Learning by Accident

When she fell, our 78-year-old neighbor was alone at home.  As she tells it, there were so many little opportunities to avoid what happened, and she now lies in bed recuperating and running them over and over in her mind.  She could have turned on the light, illuminating the bottom steps BEFORE she descended, she could have used the handrail, she should have taken the elevator they have installed in their dream house, a magnificent two-story structure facing the Pacific, to take the dogs downstairs for their before-bed constitutional.  But she didn’t.

If you are picturing a frail elderly person, scratch that, and reimagine.  This woman walks up and down hills for miles every day; she is a former runner and remains disciplined and undaunted.  Despite surgeries over the past five years or so, elective, quality-of-life decisions, double-hip  and shoulders, she has met each recuperation with spirit, with determination and commitment to grueling physical therapy.  And she has triumphed.  She’ll be the first to eschew the oxy doctors ply for pain management, sticking to the basics: Tylenol and ibuprofen.  She’s tough and brilliant; if only that inured us from accidents.

As she tells it, she knew she’d broken her leg—her femur, it turns out—and she knew she needed help.  She dragged herself some 30 feet to get her phone, then dragged herself back to the front door near the landing where she fell to meet the ambulance attendants.  “There was no way I was going to let them take an ax to our beautiful front door.”  This, she realizes now, was shock talking.  She tried calling one neighbor, but no one answered.  My husband and I were away in Portland, home to the best trauma center located more than two hours away, unaware that Joann and our paths would cross but not converge.

“Basically those first two weeks are a blur,” she admits now.  This is small mercy for recovering accident victims who have all this time to rue what transpired but a hazy memory for facts and pain.  Now she’s back on the coast in a local hospital with a caring staff who are supporting her efforts to return home, to be independent enough.  This has meant mastering painful hopping on one foot with a walker, for one of her hips, the one connected to her broken femur, was destroyed with the fall.  “They got me the A-team.  I had to wait three days, but it is worth it,” she declares, as she lifts the damaged leg to demonstrate the improvement she’s making.  “I do whatever they tell me.  I am the most compliant patient, proving that a teacher can follow directions as well as give them,” and she grins ruefully.

The National Council on Aging provides this introduction on their website:  “Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans. Falls threaten seniors’ safety and independence and generate enormous economic and personal costs.”  It further details those costs and other facts related to this most common accident as the population ages.  It continues, “Falls, with or without injury, also carry a heavy quality of life impact. A growing number of older adults fear falling and, as a result, limit their activities and social engagements. This can result in further physical decline, depression, social isolation, and feelings of helplessness.”

Fortunately in Joann’s case, social isolation is not a threat.  Her husband sends updating emails to alert a couple dozen people of her status.  She is beset with visitors and best wishes, distracted by the raft of staff whom she has drawn to her, her cheering squad at the hospital.  This is her magic, but even that only goes so far.

Joann has told us that this experience has changed her, made her aware of growing old.  Choosing to have surgery and the accompanying time devoted to recovery is different.  Choice always makes a difference.  It’s not maudlin or melodramatic to consider mortality in the aftermath of an event that makes clear the truth in Marcus Aurelius’ “Sic transit gloria mundi.”  All glory of the world is fleeting—and that means us.  We may pay lip service to the philosophy, but Joann conveys that visceral truth.  In her it’s a wake-up call, a siren that announces, “Be grateful.”  For that reason visiting her is an experience of grace.  She makes my husband and me laugh and celebrate the good friend we’ve found.

Yesterday Joann asked my husband how his sister is doing.  She is in remission after a debilitating treatment to counter multiple myeloma, a pernicious cancer of the blood.  Joann then said, “I’ve got to be grateful.  This,” and she looked down at her leg,” is structural, not systemic.  There are so many people who have it so much more difficult.”

Structural.  Systemic.  Only a distinction of degree.  I’ve been thinking about that ever since.  Note to self:  We can build our dream houses, and follow our dreams, but as the poet William Stafford says, “Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.”  The trick is to breathe in life’s paradox, whatever may come, and grow from it, and for as long as we can, celebrate the ability to do so.


One thought on “Learning by Accident”

  1. Wow! I’m amazed she dragged herself those 30 feet to get help. (My grandmother, who was not nearly in as good of shape as that, wore of of those Life Alert necklaces while in her house for the final ten or so years of her life. She could not have made that 30 foot trip.)

    The line from Stafford… oh how true it is!

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