Ashes, ashes, we all fall down! God, how we loved falling down when we were short and close to the ground. Remember the crash, the exaggerated poses of collapse, legs overhead, torso twisted crazily? Falling down the least gracefully, most dramatically, was the whole point.
Even when a fall was a surprise, when it caused minor injury, a scrape or a cut, the Band-aid was a badge of honor, the scabbed over abrasion a battle scar to be proud of.
Falling is one of those things that keeps changing the older we get, as we move through the middle distance. What was once a game or a challenge is now calamity, cause for alarm, the brink of disaster. Or maybe it’s just a wake-up call.
Last week, working in the garden on a scalding afternoon, I tuned out everything around me. I’d been packing books and papers in preparation for a move and was sick of all that represented. I wanted to silently move mulch, to dig cool holes for some wilted annuals, to forget the tasks of boxing and putting my life in order. I wanted to forget, not to remember.
I pulled out the wheelbarrow and started shoveling. Just then, the dogs ran to the fence and started snarling and hurling themselves at the neighbor dogs through the cracks, like rabid beasts. I raced down the path toward them, and just as I got within an arm’s distance, a metal stake caught in the hole of my blue plastic Crocs. My body continued its forward trajectory while my foot was trapped behind, and in full humiliating propulsion, I fell forward and face-planted in the dirt. I was sure my nose had exploded, so loud was the thump of my head on the ground, so shattering the pain, but instead of calmly assessing the damage, I was dead set on blaming the dogs. I cursed them, shamed them, called them every hideous name I could think of, then stormed into the house screaming at them to get away from me.
A quick glance in the mirror at my muddied, bloodied face and I was in full hysterics. Where was my mother with a calming ice pack and a soft wash cloth, a Popsicle and a soothing voice telling me I would be OK? I washed my face and stared back at a nose that looked like it had just been punched — red and swollen with patches of skin ripped off. Then I remembered the rest of my body.
A week before, my mother had fallen in her south Texas kitchen. At 86 years old and barely more than 86 pounds, the consequences could have been dire. Three inches more to the side and she would have landed on a hip. Her recovery has been slow. Her brittle bones and arthritic joints seized and freezed and bruised and she has been terribly stiff and in pain. But nothing was broken. She dodged the bullet every middle-aged son or daughter of an elderly mother dreads. She wasn’t headed to rehab or the hospital or a nursing home.
Surveying the damage to my pathetic nose, and small abrasions on my forehead and left breast, I played back the fall over and over. I could have been on concrete. I could have broken my wrists. I could have wrenched my back. I was fine; I just looked bad.
I remembered seeing my mother bloodied and injured when I was a child, and the horror of that sight. I must have been really young, maybe four or five, because my head rose just to her mid-thigh. She’d been playing softball and there was an incident with a bench and her knee. She had to go to the hospital and now there was a large gash with hideous black spidery stitches just above her shiny smooth shinbone. I stared at it in disbelief, knowing at some pre-conscious level that broken skin meant my mother could be taken from me. I was as quiet as I could possibly be, wanting her to recover quickly, to get back to my normal mother, not this broken one.
She recovered. Two days after the fall, I was bruised and battered but not broken. The scrapes on my nose had scabbed over and I looked like someone who’d run into a brick wall. People gave me pained looks and made O’s with their mouths, mimicking “ouch.” And all around me, I noticed, were people with scars and crutches and scrapes and bandages and broken pieces. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.