Falling: An Autobiography
When I was a small child, I fell forward into a ditch while trying to catch a snake. Catching my weight on the heel of my hand, I broke my arm. I ran back to our campsite, my sodden coat sleeve dragging painfully against my arm. My mother made a sling out of a cloth diaper and put me to bed. The adults drank homemade concord grape wine well into the night. I looked at an x-ray when I was 21 years old. The white, crooked line on the radius showed where the bone, unset, had healed.
Motion: A movement of solid bodies through space. Emotion: A movement of feelings through the body.
Wound: An injury inflicted from the outside. Wound: Something tightly coiled. Controlled.
It wasn't my fault. It seems important to point that out. Fault and blame figure prominently in this story. I was vacationing in a cabin outside Yellowstone Park with my parents, my daughters, and my brother and his family. The five day forecast for familial weather patterns looked partly cloudy with a slight chance of storm. The next part of the story I only know second hand. One of my daughters got up in the wee hours, told me her stomach hurt, and vomited in my bed. I jumped up, apparently, instinctive mother mode, but my blood pressure did not join me and I fainted, tumbling down a very steep flight of uncarpeted wooden stairs. There was a comedy of fumbling as four adults sought unfamiliar bedroom doors in the dark. I was lying, they tell me, at the bottom of the stairs covered in my own blood. Blood streaked the stairs, the front door, and the surrounding carpets. When I regained consciousness, I was told I was difficult to manage. I wanted to slink back to bed. The fingers of my left hand were perpendicular to one another. My right hand was sticky with drying blood. I wanted to hide.
Guilt: Regret for doing wrong. Shame: Regret for being wrong.
A drive from Wyoming to a hospital in Ennis, Montana confirmed that I had shattered the ring finger of my left hand, broken my nose, badly lacerated my scalp, and cracked a vertebra in my back. But as the paramedics questioned me, the overriding emotion I experienced was shame. How could I have been so clumsy? Why had I made such a mess? My daughter thought that it was her fault. What was I going to do about that? I apologized to the physician’s assistant who put me in a neck brace, mortified that my trauma had interrupted his night’s sleep. This shame storm peaked when I left the hospital and the cool mountain air on my thigh informed me that I had torn my pajama bottoms so thoroughly in the fall that my ass had been hanging out the whole time I had been at the hospital.
Triage: an educated ranking of injuries according to severity. To decide which injury is most deserving of care.
I was multi-tasking. Jogging through the nearby university campus where I work to a Saturday morning pedicure: fitness and fashion in one fell swoop. I stepped off the dry, frozen asphalt to the shady, icy path. Next, I saw the shattered amber lens of my sunglasses a few feet from where my forehead dripped blood on the snow. No slow-motion windmilling of arms, just contact with the ground. Staggering to my feet, I waved off another jogger, unable to admit my receptivity to gravity, shamed at the blood pumping in an even, arterial rhythm from a spot just above my left eyebrow. I called my husband on my damaged cell phone, reported my location, and sat down hard in the snow to wait. It was important, I thought, to look normal. As the blood started to trickle onto the snow, I made the first of a series of bad decisions.
I stood up, reeling from the combination of blood loss and shock, and started to walk the mile back to my house. When a car along my route pulled over, I joked that I was fine, by this time having donned my maroon hood, which I thought obscured most of the blood streaming down the left side of my face. The passengers looked at me like I was crazy and slowly drove away. Willing to let a bleeding stranger into their car, they seemed unwilling to give a ride to someone so patently stupid as to think that a chatty manner would distract attention from the great gash in my forehead studded with pieces of my plastic sunglasses. I now detoured through parking lots, eager to avoid another awkward exchange, awkwardness being somehow more threatening than exsanguinating. When I stumbled onto my front lawn, I discovered that my keys were no longer in my pocket, knocked free by the impact. Dizzy and a little nauseous now, I crossed the street to the neighbors and knocked tentatively, hoping for a paper towel so that could skulk back to my house and wait for my husband, who was, of course, now frantically searching the bloody snow at the location I had given him, certain that I had crawled under a bush and died or stumbled into traffic. When the eight year old boy opened the door, I asked for a paper towel and before I could finish he ran for his dad, who took one look and steered me firmly into the kitchen. It was there I finally cried, not in pain, but from the horror of hearing my blood drip insistently on their clean kitchen floor. The Dad called my husband, gave me a whole roll of paper towels and waited with me until my husband arrived and we headed to the hospital.
Humor: Using language to render even bad things funny. Humerus: A long bone connecting the upper arm to the shoulder.
The third time still seems mysterious. I was walking on a bluff over the Pacific ocean on the coast of Washington state. And then I was on the ground, my left hand numb, unrecognizable, and immobile under my chest. Apparently, I caught my toe on an exposed root and pitched forward headlong, twisting my body onto my left side at the last minute to avoid another head injury. Instead, I shattered the left humerus and detached the upper head of my bicep.
Accident (something unintended happens). Prone (a seeming aptitude for something. Lying flat on your face).
I didn’t recognize my own hand at first because I was unable to feel or move it. Dragged to my feet by my family, my girls again white-faced with fear, I took stock. I could not move my left arm. I joked about my clumsiness. Maybe an ice pack and some Tylenol would help. Maybe the grating, sharp sound that resonated through my other bones when I hit the ground was just the crunch of the gravel underneath me. When I gave up trying to cajole my bone into not being broken, we headed fifty miles down the road to the Forks, Washington community hospital, home of the fictitious Cullen vampire clan and the nearest medical help in the middle of the national forest. The highway to Forks needs work. I felt every bump. I played a game in my head with the pain. Unable to get away from it, I bargained with it. If I could keep breathing and not cry out until the next mile marker, the next tree, the nest campground sign, then I could bear it. I negotiated with the pain every quarter mile through the darkness and the trees.
Gravity. The force that attracts a body toward the center of the earth. A condition of seriousness, an appropriate response to a grave situation.
At the hospital, I waited while a teenage boy was treated for a neck wound. He had stepped on a sharpened stick in the forest and it flipped up and pierced his neck, narrowly missing the carotid artery. The walls are thin in the Forks hospital. He knew how to respond to a horrifying accident. He was horrified and moaning in pain. I sat quietly until the young physician on call arrived to examine me. I had dislocated my radius, basically driven my elbow out of its normal location, and he maneuvered it so that it popped back in. He was ready to send me on my way because when he palpated my upper arm, I didn’t flinch or cry. Instead I bantered. It hurt plenty, but I felt foolish, so I didn’t react. I talked to him intermittently for two hours. He brought ice and a sling and attended to other cases before finally agreeing to give me an x ray. Moving my arm into position for the films made white lights dance in front of my eyes. I did not want the technician to think I was a baby. I did what I was told.
The doctor came back shaking his head. It was a really bad break. It was, in fact, shattered. Catastrophic was his exact word. It would require extensive surgery. He could not do it there. Maybe Olympia or Seattle. By the way, did I want something for the pain?
Pain: A distressing sensation of body or mind. Suffering. Threshold: Marking a doorway or entrance. Pain Threshold: A measure of tolerance. An opportunity for care or carelessness.
A shot of Toradol and a couple of Percocet buffered the ride back to Kalaloch, but I still felt weak-kneed with pain. We left for Olympia the next morning. I apologized over and over to my family for ruining their vacation. The next four days were filled with doctor visits and scans and the brooding presence of my body’s reaction to having a crushed bone go unset for five days. During one medical catechism about the risk of bone death and paralysis and blood clots, bereft of my perkiness, I sunk down on the exam table and wept, much alarming my sister-in-law. The days were nauseating and frightening and exhausting, but it makes for repetitive storytelling, so I will summarize. Nobody in Washington would fix my shoulder because I needed to go home to Utah and they wouldn’t be able to do follow up care. On day five post-fall, I flew home in coach with my arm in shards and saw an orthopedic surgeon who operated the next day, putting a plate and nine locking screws and re-attaching my bicep. I spent the night in the hospital, finally freed from the shame of the whole ordeal because the nurses kept talking about what a bad break it was. It was ok to admit the pain. I had permission now. When I went back to work, I embroidered the story in the telling. Falling while “hiking” in “rough terrain” was less embarrassing than admitting I had tripped.
Breaking a fall. When you hit something soft that slows you down before you hit something hard. The pillow broke the baby's fall. The treetops broke the plane's fall as it plummeted from the sky.
About a month after the first shoulder surgery, I began having stabbing pains near my shoulder blade, under my arm, and beneath my breast on the same side as the shoulder fracture. They started under the scapula and brought me up short in the middle of teaching or during a sound sleep, the muscles spasming in solidarity to protect the tissue around epicenter of the pain. Like a line of neurons doing the wave, like electric dominoes tapping each other, the pain ran under my arm, and around my chest, leaving the skin itchy and sore to the touch. The doctor suggested muscle relaxers.
The physical therapist suggested hanging. For a moment I visualized a scaffold and a last cigarette until I realized that she wanted to create a kind of do it yourself traction to force the humerus back where it belonged and not leaning toward my left ear. The rotator cuff, a gang of muscular thugs that normally keeps all the other shoulderly players where they belong was not doing its job. And it hurt.
I went outside to the playset my husband built for our children and raised my arms, grasped the "monkey bars" and lifted my feet. The nerve cells doing the wave decided they needed seats closer to the center line, and they moved en masse into my lower back. The muscles of my trunk had become very weak as I’d been focusing the attention for the last three months on moving my arm. Weak muscles, like any bully, overreact when stressed. I could not stand up straight and limped to the house and the heating pad, piggy backing acetaminophen with the ibuprofen I was taking for the spasms. As I lay on a foam roller on my basement floor trying to do my own trigger point muscle release, I gently rolled to my side because it hurt too much to do anything else, pulled a quilt up over my feet, and watched leaves move against the water spotted basement window. Intent on getting off the pain pills and proving myself the most able and interesting patient at physical therapy, I hadn't given much thought to my pain except for how I could dominate it or erase it. Lying there in the quiet afternoon, contemplating my plural brokenness, I started to do the gentle back exercises that I scoffed at when the therapist recommended them as warm ups. I wanted to win at recovery and boss it around, I didn't want to ease into it.
Ease: To make something less difficult. Easy: requiring no heroic effort, a pushover, province of the lazy and uninformed.
As I slowly moved through the modifications for the exercises, I pitied my body, forced for 52 years to be subject to my loud and careless brain.
It turns out the stabbing pains were not muscle spasms but shingles. Shingles are a very painful viral infection related to chicken pox. I followed up the shingles with another surgery to release the scar tissue formed by the first surgery, then physical therapy and stretching and learning to use it all over again. It has been a year since the fall. It is still weak, I have limited range of motion, and I have gained so much weight from the enforced inactivity that I feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I sometimes remember that moment of grace on the basement carpet when I let go of the shame. And I have been on vacation three times this summer with only one laceration.
Breaking news. The latest news delivered quickly. News of something new that is broken.
I finished the first draft of this essay on September 12, 2015. On September 19, I jammed my foot into the bathroom sink to wash away the blood from a stubbed toe, lost my balance on the loose rug, and careened into some two by four studs exposed by a recent remodeling project. On the way down to the tiled floor, I hit my head (two staples) and my wrist (a plate and five screws and a four inch incision). My family converged in the doorway shaken by the commotion but not altogether surprised. I tried to apply ice to the hand, twisted at an impossible angle and starting to swell. My twelve year old daughter snorted with derision. “Looks like another trip to the ER and a surgery to me.” She, of course, was right.
Proprioception: A knowledge of where your body parts are relative to each other.
It was terrible timing. It was mid semester at the university where I teach. It would be the third orthopedic surgery for me in the last 13 months. But it wasn’t fear of the surgery that left me leaking slow tears onto the sofa instead of getting into the car and heading to the hospital. It wasn’t even the familiar shame. It was a sense of doom.
My falls up to this point had left me as cautious as the elderly ladies I saw mincing out of the bus from the assisted living center. I had never had the grace of a ballerina, but prior to the shoulder surgery I had the sure-footed stride of a distance runner. I was confident that my foot would go where my brain told it to go and that it would stick to the ground where I placed it. Not any more. Descending the three flights of stairs from my office to my classroom feels like a controlled fall.
Exteroception: An awareness of how we perceive the outside world.
Grasping for the banister feels like a failure as I watch people gallop up the stairs, texting and talking and reading. My balance has not abandoned me, but has been rendered stiff and awkward by fear and an unsettling surety that the worse can and probably will happen as my body moves through the world. I am a kinesthetic pessimist. As I was being wheeled into the operating room this last time, I passed my shoulder surgeon on his way out. He shook his head ruefully and wished me luck, orthopedic harlot that I was.
Interoception: How we perceive our own hunger and pain. Introspection: How we assess the veracity of our perceptions.
I have been cleared by the hand surgeon to exercise. I am taking long walks with my dog. Mostly I scan the asphalt for hazards. Sometimes I look up. Maybe I’ll start running again.
Balance : Equilibrium, even distribution of weight. Balance: the act of moving toward equanimity, a process.
About the Author: Sally Bishop Shigley teaches literature, literary theory, and the intersection between neuroscience and literature at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Her essay “Great Expectations: Infertility, Disability, Possibility” is forthcoming in The History of Infertility (Palgrave) and her essay co-written with Lauren Fowler appears in Rethinking Empathy through Literature (Routledge 2014). Her creative non-fiction has found a home in Mom Egg Review and So to Speak: feminist journal of language and art.