As an exchange student in Tokyo, I joined the university judo team and spent my first week at the dojo flinging myself to the mat, learning how to fall without getting hurt.
The sound of a fall is important. A well-executed one sounds like a hundred-pound bag of sand hitting wet pavement: a single, heavy smack. That means that all important body parts have hit at once, absorbing the shock equally. But a fall that starts with a thud, immediately echoed by limbs hitting the floor, means someone is in pain.
After I’d gotten good at falling, I learned how to flip men twice my size. I couldn’t wait to get to the dojo each day, and I practiced until my arms and legs trembled with exhaustion.
I became involved with the team captain, who didn’t speak English. Our relationship was against team rules, so we kept it a secret. We ignored each other at practice, then rode the subway home together, purposely choosing crowded cars so we could press up against one another.
One night I snuck into his room in the dormitory, and we lost our virginity to each other.
As the end of the school year approached, I prepared to return to the United States. The team captain and I had never discussed our future. Though I loved him, I knew I couldn’t stay in Japan. The day I left, I gave him a blue aerogramme already addressed to me and asked him to write.
A month later, the blue aerogramme arrived in my mailbox. I opened it with trembling hands. In carefully penned English, he had written, “Please forget me.”
I never have.
Brooklyn, New York
My sister careened backward, and her head smashed into the wall, leaving a softball-size dent. Shaking it off like a cartoon character, she insisted she had only a little headache, then drove off to her son’s soccer game.
Another day my sister fell in the shower, catching her wedding ring on the door handle and slicing her finger down to the bone. At the emergency room, when she changed into a hospital gown, her body was a patchwork of bruises: purple, green, yellow. The nurses suspected her husband, but the real villain is Parkinson’s disease.
At only fifty-three, my sister is being robbed of her balance and control. Now dementia is creeping in. A host of medications around the clock, in conjunction with a surgical brain implant, slow progression of the disease, but there is no cure.
Though she now uses a wheelchair, my sister vows to “beat this damn disease.” The minute we turn our backs, she gets up to go to the china cabinet or the stove. It’s as if the disease doesn’t exist in her mind. She just keeps getting up, and keeps falling.
At the age of eleven I fell in love. My crush wasn’t on one of the neighborhood boys, though. I fell for Lauren, the new girl in my fifth-grade class. I wanted to walk her home from school, but instead she took me to a stairwell where only the janitor was supposed to go. There, Lauren taught me to kiss, Beach Blanket Bingo style: leaning forward with our hands behind our backs and our lips puckered. It was both thrilling and terrifying. What if someone saw us? What if it got around school? Two girls kissing!
Lauren told me not to worry: if anyone saw us, we’d say we were practicing for the real thing. “It’s not like we’re queer,” she whispered.
When I heard that, I felt as if I were plummeting into a deep hole. I gazed at Lauren’s lips and realized that falling in love with another girl was something I’d have to keep secret — especially from her.
I used to define myself by my speed, efficiency, and competence. Then, four years ago, I was diagnosed with lupus, a progressive autoimmune disease. It is like a slow fall. Eventually it will crush my body. For now, though, my symptoms are limited to periodic flare-ups during which my shoulders and knees burn like a bad sunburn, my mouth and nose sprout sores, my chest hurts, and I feel exhausted.
Sometimes I can’t sleep because of the pain. One night I sat up watching CNN and saw falls galore — politicians, marriages, CEOs, buildings, and even countries. It was as if the world itself had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I found this strangely reassuring. I was connected with others by this invisible cord of illness, by this falling.
Could I have been wrong about illness all these years? Could it be a bridge between us all, a comfort in a lonely world? Perhaps suffering, once it becomes inevitable, should be accepted and embraced. I wish someone had told me this twenty-five years ago when I received my diploma from medical school.
The sight of the sun, after months of darkness, signaled the end of the long arctic winter and made me want to sing, dance, and begin spring-cleaning. I boxed up the books that my neighbors had given me — to help me endure my first winter in Kotzebue, Alaska — and set out to carry them to the clinic. Rather than tote the heavy box around the frozen lagoon, I decided to take a shortcut across its icy surface.
Inuit children played in the snow nearby. When they waved to me, I made comic faces and grunting sounds like a gorilla. The kids laughed and cheered. Then I pretended to walk a tightrope, carefully sliding one boot in front of the other, balancing the box of books. The children smiled, waiting for my next trick. I hoisted the box atop my head, balancing it with both hands, the way an African woman carries a basket.
Suddenly I felt a rumbling. There was a loud snap that reminded me of ice cubes cracking in a glass, and my footing gave way. Books skidded everywhere like hockey pucks as my body plunged into the frigid lagoon.
Freezing water rapidly soaked my heavy clothing. Barely able to move my arms, I sank, terror-stricken. Yet when my feet hit bottom, I became curious and opened my eyes to see what was down there — no debris, sea grass, or fish, as in California’s warm lagoons. The glacial water stung my eyeballs, and my arms were frozen in place. Then I blacked out.
I awoke bundled in blankets in a small, sparsely furnished room. An old man rubbed my feet, and an Inuit woman toweled my hair fiercely while others rubbed my back and massaged and shook my arms and fingers. I didn’t recognize any faces.
“How’d I get here?” I asked.
They didn’t answer, but talked among themselves in their native dialect. Shocked, embarrassed, and grateful, I whispered, “Thank you.”
The elderly Inuit man cupped my bare feet in his hands and pressed their icy soles to his naked chest. Through skin and bones I felt his heart beating, its life-giving warmth.
Coos Bay, Oregon
I was barely getting by writing freelance articles, shelving books in the town library, and selling vegetables from my garden. I didn’t have enough money for health insurance or new clothes. When friends asked me out for lunch, I would check the change slots at the local car-wash before confirming.
Then my car developed mysterious problems that ended up costing me all I had saved, plus months of future income. And it still didn’t run reliably.
At the library, my athletic shoes didn’t conform to the new employee dress code, so I was fired. My car broke down again. Without it, I couldn’t pick up groceries at the food pantry. When I asked a friend if she was driving in that direction, she told me, in an exasperated tone, that I really should get AAA.
The middle-class people I used to work with have no understanding of my struggles. I have more in common with the homeless, who don’t have the luxury of judging others by such superficial standards.
When I went to bed that October night, I knew the wet snow falling outside might be too heavy for the diseased elm in my front yard, and that the long limb that hung above my old car could break under the weight. For some reason, I ignored the impulse to move my car.
The limb snapped off overnight. My car was totaled. Until I saved enough to buy another car, my eighty-two-year-old mother agreed to loan me hers in exchange for driving her to the grocery store and doctors’ appointments. Afterward we’d go out to lunch. Our conversations were superficial at first, but we spoke more deeply as the weeks passed. We finally apologized for the ways we’d each hurt the other over the years.
A month after the tree limb fell, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. We added trips for radiation and chemotherapy to our itinerary.
Only three weeks later, my mother suffered a major stroke and lost most of her ability to speak. She did manage to say that she wanted me to keep her car and that she wanted to die. She passed away six days after entering the hospice.
On the morning of her funeral, driving the car that now was mine, I had a revelation: if I’d moved my car that October night, I would never have healed those wounds with my mother. Tears of gratitude joined my tears of grief.
The first tower fell at 9:59 A.M. on September 11, 2001. The next thirty minutes were filled with dread and fear as I waited to hear if my brother-in-law, a New York City police officer, was OK: he’d seen the first plane hit while walking to work and had called my sister to tell her that he was rushing to the scene.
At 10:30 I found out that he’d been standing at the base of the second tower when the first one fell. He ran for his life and called my sister from a pay phone to tell her he was alive.
Planes falling out of the sky; buildings falling to the ground; people falling to their death. To this day, he won’t talk about it.
I was born with a condition that causes my bones to break under the slightest pressure, and I learned to use a wheelchair instead of learning to walk.
By the time I was eight, my legs had fractured numerous times. Nevertheless, doctors decided that, with braces and crutches, I might be able to walk. I was sent to a children’s rehabilitation center, where a physical therapist tried to get me to stand. I refused to do it, because I knew that my legs would break. After pleading with me to try, the therapist put her hands under my arms and stood me up. We took a few faltering steps together before both my legs snapped and I fell to the floor, screaming in pain and fear.
After my fractures had healed and the casts were off, I was again sent to children’s rehab. When I saw the same physical therapist waiting for me, I began to shake. Seeing how frightened I was, she said gently, “OK, Phoebe, let’s give it another try.” Once again, she stood me up. Once again, both legs broke. That was the end of my attempts to walk for many years.
Des Moines, Iowa
My husband and I were renovating an old camp building on a lake in eastern Maine. The dream of a cozy, rustic retreat kept us going, but remodeling the tired and poorly built place was a challenge — for our marriage as well as our carpentry skills. Richard wanted to get the job done expediently. I wanted everything to look and feel exactly right.
One raw November day, I was working inside while Richard and his brother were putting on a new roof made of heavy sheets of corrugated steel. I came outside to see they had laid out the roof without consulting me on the overhangs, which I felt were too wide, and I said so. I wasn’t happy, but with only a few pieces remaining to be installed, I had to let it go. We were all tired, cold, and hungry for lunch.
The last piece of roofing to be put on was the one that needed a cutout for the stovepipe. It was critical to locate the hole just right, so Richard made a point of sending me up the temporary ladder to the sleeping loft to approve the stovepipe location before he cut the sheet of steel.
I’d confirmed the location and was starting down the ladder to heat up some soup for our long-overdue lunch when my foot somehow missed the first rung. I felt myself falling slowly backward, headfirst, toward the cast-iron stove at the foot of the ladder.
By miracle or luck, Richard was in exactly the right place, and I fell into his waiting arms. If I’d landed on the stove, I’d surely have cracked my skull — or worse — and we were miles from any doctor, on a Sunday. Rather than dwell on what might have happened, we marveled at the romance of my rescue. Any arguments about overhangs and such were forgotten.
Jane Crosen Washburn
I was a late child, born when my siblings were already in their teens, so I got the sort of attention usually reserved for only children. Mom and I had a special bond and shared a love of music and the arts. But my mother was also a diagnosed schizophrenic. She had mad, sparkling eyes and looked like a movie star. I often manipulated her into letting me stay home from school. She would play songs on the piano while I sipped my chicken soup and sometimes sang along.
Our family endured my mother’s bouts of illogical and embarrassing behavior, but as her illness progressed, she became increasingly forgetful, angry, and incoherent. There were times when I couldn’t help feeling mad at her.
After I grew up and moved out, I stayed close to home for years. When I finally decided to leave the area, I spent my last few days in town visiting my parents. Mom and I fought constantly up until we arrived at the airport and said our tearful goodbyes. It had dawned on us that things would never be the same.
Months later my niece told me that Mom was crying all the time and kept falling down. She’d broken her collarbone and was becoming a danger to my father, who was now feeble himself.
I flew home to find my beautiful mother looking like a street person. Her once-sparkling eyes now gave only flat, blank stares. One day I saw her start to fall. I caught her limp body and carefully let her down to the floor. Then I lay next to her and put my head on her chest.
Crying softly, she whispered, “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m lost. I keep falling down.”
“I’ll catch you,” I whispered.
Los Angeles, California
On the outside, my life looked great. I had my MFA, was engaged, and had just landed a new job. But I had trouble making the transition from being an artist and listening only to my muse to working for someone else. Overwhelmed by the needs and demands of other people, I felt depressed — and then guilty for being depressed when all was going so well.
For some time my fiancé and I had been planning a sky-diving excursion. He’d done it once before, and I wanted to experience the thrill of falling thousands of feet through the air. I signed the disclaimer form acknowledging that what I was about to do could kill me. With life on the ground seeming so flat and heavy, I wasn’t as scared as perhaps I should have been.
I’d imagined wind howling in my ears, but as soon as I jumped from the plane, there was complete silence. Falling at hundreds of feet per second feels like floating. Everything is suspended: space, time, thought. Only when the parachute opened did I become aware of myself again, and of the land rushing up to meet me. But during free fall, all my worries had drifted away.
Now that I’m a wife, and mother to a little boy, I assess risk differently. I will never again make such a jump. But when the buzz of the world grows too loud, the memory of that perfect silence helps me to cope. Sky diving did not make my depression disappear, but it changed me. I will always be someone who fell through the sky.
New York, New York
In the summer of 2004, during the second intifada, I took a trip to Israel and toured the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I was there partly out of curiosity and partly because I was doing research for a novel set in that troubled part of the world.
Though I was not religious, a group of Orthodox Jews kindly let me join their tour. We went to Jaffa, the six-thousand-year-old port city where an ancient stone stairway leads down to the sea. On the way there, our guide explained that the staircase was a popular site for wedding photographs, and every day many brides surrounded by photographers would descend the steps.
Sure enough, there were brides everywhere, and I tried to keep out of their way. As I climbed past a beautiful woman in an impossibly white gown, I lost my footing on the narrow step and began to fall. I might have tumbled all the way down to the sea if the bride hadn’t reached out and grabbed me.
I corrected my balance and thanked her profusely. She’d taken a risk without thinking, for a total stranger, and in her wedding outfit, no less. She never said a word — it was unclear whether she’d understood my English and mumbled Hebrew — but she let me take her picture, and she smiled, so beautiful in her bridal dress against a backdrop of ancient stone.
Back in the tour bus, my rescue by the bride provoked a debate among my Orthodox companions: had the bride been an Arab or a Jew? A woman behind me said that, with so many Jews coming to Israel from Ethiopia and India, it was getting harder to tell the difference. A man in front of me said she couldn’t have been an Arab: “If her husband saw her dressed like that, he would cut off her head.”
Their debate was beside the point. When we stand close enough to each other, we can see each other’s humanity. Then, if someone is falling, it is only natural to reach out a hand to help.
Anita N. Feng
At forty-two, I left my safe but stultifying marriage to explore my decades-old interest in women. The day after my husband and I agreed to separate, I ran into Paula, my drawing teacher from a year earlier. She told me she’d dreamed about me the night before. I was so flustered that, after she’d walked on, I ran to Starbucks and hid in the bathroom.
I contacted Paula again when I felt more in control, and we met a couple of times for lunch, never calling it a “date.” Then we decided to go see When Night Is Falling, a beautiful and erotic film about a straight woman who falls in love with a lesbian.
I arrived at the theater feeling nervous but composed. This friendship might turn into something more, but I had to be careful, evaluate the pros and cons, and not behave impulsively. After we sat down, I turned to Paula to ask her to pass the popcorn and blurted out, “I love you.”
“What did you say?” she replied.
I was sure the date was over.
Ten years later, we are legally married in Massachusetts, and I know that I spoke for both of us.
My two friends and I were at a summer party, dressed in miniskirts that showed off our legs. Though we were thirty and had boyfriends, we flirted shamelessly with our host’s good-looking nineteen-year-old brother, Mark.
After a few too many drinks, my friends and I retired to a hammock, where we exchanged fantasies about Mark. Then suddenly he appeared. Like sirens we beckoned him over, inviting him to push the hammock.
The fantasy came to an ungraceful end when the hammock broke, and we fell on our thirty-year-old butts, skirts up around our waists. Mark asked if we were OK, but we were laughing too hard to answer.
My mother calls at 7 A.M. on my day off. Normally she isn’t up till noon, but her back is hurting, which she blames on her bad mattress. I think it has something to do with her being more than a hundred pounds overweight.
I have reluctantly agreed to take her to the store today. After I pick her up, she convinces me to stop at McDonald’s. She can’t fit into a booth, so we sit on swivel chairs. She doesn’t really fit into them either, and must sit sideways. Embarrassed and disgusted, I watch her shovel down a sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuit and hash browns. I feel like crying every time I see her put more food into her huge body. Nosy diners next to us stare as crumbs of biscuit roll down her front. What right do you have to criticize her? I think.
After she’s finished, we head to the grocery store. My mother’s greatest joy in life, besides chain-smoking and eating, is grocery shopping. She has more than enough food at home, but she feels a need to buy more.
When we are ready to check out, my mother doesn’t have the strength to put the items on the conveyor belt, so I do it for her. She leans over her cart, panting as if she’s about to drop. I spot a thin line of snot running from her nose and quickly dig a tissue out of my purse and give it to her.
It pains me to see this once-beautiful, intelligent woman this way. Inside her grossly overweight body is my real mother, who loves me. But mental illness has worn her down. Years ago she tried to kill herself several times using pills. Now she’s using food.
I drive her home and carry her groceries into the messy, smoky-smelling house. She has too much weight to carry already.
“Thanks a lot,” she calls as I head out the door.
“You’re welcome,” I say. I wish I could stay, but I also can’t wait to leave. My mother might die soon, and I should spend time with her now. I wonder: will losing her be more painful than having her in my life?
I had decided to become a vegetarian. Actually I was giving up only whole pieces of meat. I wouldn’t eat a chicken breast, but my mom’s broccoli soup — made with chicken broth — was acceptable. Hamburgers and steak were out, but little doughnuts that had beef fat in their waxy chocolate coating were fine.
Six months into my new vegetarian life, I had a sudden, undeniable urge for a fast-food chicken sandwich. I drove to McDonald’s and devoured my order as if it were my last meal.
I came up with a plan to start over. I’d remove one type of meat from my diet at a time: first red meat, then pork, then fish, then turkey, and finally chicken. It worked. I felt great.
Then came Thanksgiving. My mom makes the best turkey. Soon after that I began raiding the fridge at night for anything with meat in it.
I now dream about elaborate feasts of turkey and grilled steaks and roast pig. I feel as if I have fallen from grace.
Late one winter night I pull my car into the driveway as far as the snowdrifts will allow. The wind whips my face as I hike through knee-deep snow to my house. In the distance I hear one of my cows mooing: not an unusual event, but there is something disturbing in her call. I think about grabbing my flashlight and checking it out, but I am warm with liquor, and my bed is calling. A couple of hours later the cow’s lowing wakes me. I look out the window, then climb back into bed.
The next morning, sipping my first cup of coffee, I hear the cow again and remember how she called all night. I stomp through the snow toward the sound. It’s Henrietta, my favorite, alone in the pasture. I see a brown lump at her feet and realize she had a calf last night. The transition from hot womb to freezing snow was too much for the newborn. It didn’t survive.
Henrietta moos again, relieved that I’ve finally arrived to help.
“That’s a pretty calf, Henrietta,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”
Henrietta sniffs at its face, then lifts her head into the air, trumpeting her sadness. She can’t hold still and walks away from the calf, then back to it, nuzzling her baby. Then she puts her big nose in my face and blows her breath into my nostrils, begging me to do something.
“I’m sorry, Henrietta. I can’t fix your baby,” I whisper in between sobs. I could have fixed her baby last night — if I hadn’t fallen off the wagon.
I put my arms around Henrietta’s neck, as I’ve done so many times, and bury my face in her greasy fur. But she pulls away, wanting to grieve alone.
For the next week Henrietta stands outside my window each night crying till dawn. I cry with her and vow never again to fall off the wagon.
Kitty Angel Thurnheer
Ithaca, New York
Until I heard a crash, I hadn’t known that my husband, Tom, was on the roof cleaning the gutters. He fell two stories onto our patio and suffered broken bones and a brain injury that will never completely heal.
Tom has made significant improvements in the eight years since the accident. He has returned to his job, which requires complex thinking. But his personality has permanently changed. He lacks maturity and cannot take part in meaningful adult conversations. Though many people with brain injuries become angry, Tom has become guileless and happy. He loves playing with children and is easily delighted. People love him and tell me how lucky I am that “everything turned out great!”
Yes, I’m lucky that Tom is not a quadriplegic and can work. I’m lucky that I’m not a widow. But they don’t know the loneliness of being married to someone who perceives the world like a child.
I see my son reach for the mug of water on my desk. As I roll my wheelchair toward him, he looks up and shakes his head no — such an intelligent one-year-old. Then he turns his wrist and empties the mug on the hardwood floor, still shaking his head, as if to say, I’m not supposed to do this, right?
When I lean over to wipe up the water with a towel, I realize that I haven’t put up the armrest on that side of my wheelchair, and I fall next to the spreading puddle of water. Seeing the startled expression on my son’s face, I laugh and say, “I hope this isn’t your first memory.”
After a snowstorm, I took a walk through the park near my house to gaze at the pristine white landscape. I paused when I came to the creek, where a large fallen log serves as a makeshift bridge. Walking across a snow-covered log five feet above a partially frozen stream was neither safe nor necessary. I knew that only a child would tempt fate by trying it. But I said a prayer and proceeded anyway, taking small steps, arms outstretched like a tightrope walker.
Three-quarters of the way across, I felt my left foot slip, and the rest of me followed with astounding speed. I caught hold of the log and dangled by my arms a moment, toes in the icy creek. Then I lost my grip.
On the way home, my wet undergarments began to freeze to my skin. My husband was distressed at my foolishness, but I found the fall enlightening. It made me grateful for things I’d always taken for granted: hot showers, downy quilts, warm cocoa. I’m glad not to have lost my sense of adventure.
Awake at 3 A.M., I feel as if I’m tipping over backward, tumbling into a familiar whirl of anxieties. They come at me fast. As soon as I reason my way out of one, another takes its place. In the light of day I can sort out the fears and give them their proper weight, but in the night, they threaten to push me over the edge.
Tonight my usual remedies fail, and I work myself into a state of mental exhaustion. Then I see the silhouette of my six-year-old son in the doorway. He, too, can’t sleep. He sees scary faces in the folds of his curtains.
I climb into his bed and wrap my arm around him, and he sighs with contentment. I envy his sense of security, his certainty that I can protect him. In his simple world, being loved by a parent can make anything better. He’ll never know that he is the one who’s rescuing me.
I was lifting my ninety-two-year-old father off the toilet when we both fell to the bathroom floor. We lay there together a moment before I could pull myself up. I quickly grabbed a pillow and placed it under his frail head, asked if he was comfortable (he was), then ran to call 911. When I came back, my father was dead.
Later, trying to make me feel better, a friend said, “You laid him naked on the ground, like they did with Saint Francis.” It’s a poetic image, but I was inconsolable.
Since my father died, I feel as if I am constantly falling and don’t care where I land. I find no meaning in my daily experience. I tell people that I live in a Zen state of not-knowing. This gets them off my back and sounds lofty and mysterious, but I have found no new wisdom or depth. I am not particularly depressed. I am not particularly anything. One anchor that keeps me from plunging headlong into despair is Nikos Kazantzakis’s epitaph: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.”
I am trying to keep alive in me the best parts of my father, which I did not often do in the three years that I cared for him. I want to express his dignity, his rectitude, his ethical intelligence, his trustworthiness — everything that made him so remarkable up until, as my friend said, I laid him on the ground.
In my midforties I became extremely accident-prone. On a steep path near my brother’s house in Seattle, I stumbled over a rock and skidded down the slope. During an evening stroll, I walked headlong into a pile of tree branches and crashed to the pavement. A misstep on an icy patch of ground landed me on my rump. When my husband dug a trench in our driveway to run wiring to his workshop, I fell into the hole. During these years I acquired three canes, including a collapsible model I bought after bumping awkwardly down our stairs one week before we were to begin a walking vacation in Europe.
I attributed my persistent clumsiness to midlife hormonal fluctuations. Women in perimenopause, I’d read, could be “spacey.” I’d also read that being accident-prone could be a symptom of depression. But surely that didn’t apply to me.
My falls continued, more of them than I can now recall. Finally, again in Seattle, I caught my toe on a traffic median while sprinting across a busy street and toppled into the path of oncoming traffic. Miraculously I wasn’t run over, but my knees were bruised and bloodied, and when I went home, I was loaded onto the plane in a wheelchair. My husband wasn’t with me. He had never joined me on any of the several trips I made over more than a decade to see my brothers in Seattle, though he did travel extensively to visit his family and friends.
As my knees healed, I noticed a stubborn ache in my right shoulder that was eventually diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff. During a four-hour surgery to repair it, my husband left the hospital because it was taking too long.
Soon after that I fell in love with another man. I ended my marriage to be with him. I haven’t taken a pratfall since.
I was skiing down a gentle slope when a cow moose appeared and charged right at me. I tried to pull off my skis so I could run, but there wasn’t time. The moose was nearly upon me, so I threw myself face forward into the snow and hoped. She ran over me. Strangely, it didn’t hurt.
I heard my husband shouting at the moose, then to me. He was going to get help, he said. I didn’t answer. The moose was still nearby — I could see her legs planted in the snow not far from my head — and I didn’t want to draw her attention.
I lay there, my face cold and my skis bent at weird angles, like broken limbs, until my husband returned with the police and the fish-and-game wardens. There were more shouts, followed by warning shots to scare the moose away. A paramedic examined me and found a bloody wound the size and shape of a cloven hoof. It would need stitches, he said.
I don’t remember the cow moose charging again or hearing them shoot her or the noise she made when she fell. I also don’t remember hearing her calf — the one I’d skied past without noticing, the one the mother had been trying to protect — or seeing it charge as well, or hearing it fall when it was shot.
Later I learned that the moose population was particularly edgy that year: too many new homes, too many people moving to the area, too much snow that fell too early, too few unfelled stands of willow and birch.
Jill D. Widdicombe
On a whim, I called my old college boyfriend Chris, and we filled each other in on our lives: I was married; he was divorced. I had kids; he had a cat named Max. Then he said matter-of-factly, “I’m an alcoholic.” His drinking had alienated everyone he knew, he explained, except his long-suffering mother and a short list of pals.
Chris and I began calling each other regularly. At first I found myself listening for the old Chris: the one who sauntered into a room and commanded attention; the basketball player who would sink a shot, then turn and smile at me in the stands. But the boy I’d known had begun to fade. Chris was still funny, but he repeated himself and got the details of our college romance wrong, perhaps confusing me with someone else.
“I’m afraid of falling,” he said one night.
I thought he meant falling in love with me again. But then I understood: he meant physically falling.
“Most alcoholics my age die from falls,” he said.
He told me about his most recent falls, the ones he could remember: tripping over a throw rug, slipping on the bathroom floor.
Chris moved to Dallas to find a warmer climate and a cure, and his calls became fewer. One evening his mother’s name appeared on my caller ID. When I heard her sob, I knew Chris was dead. I pictured him at the bottom of a flight of stairs, lifeless. But he hadn’t fallen.
“They found him in his recliner,” his mother said. “He died watching television. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen to a person who’s only forty-eight.”
I could have pedaled the bike trails of Eugene, Oregon, blindfolded, and I practically did that cold February night — until I hit a log in the middle of the trail, and my body hit the pavement.
I painfully stood up, lifted the log, and tossed it into the nearby river. Then I limped to my bicycle. The front fork was bent. I couldn’t pedal it, so I began to push it the last couple of miles to my evening class.
After a few steps my left hip began throbbing painfully. I decided to skip the class and go home. Three steps later, my hip was hurting so bad I could no longer walk. Then my leg contracted on its own, lifting my foot off the ground. I tried lowering it, but the pain was too intense. Using my bicycle as a crutch, I hopped on my right leg. Pain shot through my body. I was in trouble. It was cold and dark, and I was alone.
I eventually maneuvered myself back onto my bike, carefully worked my left foot into the pedal stirrup, then pushed myself along with my right. Despite the bent fork, I could move.
After a while I saw a light ahead: another cyclist approaching. I raised my arm to signal for help. He waved back, then disappeared around a bend. I couldn’t bring myself to shout after him and admit how scared I was. I pushed on.
By the time I reached a street with houses, the pain had become a giant, dull throb. I could have stopped at the first house, but my friend Carol lived two blocks farther. I was determined to make it that far. When I reached her place, Carol was at work, but her twenty-year-old son, Jack, answered the door. I asked him to call my roommate, who drove me to the hospital. I’d broken my hip. It required an operation, a week in the hospital, and months of recovery.
It also taught me how easy it is to fall, and how hard it is to ask for help.
St. Petersburg, Florida
On hot summer nights when I was a teenager in the Bronx, we played a game called “ring-a-levio.” We started after dark and played for hours. There were two teams of five or six players each and a “jail” — really two boxes drawn on the sidewalk. One team hid, and the other tried to capture them. To capture someone, you had to grab hold of him and shout, “Ring-a-levio, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three.” If he didn’t break away before you finished, you could escort him to jail.
One night the jail was in the playground of a new twenty-story apartment building. (The rest of the block was six-story brownstones.) Behind the building was a slope covered with rocks and weeds. I was trying to hide there amid the vegetation when I stepped on loose rock and fell fifteen feet into a brush-covered hole.
When I regained consciousness, I was wedged between two rocks, unable to move. I felt a sharp pain in my lower back, and heard the voices of my friends up above, looking for me. I was the last one left to be found. For some reason I could not yell. Their voices drifted away, and they eventually called the game and went home. (It wasn’t that unusual for players to leave without telling anyone.)
I spent the night in that hole in a semi-conscious state with blood dripping out of my back. The next morning they found me and brought me to the emergency room. A sharp rock had just missed my kidney. I was lucky to be alive, the doctor told me. I didn’t think much about my mortality at the time. In three or four weeks, I was back playing the game.
Years later I went through a long period of sleepless nights, and I came to believe that I should have died from that fall. But I hadn’t. The others were the ones who’d died, one by one over the years: Tanner fell off a roof while working for his father’s roofing company. Lowenthal fell off a fifth-floor fire escape trying to break into his own apartment while drunk. Stevie died on the floor of his girlfriend’s kitchen from a heroin overdose. Jackson died in a dark corner of the schoolyard at the end of a knife. The F-Man got shot in the back trying to rob a grocery store.
I am now far from that time and place. Today I walk through the Rocky Mountains and hardly ever think of falling.
My husband and I were hiking over a rocky mesa above the Pecos River in northern New Mexico. He kept seeing interesting rocks he wanted to take home, and both our packs were heavy with them by the time we headed back toward our camper. The trail ran along a narrow shelf about fifteen feet above the river, which was maybe three feet deep and dotted with boulders. I was walking carefully, but I wasn’t used to the extra weight in my pack, and my legs were tired, and the narrow trail sloped slightly toward the water. Suddenly I was in midair.
I realized later how disturbing the sight of me falling backward toward the shallow and rocky river must have been for my husband, but the experience was something else entirely for me. I felt no panic. There was no quick intake of breath, no flailing, no attempt to catch myself — no thoughts at all. In the instant my feet left the ground, I felt like a little kid falling backward onto a feather bed: that same unquestioning trust in a soft landing.
Then, having somehow missed the boulders, I was in the water. I went under and hit the bottom back first. My pack absorbed most of the impact. I got up and saw my husband hurrying toward me. As I stood there dripping, I couldn’t explain or account for the overwhelming sense of calm I still felt — as if it were an everyday thing to fall off a cliff into a river; as if I’d known with certainty, from the moment I’d slipped, that I’d be fine.
I’ve wondered since then if that’s how it will be when I die.
Santa Fe, New Mexico