Opinion | How to Fall and Get Back Up
I had just rolled to the refrigerator to get my pain medication when it happened. The lid of the bottle must have been loose, because when I took it off the shelf it fell and a spray of pills bounced over the kitchen floor. The dog, alert to the sound of a possible snack, charged out of the bedroom, and I told her to go to her crate. She did, which was good. Eating even one of these pills would make her sick.
I leaned over my wheelchair and picked up the circle of pills I could reach and then sat back up, moved the wheelchair a few inches, pushed my butt to the back of the seat for balance, and leaned over again to retrieve the next batch of pills now in reach. One of them rolled from under my fingertips, and I stretched just that little extra bit. It was then I felt myself tip over and start heading for the floor.
I had fallen out of my wheelchair before. In that second between knowing no recovery is possible and hitting the ground, it works best to imagine myself having already fallen and moving on to a solution.
To begin, I assessed injuries. I held my shin where it had scraped against a footrest and tested out the hip I’d fallen on. Nothing was broken or bleeding. I hurt but not in a scary way. Since I was home alone and hadn’t bothered to get dressed, there was another complication: I was naked.
I thought about how I was going to get back up into the chair. I wasn’t sure, so I used the time to gather the rest of the pills. From this new angle I could determine that none had rolled under the door of the refrigerator or into the crack between the stove and the counter. The dog left her crate to come sniff at me, curious about the way I’d joined her on the floor. I should have sent her back to her place to train her to stay, but instead I scratched her ears for my own comfort while I thought more about how to get up.
I scooted on my rear end over the heart pine floors to retrieve the cellphone I’d left charging at my bedside. My wife, Pam, was working in the cottage behind the house. If I couldn’t figure this out, I’d call her. The bathroom seemed a good choice. Maybe I could get up onto the toilet seat and from there into the wheelchair. Plus, I really had to pee. I braced my arms to either side of my body and slid backward between them. I could only go a half-foot at a time, because I had to strain forward and reach until my fingertips could tap the joystick and carefully move the four-hundred-pound wheelchair up to but not over my legs. I repeated this until I arrived at the bathroom.
The moment I lifted my butt over the threshold, I knew this had been a bad plan. The toilet seat was too high. Next I thought about the day bed in the writing room. It was lower. So I repeated the slow, careful trek to the front of the house.
By the time I made it to the writing room, I was cold, which weakens my muscles, and smeared with dust and debris. From my angle on the floor, the day bed seemed possible. I pulled a pillow down to put under my knees and used the stability of the wheelchair footrests to pull up. My knees shook right away, but I was able to throw my torso onto the mattress before they collapsed. But I couldn’t find enough purchase to grip and pull myself the rest of the way. I hung there for a bit. All I needed was someone to come position one knee up, and I’d be able to roll myself onto the mattress. That’s when I called Pam.
The next day my shin developed the purple black of a deep bruise, which became a dramatic storytelling aide when I made my friends laugh about my mopping the floor with my rear end. The other leg had twisted over itself on the way down, and the pain from ankle to knee to hip to back wasn’t funny. I didn’t talk about that.
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.
Sandra Gail Lambert is the author of the memoir “A Certain Loneliness” and “The River’s Memory,” a novel, and a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow.
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