Funny! Some short time before I opened our front door to pick up Wednesday's "Nevada Daily Mail" off the porch, I slipped on one of our cats' fiendishly clever little Christmas gifts -- a cigarette butt-sized fabric mouse which, when you budge it, sets up a tiger-size yowling -- and barely missed falling on the hardwood floor of our living room. After my first reaction to a near-miss like that, a long, heated, personally soothing string of nasty profanities, I took the paper into the family room, opened it, and turned first to the editorial page. Imagine my surprise, then, dear reader, when I beheld my colleague Leonard Ernsbarger's editorial, "Fall Prevention Promoted By Veterans Clinic" staring me in the face! Mr. Ernsbarger says age 65 seems to be the dividing line between shrug-offable falls, of the type you sustain laughingly, without really thinking about it, and dangerous falls, from which you seldom get up without worrying whether you broke something or other. In my own case, I don't even remember falling before age 65 or so. Oh, sure, I must've fallen when I was a toddler, but I can't recall ever doing so, and there's nothing in the long Nash mythology--which, by contrast, includes the story of my running over my little sister Beverly with my Raleigh bicycle, and the mystery of how the gravy stain got on the kitchen ceiling -- about my taking even the meagerest spill. In fact, what I do recall is taking a bucket of foolish chances, so sure was I in my teenage years of my dexterity afoot. Like a 13-year-old Mercury was I.
In my comfy leather moccasins, for instance, I used to skim down the oak staircase from second to first floor, in our Westchester house, not even bothering to pause on any tread, it felt so good to glide down from floor to floor. Mr. Ernsbarger reports, "In 2003 there were nearly 14,000 fall-related injuries that resulted in death." My gosh, if I'd known that when I was mindlessly flying down my parents' death-dealing steps, would I have kept on playing roulette with my own life? Sure! Have you ever known a 13-year-old boy who would've slowed down? It ain't going to happen!
The fact is, it's his very fearlessness that keeps him upright! The more nervous you are and the more consciously careful you are of falling on your face, the more likely you are to do just that. It's a lot like learning to ride a two-wheeler, isn't it? Some big kid has just run beside you holding onto the bicycle seat you're sitting on, yelling encouragement to you, as the thing slowly picks up speed down the mildly graded street. In the first 50 feet, you're thinking, "Hey! I'm in charge of this bike, riding all by myself! All right!!" But then you start to think, "But, Gee Whiz, what if I lose my balance? I might crack the porcelain caps I've already got on my two front teeth from wrestling the older and bigger Jimmy Eagan. Oh, hell, I think I'm starting to lose my balance!" And down you go, indeed.
Nearly a decade ago, I had my right leg amputated above the knee, and in the post-operative stage was prescribed the drug gentomycin, which destroyed the balance mechanism of my inner ear. Hence, I have no balance, and have to depend on an aluminum walker to make my way around a room. A few years ago, before I really got the hang of the walker, I was standing in our kitchen, fixing a sandwich, when the front doorbell rang, setting my automatic motion mechanism in high gear. Unfortunately, I hadn't yet mastered the footwork, and, before I even got through the adjoining dining room, I felt myself about to tumble, tensed up, and fell down, breaking my right hip on the hardwood floor. What I distinctly recall at the moment of seeing the hardwood floor rushing up to meet me was the fear that if I let my rapidly approaching accident buffalo me, I'd never dare take another step. So, when I got out of the local hospital, I got some valuable help from my physical therapist, who showed me how to get myself up off the floor. And I soon learned, in my condition, that occasional tumbles onto a floor was as certain as the coming sunrise. OK. I accepted that.
I try to avoid walking around in pitch darkness. For I can empathize with Mr. Ernsbarger's story of walking blind down a flight of stairs and misjudging the number he'd already descended, resulting in a bad fall. I think we've all done that. But I've found that the second I feel myself about to fall, and unless there's a rail I can grab onto to break my fall, the best thing I can do is relax and go limp. Getting out of our car after driving from Joplin in the dark, one evening, I fell in our front yard. Instead of waiting until Ginny came back out of the house to help me, I got myself turned around and started crawling over the grass toward the steps.
In a moment, she did come back out, wondering what had happened to her husband. "I'm real proud of you, Hon!" she burbled.
"For what?" I asked.
"For not swearing a blue streak to entertain the neighbors."