By Teresa Swartz Roberts
29. Copyright 2020
On the way down I held my head up. I knew that letting my head hit the floor was the most likely way to be seriously injured. A 22-year-old former student of mine, a unique young man who had a talent for technology and a wicked sense of humor, had died when his head hit the ground during an altercation with a stranger. And just last month one of my husband’s co-workers died of head injuries he sustained from a fall. I remembered watching my son in martial arts classes learning how to fall. It was the first lesson taught at the Western Maine Jujutsu Society: You will fall, so make sure you can do it safely.
On the way down I thought of my husband in the next room trapped under our laptop computer with a possibly broken foot propped on the couch. He was hearing the clop-clop-clop my sneakers made as my body tried to regain balance before crashing into the kitchen table and chairs. He was hearing the clatter of the table-top items being tossed around, salt shaker, pill bottles, the new air fryer we got for Christmas and still haven’t found a place to store. I was scaring him. He would want to rescue me, but he wouldn’t have been able to stop me or even track my trajectory from the other side of that wall. My Honey feels guilty, I think. He wouldn’t have been able to stop me or track my trajectory even if he had been beside me or inside my sneakers. I mean, I couldn’t, so how could he?
On the way down I dropped my spatula. I had been frying a couple of eggs for Frank’s breakfast. I forgot about the eggs and Canadian bacon sputtering on the stove, completely forgot about them until I saw the spatula on the floor. But I realize that on some level I knew that I needed to veer away from the open flame, that I would much rather end up on the wood laminate floor than sear a palm on the stove. If I had my druthers, I would choose not to fall at all.
When I was little, I fell down the stairs just about every week or so. I usually got my body moving faster than my feet could carry me. There was so much to do, so much to see, three older brothers to try to keep up with. The fall was payment for the adventure at the bottom of the stairs. On TV there was a lady who died from falling down the stairs. I didn’t get it. Now I do.
I’m making the journey through early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. My doctor and I think I’ve had symptoms since my late 40s. Because I didn’t have obvious tremors, it wasn’t easy to diagnose. Balance and coordination issues are classic Parkinson’s symptoms, so I’m not surprised that I fell, that I’ve fallen more than once. But I’m not ready to have it happen on a regular basis the way my five-year-old self did. So what can I do about it?
I can exercise to try to keep some control over my muscles. I’ve been doing that ever since I was diagnosed four years ago. (Now it’s been five years. I took some time coming to terms with falling and then finding ways to prevent it.) It makes me feel better, and I find joy in intentional movement. There’s another thing: I can be more intentional and mindful in my movement. But the fact is, I don’t get to choose not to fall. It’s going to happen, and it’s one of the complications of Parkinson’s, which is not technically a fatal disease, that can kill me.
If my body and mind can’t stop me from falling, I can get help from adaptive devices. I already use a cane. Thanks to a generous friend, I also have two fancy walkers, the kind with seats and hand brakes. It’s probably time to start practicing walking with them. (Now, a year later, I use a walker all the time.)
I must accept that I will fall. I must try to keep myself safe on the way down, veering away from danger and holding my head up. I must understand that my fall is going to affect others, from my husband’s panicked “Are you all right?” from the other room to the snickers of strangers who can’t ignore the humor inherent in seeing someone fall. I need to realize that falling is neither my fault nor the fault of someone who sees or hears me fall.
I need to think about more than the way down. I need to think about what comes next. I’m going to check out the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace. I’m going to practice getting up from the floor when I’m down there voluntarily in order to be prepared for when I’m on the floor involuntarily.
I’m also going to appreciate this metaphor. Everybody falls. It’s up to me what I do on the way down. I can hold my head up on the way down and on the way back up. It’s up to me to help myself or accept help to get back up. It’s up to me to keep on living, to decide that the adventure is worth the price of the fall.
I believe it is.