Free Falling (Part I)

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An 80-year-old woman, a former dancer and actress, a runway, catalog, and designer’s fit model, a tennis player, swimmer, and walker in fashionable heels, a gardener who preferred to dig with her hands and kneel at the foot of azalea beds, fell from her narrow twin bed at 6 AM on a Friday in 2016, while attempting to walk to the restroom of her suite at The Gardens.

This woman had dreamt the previous night of her unexpected crowning as Miss Surf Maid (which, when she arrived in Spain, later translated to Miss Playa de Nueva York). In the dream, she relived the shock of the actual win in a contest she hadn’t planned to enter.  The hovering tiara and its placement on her head, the cupping of her cheeks in her hands, the excitement of the contest execs in their slim, tailored suits, the hushed envy  of the other contestants, and the smile as wide as a river.

In her dream, she was her 19-year-old self at Rockaway Beach with her girlfriend. They were eating chips, drinking cokes, and taking dips in the frothy ocean to cool off from the summer heat. A photographer approached and asked to take her photo.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “What’s it for, anyway?”

“A contest, a beauty contest. You’re a lovely gal,” the photographer said. “Doesn’t hurt to try.”

Jump cut to the plane gliding above the sea, bobbing in the clouds like a child’s handheld toy. She’s seated next to her Scottish mother, who is dressed in a woolen suit she had sewn by hand just days before. The loud whirr of the engine… The poetry of the clouds resting above the world! Flying higher than the birds, higher than all the earthly goings-on.  

This was a recurring dream, a dream that often leapt from her muddled mind and returned in her slumber. Or returned to her when she could narrate along with a series of photographs that were later bound by my ex-husband in a sleek black portfolio.

The same weekend of my mother’s fall, a son, 17, a soccer player, an A-student, a reader, who had sustained a major knee injury on the field and had later turned his interests to film and literature, was about to be graduated from a fancy high school in North Hollywood, California. This ceremony would take place at the Frank Ghery-designed Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. This son was my son.

This dilemma of which event to attend was mine too.

According to the Annals of Medicine, “older adults have a 5-to 8-fold increased risk for all-cause mortality during the first 3 months after hip fracture.”

The beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of…

From another journal, The Conversation, we see that “beyond suffering pain, a hip fracture results in a loss of physical function, decreased social engagement, increased dependence, and worse quality of life. Many people who have a hip fracture need to change their living conditions, such as relocating from their home into a residential aged care facility.”

 

Well, she was already in a residential facility, serving her second sentence at one of these “homes,” so that recommendation was taken. However, the fall did lead to numerous problems, including even more mental detachment, vulnerability, and confusion.

And the fact that she would never walk again.

Hours after word of the fall, I met my ex-husband at Cedar Sinai’s emergency room and was given access to my mom who was laid out on a gurney, crying out in pain, unsure of her name, rank, or serial number.

“She’s Pat_______born in 1932 New York City no allergies…blood type O

“Be kind, she has mid-to-late stage dementia.,” I told the no-nonsense ER nurse. “Imagine she’s a wounded child dropped by helicopter into the ocean.”

I am her story and she is mine.

The morphine kicked in and soon she was docile. Drifting back in time and out of her frame, up and over the clouds… Flying once again in a capsule, her 112 lbs no longer held by the gurney.  Soaring. Free falling.

Maybe she had landed in Madrid to begin her tour as Miss Playa de Nueva York. Dressed now in contest-prize furs and diamond jewelry, Dior red lipstick, and hair fussed over by a Spanish entourage. Far from her Greenwich Village neighborhood, a world of Irish and Italian immigrants, artisans, factory workers, entrepreneurs, and artists, Catholic school girls, good kids, bad kids, reciting their prayers, performing schoolyard pranks… reciting Shakespeare in rehearsals for a play at The Greenwich House…caretaking sisters and a brother, hearing the catcalls, the whistles, the attention of boys and men on the streets of Manhattan, business men on the subways, guys in the hallways at the tradeshows where she stood beside boats and cars, handing out pamphlets in her bell-shaped dresses…

…the click…clickety…click of the castanets…the strum and taptaptapatap of flamenco…   And soon the playful attention from one of the most famous toreadors of Spain…

 

We, my ex and I, spent hours at the hospital getting Pat settled in her room. Comforting to know that despite our pending divorce, he remained a willing participant in most things familial. The decision making, the emotionally-charged marathon, and the acceptance that I was doing it all alone often felt like a weight I could no longer carry. Would there be a verdict at the end? Would I be absolved? When a friend could step in to support me, it provided much relief. When the face of a doctor, a caregiver, a bather or later a hospice nurse was kind and compassionate, I marched on with borrowed strength and sustenance.

“You’re here because you broke your hip and the doctor’s going to give you a new one,” I told my mother repeatedly in the confines of her room overlooking the tall adjacent hospital buildings and the buzz of Beverly Boulevard. 

“What?” she asked groggily, her head propped against the crunchy hospital pillows.

“…remember, you fell and broke your hip. You were getting out of bed and…”

She smiled flatly, nodding her head, as if she’d finally put the last word in the crossword puzzle, and reached for a cup of water on the tray, which she sipped with a straw.

Then she muttered again softly. “Who did?”

“Someone you used to know, Mama. Someone like you.”  

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