Monday, January 20, 2014

Live to Fall Another Day

If you know me, you know I'm clumsy.

If you know me, you can probably call up a memory without too much difficulty: me sliding on the ice, walking into a doorway, banging an elbow or a shin. You might remember me on crutches at one sister's wedding and in the ER right before another.

My clumsiness was a defined fact of my childhood, although it hid in other words-- like "uncoordinated" on my PE charts and "accident prone" on my medical ones. My parents were likely to introduce me to new acquaintances this way, explaining the bruises on my legs. "Oh, Paula? She's just very..."

If this were a Lifetime movie, I would have had a serious illness (undiagnosed brain tumor, say) that caused my imbalance, or a ham-fisted brute who caused my bruises.

But no. I had no underlying tragedy.

I was just a klutz.

* * *

I wish I could say that I outgrew my clumsiness, the way I'd outgrown other flaws and acquired new social graces -- through awareness and practice. After all, I must have walked through millions of doorways by this point in my life, and the experience should have taught me about the width of my own body and the width of the doorway and where exactly I needed to position myself for safe passage. For nearly fourteen years, W and I have had the same bed, and once or twice a day I round the corner and smack my lower thigh against the knob on the footboard. It's a sharp stab of pain, but it dissipates by the time I've made it down the hallway. There's never a new bruise to regret, because my thigh has acquired a permanent indentation in that very spot -- my body's way of protecting me from myself.

Somehow, instead of acquiring the ability to avoid these little accidents, I've acquired the ability to clean them up quickly. I can clean up spilled liquid at warp speed. I can very efficiently retrieve a full stack of dropped papers. I have developed as Plan Bs all sorts of contingency plans for things that no one else might realize can go wrong. If I were to fall from this height... if the food does slosh out of this pan...

But I haven't been able to stop myself from getting hurt.

 * * *

Recently, W and I (community volunteers! activists!) were passing out fliers about an informational meeting. We had about 100 homes to cover, and I'd done most of them myself on an early morning power walk. The twenty or so remaining homes we were covering together, before splitting off to the rest of our respective chores for the day.

We'd passed out fliers here before with no problems (barring the occasional heart attack from a dog behind a chain-link fence), so I grabbed my stack of fliers and W grabbed his stack of fliers and we took opposite sides of the road. I stopped to talk to an older woman who was moving to southern California, and from across the street, I could hear W introducing himself to a woman who was watering her neighbor's lawn with a hose from her own yard.

I caught scraps of their conversation as I moved along to the next house. "... passed away recently...." and "... wanted to take a moment to invite you..."

I was making good time when I started up a short sidewalk, hand already outstretched with the flier I would tuck beneath the doormat. And then, out of nowhere, the sidewalk jumped up and attacked me.

Well, of course it didn't -- although that would be a more satisfying explanation for the fact that I'd walked on this same sidewalk at least a half-dozen other times before and always managed to avoid the slight uneven lip of cement near the front stoop.

This time, moving at a good clip, my toe caught that patch of cement and I went flying with a surprised "Oooh!"I managed to catch myself with my knees and one wrist, which is to say, I managed to hit the sidewalk pretty hard. The hand holding the flier made it all the way to the front stoop, where a neat oval circle of skin had been cleanly sheared off my forefinger.

As with many of my indelicate falls and stumbles and spills, there were plenty of witnesses in sight. The older woman next door, packing her bags and loading her car. The man at the next house, taking advantage of 70-degree weather and blue skies to wash his car. And of course, W and the woman across the street, still chatting with each other. I heard W say "Indian summer" -- a joke about our unseasonably warm January. Strangely, although I'd cried out, hit the pavement with a decided thud, and was now struggling painfully to a standing position, no one had noticed a thing.

Once I figured out that all of my bones appeared to be intact, I walked slowly to the man washing his car and handed him a flier. I did this Wordlessly, because I was sure my voice would come out in a whimper. I have skinned knees! My forefinger has been mutilated!

W met me in the middle of the street. "Done already?" he asked and I shook my head. I held out my finger, which appeared to be too stunned to bleed, and W stared at it.

* * *

At home, I closed the bathroom door, peeled off my jeans and took inventory. Each knee had two round, quarter-sized raspberries, one on top of the other. After a careful washing, I pulled out the plastic container that housed Band-Aids of twenty different sizes, plus antiseptic ointment, gauze and tape. It's a box that's come in handy for me over the years, since we moved into this house and I kept hurting myself (cuts, scrapes, splinters) during one home improvement project or another.

This time, although my knees were smarting, what I mainly felt was anger at my klutzy self. It had been a while since I'd taken such a hard fall, so there was disappointment too, that I hadn't in fact outgrown this tendency. And resignation -- surely I would be the patient the nursing home attendants kept in a wheelchair at all times, motivated by a fear for my own safety and the desire to avoid expensive lawsuits.

But it could have been worse, and it wasn't. I sighed, slapping the last Band-Aid into place.

I would live to fall another day.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Story of Survival

The first sign that I was getting better came when I was still in bed, propped up by three pillows, a glass of 7-Up on my nightstand and the remote just out of reach. I was staring at the doorway, where a little clump of pet hair had gathered. It wasn't a new clump of pet hair; I'd been noticing it from this same vantage point every morning for weeks. Miraculously, it hadn't even grown in size, despite the fact that I hadn't taken a broom to our wood floors in ... I couldn't even say.

But later that day, I began the slow process of getting out of bed (holding the wall, fighting dizziness) and slowly padding down the hall in my sock slippers, and on the way past the doorway, I stooped down and came up again, triumphant, with that wad of pet hair clenched in my fist.

I was going to be okay.


What happened was this: I got very busy, and then I got very sick, and then I stayed sick for a long time.

Oh, I kept fulfilling my obligations. I taught all my classes. I went to meetings for one thing or another at night. I graded papers and planned lessons. I revised my novel and missed my deadline by only one week. The dogs got fed and walked; I scooped the cat litter. Somehow, Will and I kept each other fed, although he was struggling, too. Laundry more or less got done, although from one day to the next, I couldn't remember what clothing I'd worn. But it was growing harder and harder to summon effort for the most basic things. Every hour of grading papers required an hour of sleep for recovery.

At one point, it got so bad that I called Will to my bedside, where I sat, surrounded by used Kleenexes. I'd been losing my voice off and on, and so what I told him came out in a hoarse whisper, which gave the occasion even more solemnity. "I want you to pay attention," I whispered. "I'm going to tell you all my passwords."

Will's eyes grew wide.


The second sign that I was going to survive came when I was at the checkout stand at Walgreens, clutching a bottle of orange DayQuil, a quick fix for what ailed me. Passing over my debit card, I glimpsed my fingernails. They were long and ragged, haphazardly trimmed, faintly yellow. They were the fingernails you might expect to see on someone in a nursing home, or maybe a person who had been in a coma for years.

I curled my fingers into my palms, not wanting the Walgreens cashier to see how low I'd fallen.

At home, I clipped and cut and buffed and polished. I'd never really cared about my nails before, beyond basic maintenance; I can count on both hands the number of manicures I've had in my life, each preceding a major event -- wedding, interview, book launch.

That night when I crawled into bed, I fell asleep admiring my champagne nails in the glow of the television set.


I coughed so hard and for so long that my doctor thought I might have cracked a rib. I'd definitely pulled a muscle on my left side; whenever I raised my left arm, a shooting pain zigzagged from my armpit to my waist. It was easier not to use my left arm at all for a few weeks, so I kept it tucked against my side while my right arm swung free. I felt like an amputee with a phantom limb, except mine was there -- just relatively useless.

At one point, standing in the kitchen, I doubled over with a cough, and then realized that I couldn't straighten. Something was definitely wrong with my back. For a long time, I stayed there on the kitchen floor, eventually turning over so that my back was pressed against the linoleum. My pets wandered in, one by one, as if paying their condolences. LG brought me her rope toy and waved it excitedly in my face.

That night, I whispered the ending of my book into Will's ear. "I trust you," I said. "If I'm not around to finish..."

It was dark, but somehow I still knew he was rolling his eyes.


Ten days after I started taking antibiotics, I started feeling better. Small things, like walking the dog or taking out the trash, still exhausted me, but a three-hour nap each afternoon and eight hours of sleep each night seemed to help. "You can't make up for a sleep deficit," my doctor had admonished me, but I was trying, anyway.

On that tenth morning, I woke up and put on a pair of sweats and my cross trainers. It took a while to find my gym bag, buried as it was beneath a stack of blue books and scraps of Christmas wrapping paper.

My first steps on the treadmill were hesitant and slow; I'd forgotten how to move. It took a while to build up a rhythm, and I had to stop a few times for a wracking cough -- but I was going. I was moving.

I was going to make it.