own decisions — any decisions, really. So I stuck with the funny naked story and kept my worries that this could have easily ended with a broken hip, arm or leg, to myself. Over time the bruise faded and the leg pain diminished.
Of course, it was not always like this. I had polio as a baby, and my first braces and crutches meant I no longer had to be carried everywhere. I don’t remember exactly how I felt but it must have been a wondrous sense of freedom for a 3-year-old. From early on, my palms could interpret the small movements transmitted up the aluminum shafts as the rubber crutch tips stuttered against, slipped on, or stuck into snow, mud, thick grasses, oily pavement, or the shifting of gravel.
Still, I fell, but when I did, I’d bounce easily onto the ground the way children can and my crutches would flail into the air like ski poles. Almost as quickly as I’d fallen, I’d have my butt up in the air with my legs held straight by my braces. My dress would flip over my head. I’d make sure my crutches were wedged tight in front of me and then climb them, hand over hand, to standing. By the time I was five I knew this was immodest, so I’d pull the knee release levers and kneel. Elbows akimbo, crutches angled out from my body, I’d lift up between them in a display of joyful strength. Each time I was knocked down — by a patch of black ice, by a tangle of feet and elbows in a crowd, by a child who grabbed a crutch away from me to see what would happen — I’d find my pride again in the power of my arms.
But old age is a slippery surface. I’m 67 now and that strength is gone. I used to lift myself out of a pool. I’d place my hands on the edge level to where my head bobbed and rise, emerging like Venus, a Venus with massive shoulders that tapered down to short twisted legs and tiny feet. I’m not as skilled and graceful in movement as I used to be when I could swing a door open, twist the wheelchair into position, and slide past the door before it closed. These days I’m more likely to scrape my knuckles and end up tilted precariously.
Instead of being a funny naked story, the next fall could be the one where they say, “and it went downhill from there.” Having been married for a few years hasn’t changed the way my first choice always is to figure out my own solutions, and I am skilled more than most in adapting.
So before I reach down to pick up the dog’s water bowl or retrieve the lapful of mail that slid over my knees, I find something sturdy to brace on — a doorjamb, a table edge, the nonpatronizing help of a friend. And I have a community of mutual support. Some of us have been friends since coming together in the lesbian-feminist surge of the 1980s. They are still alongside me. We are still watching out for each other. The dog has decided she’s old now as well and doesn’t have to do much of what I ask — a position I support, in theory. But she’ll still fish out pens that have rolled under the bed and toss them onto my lap.
Nevertheless, this next fall could be the one that changes everything.
So I’m careful and I worry. The new skills I’d have to learn and the help I’d have to ask for if, say, I have surgery on my shoulder and can’t transfer on my own while it heals, seem overwhelming. And this is despite knowing people who live successful, interesting, complicated lives without having ever been able to transfer on their own. These are people who negotiate getting help with more emotional ease and practical skills than I can now imagine.
This last fall ended up being a relatively small problem, and those are best approached with a sense of humor. But I know I’ll fall again. This is just the long moment in between, when I prepare for the fall.
Disability is a series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities. Coming soon in print: “About Us: Essays From The New York Times Disability Series,” edited by Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, published by Liveright.
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