She said she did not know how it happened, exactly. She did not know how she had fallen.
We learn to walk by falling—we learn to live and love by falling. Human locomotion is sometimes described as a skillful process of continuous falling. Falling is one of those words that has resonated with me in a visceral and embodied way from my earliest of memories. As a kid, I loved to fall. Sometimes it hurt, sometimes it surprised, but it rarely deterred me. I fell on the crooked sidewalk in Oak Park, Illinois on my first outing on roller skates at age two. I fell into a prickly pear cactus bush shortly after our move to New Mexico at age three. I fell on a steep slope of moguls in a skiing accident when I was ten. I fell accidentally. I fell deliberately. I fell reluctantly. I fell with confidence.
As a kid, I used to spring from the inside of my mom's closet all the way onto her king sized bed, flip up and over and land with my feet on the ground on the other side of the bed, having used the bed like a type of vaulting mechanism. My mother, enamored somewhat by this type of experimentation and physical abandon, allowed such antics. These falling experiments continued, but in different contexts. Sometimes with painful consequences—but they never deterred the combination of curiosity, fear, and attraction to that certain special feeling that can accompany falling (or flying) in all its many varied forms.
Unfortunately, my mom suffered a significant fall recently—the second in a relatively short period of time. She is 92. The stakes of falling are much higher now. A significant fall at this age can have dire consequences. It can mean a loss of independence. My mom fiercely defends her already reduced independence and desperately wants to maintain whatever independence she still has.
She said it happened quickly. She was dealing with some repeated bouts of vertigo over the past few weeks, and when she got up to get her anti-vertigo medication she felt dizzy and toppled backwards, hitting a wooden dresser and then landing hard on the floor on the back of her pelvis. And just a few weeks earlier she gotten up too quickly, became dizzy and fell on the hard kitchen floor, breaking her fall with her arm and hitting her head. Fortunately, my brother was on the other side of the door, having only just left her apartment after a visit. He said hearing the unmistakable thud of her body hitting the floor was terrifying. In that fall, she did not break anything, but wound up with pretty ugly black eye that apparently became the source of some dark humor in the cafeteria in her retirement community. My brother and I tried to get her to consider using a walker after that fall. "Absolutely not!" she stubbornly insisted.
But now this. This last fall is, unfortunately, a game changer.
My mom has been making friends in her new home, a retirement community (with assisted living, etc) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is no small feat. Getting her to leave her home of over fifty years, the home where my brother and I were raised and that my dad lovingly cared for while he was alive, was not easy. In fact, moving her was almost impossible. She fought and fought hard. But she was living alone in truly deplorable conditions, barely eating, and barely subsisting. Something needed to change. So the big change of a major move finally happened, and she was not happy. But little by little, she made new friends in her new home. The daily socialization and better nutrition made a difference. She seemed more alert and engaged.
Still, there were balance issues and these were compounded by her blindness. One day during our last visit, my husband and I took her to a nearby mall for a little shopping excursion. We were going to buy her a swimsuit (yes, she still swims) and a table for her new apartment. I enjoyed helping my mom try on swimsuits. She finally settled on the one that was on sale, of course! But as we left the store she became overwhelmed by the mall and the stimulation there. And then there was the escalator. I don't know what on earth we were thinking (obviously we were not thinking very well) by trying to take her onto an escalator. She was terrified. Did we seriously want her to ride a moving stairway???
It seems like our lives, in some way or another, will increasingly include times of unsteadiness. Life will include times when we lose our balance, times when we fall. But then we get up, we reevaluate. And we learn how to fall, and fall less often. Or maybe we stop taking risks and never fall at all—missing out on the wonder, exhilaration, and liberation that falling into the unknown (or into love) can bring. But eventually, in one way or another, we find ourselves falling. And this will include the wondrous, the horrendous, and probably everything in between.
As it turned out, my mom suffered small fractures of her inferior and superior pubic ramus. Thankfully she does not need surgery, and is now in an extensive process of rehabilitation. She does not like being in rehab and wants to be back in her new apartment, eating with her new friends in their regular dining hall, and going to her classes and social events. She does not like the Land of Zombies dining hall in rehab, as she calls it. Well, at least she has enough fight and feistiness inside of her to come up with the name Land of Zombies Dining Hall! Much to her dismay—she will have to use a walker from now on.
I am sad not so much because of this fall, or because she will have to use a walker after all, but because of the sadness that I heard in my mother's voice as she spoke to me from her hospital bed soon after her accident. She was upset with herself. She was frustrated and feeling at a loss as to how it could have happened, and at how her life will have to change—yet again. And she knows full well that things will be quite different now. My heart sinks and aches with hers. I feel with my mom even over the thousands and thousands of miles of separation. She has been struggling for a few years now and has been battling a defeatist mentality and depression that had become progressively worse after my dad died. It seemed like was finally coming out of her depression. She was doing new things, and still exhibited some of the funny, strong, and stubbornly resilient character that has always been central to who she is as a person.
My mother's strength and resilience have come from a lifetime of enduring adversity. She was a sickly child of a working class family and grew up during the Great Depression. Born underweight and premature, she was the survivor of two twin babies. She had childhood rickets, whooping cough and several other such childhood diseases. She lost her sight over 20 years ago yet has still remained as active and as independent possible. She was my dad's emboldened advocate when he was sick with cancer and was the same with my brother and I when we had our accidents and illnesses. Like many a mother, she was selfless to a fault. And like all people, especially people her age, deserves our respect.
So now, as I hear in her voice the sound of a saddened spirit, I too feel sad. She is near the end of her life's journey. She remarked on this very recently. She said, "Look at how we are in such a different place in our lives, where you are now, and where I am." There was such a curious tone to her voice. It was like she had this genuine wonder at it all. My mom has always been able to say things, and to notice things or remark on life in such a way that it can stop my breath. I often end up pondering something she has said for a long time after.
I love and respect my mother in ways I can't even find the words for. I try and search for the words because I want to express this somehow. So I try and tell her, sometimes through tears and a cracking voice, just how much I love her. I tell her this over and over, and in those simple words, because it feels like that is all I can do. I tell her just how grateful I am to have had her as my mother. She will always be a source of strength and inspiration in my life. And even though her stubbornness has in the past few years has frustrated my brother and me, and maddeningly so, I respect even this—this stubbornness—as well.
It feels like we are learning to walk again, like when we were children. My mother is learning to walk again. My brother and I can only protect her so much. As she could only protect us so much. It seems that life will require this process from us over and over. We are still, and always, learning to walk. We are still, yet always learning to fall.
Sometimes we will get up. Sometime we will let go.