Before the fall, she was determined to live life on her own terms. Neither boyfriend nor illness nor age nor societal limitations placed so unfairly upon her sex ever kept her from being just as she had imagined she would be at this that point. She wasn’t a miracle of longevity, having never paid much attention to health, exercise, or the vagaries of medical science. But she was pretty damned unique, just the same. She’d worked at one job, in one place, with absolute dedication for more than 60 years. Day in and day out, long hours and often weekends, she did it. Through broken heart and mourning soul and in spite of a serious brush with cancer, she persevered as few in this world have ever done.
She was independent, she was. That’s putting it mildly, really. She never wanted anyone to know her private affairs, to offer unwanted advice (and advice, to her, was always unwanted). She could be hopelessly obtuse on questions such as, “do you have will,” or “who’s your attorney,” but then she never “planned” to get old, never “planned” to die, never planned a lot of things, like falling, all alone and without her phone, all alone at the bottom of those rickety basement steps, steps which she’d always meant to have rebuilt, but never got around to doing, because, well, that’s how she was, and that’s how she liked things, all alone….
She wasn’t a hermit, don’t get me wrong. She could be outgoing and involved, and find me one person who’ll say she wasn’t one of the kindest people they’d ever met… Her favorite book, Magnificent Obsession, ruled her life. She was the first person I ever knew who clung to the notion of “pay it forward,” and she’d lived that credo every day of her life, before the fall. How many people’s lives she helped, we’ll never know, but the one’s she’d helped would never forget. All the same, it was hard for her, after the fall, to live with other people “knowing her business,” treating her as if she were already gone, speaking about her as if she weren’t even there. I think that had to have been the beginning of the end for her. It tore her soul apart from the inside and pecked at it from the outside, and that can be a bitter torture of tiny stings.
The fall was so simple, really. She didn’t plunge from the stairs to the floor below, didn’t catch her shaky toe on a step while trying to climb them. As she put it, one moment she was standing, facing the steps and the next she was on the floor, arm broken, already weakened shoulders torn. She tried to get up but couldn’t, finally lay there wondering if she’d ever be found. She wasn’t expecting any visitors, wouldn’t hear her phone if anyone called. It was a rare Friday holiday, and they’d actually closed the office for three days. No one would come looking for her until she didn’t show up for work on Monday. She’d never last that long, she knew that. And so she lay there, indignant and undignified, studying the intricacies of her house from the inside out, wondering about the strange visions that began soon after dehydration set in. She slept, and something more than sleep took her away from time to time, those times longer and closer together as the inexorable hours dragged onward toward oblivion. It was a fluke, really, that she was found, that I found her lying there, an unplanned offer to put some going out shoes on and accompany me to lunch. Her car in the driveway told me she was home, and the unlocked door led me inside to see the basement door hanging open in space overlooking those awful old stairs.
After the fall, there were trips to the hospital, once by ambulance, but with no siren or lights and with a driver who must have been new, who made too many wrong turns as I followed her to the emergency room. Days spent stabilizing, many more in rehab learning how to use her legs and do for herself with broken arm and torn shoulders and weak, much too weak, legs. Eventually, she came home to the place where she’d lived before the fall, and she saw that many things would have to change. She took care of the legalities first, and saw too many doctors for her liking second. But her usual way of putting off until tomorrow what should have been done yesterday had to be abandoned. If not to make an easier time of it for her family, then to keep her from tripping over all the little and not so little stacks of things she’s always meant to sort out, or slipping and falling on the bits of mail and newspaper she’d dropped at her feet wherever she was when she read them. She wasn’t working at this point, not able to drive or stand for very long, and so she would just have to get on with it, clean up her house, GET RID OF THINGS.
It took me a while to see it. At first I thought she was simply being obstinate about cleaning up the house. I could have done it for her with a few days of long hours and the ruthless energy of youth and an organized mind. But she needed to do this, needed to hold each item in her frail hands and make the choice whether to keep it or toss it or give it away. And so I let her do this thing that she needed to do, for weeks. I carried stacks of magazines to wherever she was sitting, carried the ones she’d discarded to be recycled. I torn down hundreds of plastic bags, redolent of cleaning fluid, from the clothes jamming her closets. She hated that. Now she’d be able to see for herself that she needed not more closet space, but to get rid of all the clothes that had been worn, decades past, by mothers and sisters, by aunts and grandmothers and great grandmothers. But I’d have none of it. My hands and arms and face would feel as if I’d been rolling in graveyard dirt after handling all that old plastic and fabric—this stuff needed to go.
She soldiered on, fitfully and in starts and stops at first. Then, throwing herself into the task, she gave it a week of steady effort, effort not unnoticed by me. Now we were getting somewhere, I reckoned. Now she’d begin to see the rewards of her effort in a cleaner, neater place to live, in being able to quickly find what she was looking for, in knowing that her house was only as full as she needed it to be… I lived this way, I reasoned, and it was good, so why shouldn’t it be good for her? But then one day, when the church truck was to arrive in another hour and I was moving piles of unnecessary clutter to the street, I saw something I never expected. I saw the angel of death standing behind her as she watched her life bleed away into unknown hands.
“I’m just not worth a hoot this morning,” she said to me when I arrived, bright and full of energy and ready to get the job done before moving ahead with my own work. She’d said it a few times before, I remembered ruefully. The first few times, medication seemed to be the ready excuse, but I knew she’d stopped taking those pills that left her so groggy. And I heard something else in that simple declarative line. I heard the plaintive cry of a young girl looking at pieces of her life wash away with the receding tide, and wondering what had happened. I saw the sadness in her eyes, the gray pallor to her complexion, the incredible tissue paper thinness of her skin and the frailness of her structure. How did I not know this would happen? How stupid had I been? The ghosts that she had lived with as her only homely companions were deserting her as she watched them go out the door with things I thought she’d never needed. She was being left well and truly alone now.
By encouraging, sometimes demanding that she/we clear out all the useless, unwearable, unusable junk that had accumulated in that old house, I’d inadvertently driven away the spirits that made it her home, and I’d turned her into a useless, unwearable, unusable old woman… And so, when the end comes, whether too soon or later, lock me away. Put me in a cell with thieves and muggers, for surely I’ve had at least as much a part in killing her as any murderer might have done. Youth kills its own creator, it seems, kills the antagonist that makes youth so enticing, the mirror looking into the future and the past and smiling back with knowing, sad eyes. Youth is as careless with life as age is worshipful, a lesson learned too late to make amends, after the fall.