January 05, 2005

The Fall

The old lady falls while reaching for her walker, and where she lands, in the middle of the living room carpet, there’s nothing for her to grasp onto to pull herself up. She crawls to a dining chair but when she tries to hoist herself she pulls the chair down on top of her: after years of sitting inert, her only exercise dragging herself along behind a walker, she no longer has the arm strength or coordination. Scalp and shoulders hurting where the chair has struck, she crawls to an end table and pulls at the telephone cord. The phone falls to the carpet with a jarring series of clangs, allowing her to call the front desk for help.

An aide comes and lifts her up. A nurse comes and looks her over. The old lady tells the story of her fall, but it gets so mixed up with the stories of what she was eating for breakfast and whether she should cancel her podiatrist’s appointment and how her children are all working in other cities, the nurse and the aide can hardly follow it. The nurse gently chides the old lady for not taking long hikes up and down the hallways, for not lifting her one–pound weights up and down every day, but the lady rambles through so many excuses that the two helpers end up just gingerly consoling her and leaving.

“If I ever end up like that, I want you to shoot me,” the aide whispers to the nurse, in the hallway with doors leading to a dozen more old people.

But she knows it isn’t true. She imagines herself thirty years in the future, doddering and frail, living in her memories, overwrought about whether to have tomato juice or prune—tumbling on her way to the toilet, breaking her wrist on the hard tile, in agony dragging herself to the emergency buzzer—helpless in the grip of sour, underpaid people with problems of their own that she’s intruding on—unable to chew properly, unable to eat half the things she used to enjoy—her body emitting embarrassing sounds, scents, substances at all the worst moments—bothering her children, scarcely able to remember her grandchildren—spending years in a slowly thickening fog, watching herself slip back into the mist—thinking aloud to a husband who’s been gone longer than he was here—muscles turning to jelly, nerves to raw rope, brain cells flickering lower and lower—all things blending into a sometimes pleasant waking dream—and she thinks, “That would be better. Better than nothing—and sometimes better than this.” Even the poorest, weakest, dribbling, babbling life, she thinks, the feeblest whine, the flexing of a toe, the last spark in the brain, would be better than eternity.