When I was about 13, I remember distinctly trying to impress a girl with my ability to do a pratfall. We were in Bennett Park in my home town. There were several 500 pound cement blocks with heavy anchor chain strung between them to indicate the parking area. To prove my prowess, I hurled myself forward over the chain in a manner that showed I had “tripped” and landed on my front. I really did kind of understand what I was doing. If you spread the impact of the fall over enough of your body surface, it hurts very little and you get a great reaction from your audience. She asked me if I was okay and I jumped to my feet and pretended to stumble backwards over the same chain and landed flat on my back, using the same technique. She didn’t “fall” for me despite my demonstration of such a high class skill. Later in our lives she ended up going out with a football lineman, so maybe I set that up inadvertently. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I was young, invulnerable and impervious to injury. Something changed over the next 50+ years.
I took a serious fall two days ago. I was coming up the stairs from the basement and as I was closing the door I stepped back onto a rubber toy my dog had left on the floor. Without seeing it, I was certain I was stepping on the dog. It felt just the right size and softness to be one of her paws. I tried to lift pressure off that foot and put it on my other foot but it landed on the toy too and I thought I was on top of her again. By then, I was completely out of control, I had no balance and the top half of me continued backward while the lower half tried to save the dog. (The dog, by the way, was in the master bathroom bugging my wife, nowhere near me.) As I fell backwards, my old impervious brain knew exactly what to do. I threw both arms backward and out to maximize the surface area on my body as I would strike the wall in the hallway. And it would have worked too….if I hadn’t fallen directly into the doorway to the half-bath instead. So, when my hips and spine expected to absorb the blow and nothing came because the half-bath door was open, I stiffened my arms. I struck just the sides of the doorjamb with the backs of both upper arms, concentrating the impact onto a few square inches.
I am not writing this so you will say how sorry you are that I hurt myself in a fall. It’s about something much more personal than that. In that miniscule moment between when my hips should have struck the wall and when the backs of my arms took the entirety of the blow, I realized I was falling through the doorway and I also knew I was completely off balance. I saw me falling all the way back and striking my skull on the toilet or the edge of the sink. I saw blood and a cracking skull. I did see aftermath. I knew my wife needed to hear that I was in trouble so I made some sounds come out of my mouth. It was not an articulate sound. I’m not sure what I “said.” It may have been, “woah, woah, woah.” I don’t know. Later she said it sounded just like a cartoon. Today she told me it more the sound of my feet. I guess it was a Fred Flintstone yabba dabba do moment.
Anyway, the pic shows you the damage. I have one on each arm. I have shown you the worst one, of course. Yes, ouch. But really so much more. The actual damage is more impressive today. It has now gotten a good, deep wine grape purple. It has little runners out into the rest of my upper arm.
Getting old really sucks. On the day of this realization I was 66 years, 5 months and 8 days. Maybe I can draw in a big black line through the calendar of my life. Before that line, I was still a whole man. I was a man with skills and abilities and wisdom and experience. After that line, I am an old man. No, again, you are not supposed to feel sympathy. An artist is supposed to confront his or her times and describe them honestly, even at the cost of personal pain. So, there it is; I’m an old man (and it sucks!)
I have had hints of this coming day for a while. The first time I suspected such a thing, I was 35, playing volleyball. I was always pretty good at it despite not being overly athletic. But in playing a 2 on 2 set, best out of three games one afternoon, my partner and I had taken it to 1-1 and I had to dig down deep for that third game and whatever I was looking for had flown the coop. It just wasn’t there any more. I didn’t play volleyball much after that, at least not competitively. Sometime around 40, I realized it was much harder to run three miles than it had been. At 50, the cold started bothering me and altitude made it very hard to breathe. At 60, my rheumatoid arthritis was in full swing, but I was handling it (I said determinedly) with meds and exercise. And even though arthritis is an old person’s disease, I still didn’t see myself as old, not really. This fall changed that.
It is rare that a person is given the kind of clarity of thought and realization I was awarded in that one second between stepping on the dog toy and crashing into the doorjamb. But I literally saw things in that brief moment. (Not my life passing before me, but more like losing my grip on all of life.) It is humbling. And liberating.
Warren Zevon, the lowliest rock star, was given advance warning of his passing. He used that time exceedingly well. I don’t have his advantage of knowing that I have 1-2 years remaining. Hell, I could have twenty or more. (I hope not.) But I am pledging myself at this point to “enjoy every sandwich.” And to try to tell the truth of my times as I know it. I mean, what’s the alternative? And you can take that to the bank. An old man told you so.