Falling is almost never fun, even when it’s teaching valuable lessons. It starts when we try the first baby steps, and it continues its harsh methods any time we fail to be careful. Some of us are slow learners. In my youth, I was knocked unconscious twice when either falling over something or off something. You’d think that would be sufficient.
Walking through an unlighted room one night recently, I stumbled over the corner of a recliner I’d moved and forgotten to put back in its place. I was catapulted onto the tile floor, three thoughts flashing through my mind as it happened: What did I just trip over? What idiot left that recliner in the way? And, gee, porcelain tile is really hard.
Falling is especially risky when you are elderly, a word I hate just as much as “senior citizen.” And not just physically dangerous, but a serious threat to your emotional well-being. I know exactly how old I am, but in my personal script, that internal narrative with which we tell ourselves who we are, I’m a physically fit, still-youthful, fifty-something. Falling, the occupational hazard of old age, shreds that narrative.
For a moment, I thought perhaps I was dead, but then I was reassured by the realization that a dead person wouldn’t feel all that pain. Both wrists, one elbow, and one shoulder let me know they had been stressed. But their anguish was nothing compared to that of the knee that had borne the greatest shock. The knee burned, throbbed, pulsed, and swelled, all at the same time. If it could have talked, I don’t doubt it would have thrashed me with a torrent of foul language.
Over the years, I have become quite familiar with emergency rooms. I have been hauled to one by ambulance a couple of times. In the event of an accident or other medical emergency, seeking this kind of professional care is the sensible course of action to follow. I would insist that any member of my family do so. But in my case, I chose an alternate process, called “let’s see if it will heal on its own.”
Over the following days, I had time to consider the latest lessons falling had imparted. First, and this is one I’ve learned before, I realized what a great thing even the most boring life can be if you can just move about easily and without pain. Second, I learned that putting a sock on your foot when your leg cannot bend at the knee is almost impossible. And the effort can seriously affect the way you use the English language.
I spent a lot of the following week hobbling, resting, icing, and groaning. I thought the knee was improving, but the progress was so slow it could not be gauged accurately. Finally, giving in to prudence, I visited the doctor eleven days after the fall. He pushed, pulled, and questioned. I’ve known him for years; that may have been the reason he avoided lectures on early intervention where falls and possible fractures are concerned. He thought the chances were good that no permanent damage had been done, but he couldn’t be sure. The kneecap, he said, can suffer multiple breaks when subjected to such a blow, and the result is a long, difficult recovery.
It may turn out that this latest fall had a really serious lesson to teach, something about giving the doctor a chance to ply his trade first, not a week or so after I’ve employed my own medical skills and long experience. I won’t know for sure if this is the final lesson until the X-ray results come back.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”