This whole Natasha Richardson thing has got me thinking about the fragility of life; one minute you’re there, smiling and laughing, and then you’re not there, ever again. I cannot fathom how such a simple fall could result in death, especially given her reaction after the fall, laughing and joking with her friends and family. See, I have experience with falls. My Dad fell down once.
Big deal, right? I mean, we’ve all done that before, scraped our knees and bruised our egos. Only my dad didn’t merely trip, and he didn’t simply cut himself. He fell from a ladder and smashed his head onto a wooden step of my parent’s home in Blue Canyon. He could have died.
Could have. But he came out of it not too much worse for wear, although our family had quite a fright. Soon enough, however, he was back to the dad I knew before the fall. I only tell this to you now because I hate to save a happy ending until the end. That would be cruel.
In thinking back on his accident, though, I realized the oddest thing was that my dad wasn’t the only one who got up after the fall; he wasn’t the only one who brushed himself off and started over again. I did, too.
His accident changed the way I do everything; the way I think about everything; the way I act and react. My dad was the one who fell ten feet. He was the one who had brain surgery and was in intensive care for days on end. And he’s the one with the question mark scar up the side of his head. But he isn’t the only one changed after his accident. I’m different now, too.
Ain’t life funny?
This all began on an ordinary day–June 26th to be exact, although the year, 199-something, eludes me; it was a ‘nothing special’ day. I spent the morning running errands. I did laundry and and had the oil changed in the car at Jiffy Lube. I browsed through Tower Books. I wasn’t working that day and had planned to spend it all alone, relaxing and reading; in other words, I was doing nothing.
I came home around noon, loaded down with piles of clean clothes, a newly washed car, and Caleb Carr’s ‘The Alienist.’ As I kicked open the front door of my little bungalow in Sacramento I could hear the annoying beep-beep-beep of the answering machine. I knew it was my boss, calling me into work, so I did what most people might do: I put away the laundry, I hung up my shirts and folded and drawered my pants; I organized my sock drawer. I sat on the floor and rummaged through my CDs for some music. I made a pot of coffee while I thumbed through the newspaper. Then I took a cup into the living room, listening to that beep reverberating off the wood floors, and settled into the couch to read The Bee. But with every turn of the page that damned phone machine called out to me, with each sip of coffee the beeps echoed in my head; they even chimed in time with the music. I’d had enough.
I walked in the dining room to listen to the message.
It wasn’t my boss, after all. What a relief. It was my mom, whose voice and tone I can still hear in my head today. I’ll never forget what she said: Honey, this is mom. I wanted to let you know that your dad fell off the ladder and hit his head. He may have a concussion so I’m taking him to Truckee. I’ll call you later and let you know what’s happening, but there’s no need to worry right now. Talk to you soon, honey. Bye-bye sweety.
All right, so I felt a little guilty–actually a whole lot guilty–about not listening to the message earlier, and I picked up the phone to call home; but their phone only rang and rang and rang. My mom had sounded so calm that I knew everything would be fine, so i went back to my coffee and my music and my paper, yet I kept thinking about that phone call, what she’d said and how she said it, and more importantly, what wasn’t said. The spaces between the words. I got up and listened to the message again.
I was right. She was calm. At first. But then there was a tremble in her voice, and then, right there, at the end, I heard her say it again: there’s no need to worry……………………………right now.
Before I even realized what was happening, I was in my car and flying up the freeway; all because of a pause on an answering machine. My parents lived two hours from me and I spent the entire drive playing and replaying that message in my mind; I could see my father falling from a ladder. I could hear my mom telling me not to worry. Right now. What did she mean by right now? My mom was a nurse, so I imagined she was trying to spare me the graphic details, but I’m a visual person so, naturally, my mind flooded with the worst possible pictures, vivid images of a fall.
My father and I hadn’t been close while I was growing up; who knows why. The usual father/son antagonism maybe. He had been in the Air Force and was away a lot when I was young; perhaps I resented his absences. All that changed, however, as I grew older, or grew up; I had begun really talking to my dad, and listening to him. I got to know him better than I ever had and soon realized we had a great deal more in common. We were more alike, than either one of us had ever thought.
So there I was blindly racing up Interstate 80 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, oblivious to the bumps in the road, and unaware at the way the scenery changed from valley to mountain as I drove. All I could think of was that my dad was hurt and I had no idea how bad.
I reached the hospital in Truckee quickly enough, though I’d never been there and had no idea how I found it. At the front desk, a nurse told me that my dad had been released about an hour earlier. I finally took a breath and the color came back to the world. The nurse said I should check with the ER to find out exactly when my parents had left. I strolled peacefully through the hospital to the Emergency Room, but the desk nurse there said my dad hadn’t been released. He’d been life-flighted to the Washoe Medical Center in Reno. She said, so calmly, that he had suffered a severe brain trauma and needed neurosurgery.
I was back in the car and driving on autopilot again, headed to another hospital I didn’t know existed.
What if he died? I felt then, that I had only known him for about ten years; I mean, really known him. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. And I wondered how my mom was handling it; I was just as worried about her. Our family had been pretty lucky up until then in that none of us had ever been badly hurt or seriously ill.
When I got to Reno, I followed those blue signs to the Washoe Medical Center and once more rushed rushed to the front desk, and was sent downstairs to emergency. In the Er I was sent back upstairs; my dad was in ICU.
I got off the elevator and that’s when I saw her; my mom, sitting alone in the waiting area beside the front desk. I must have run right past her. She was sitting quietly, her hands in her lap, in an over-sized chair, staring at nothingness. Her face was a shade of white I hope to never see again, and her hands were clenched so tightly I could see the tiny blue veins pulsing in her arms.
When she saw me, the tears came, from both of us, and she stood up. The only way to describe how she felt as I held onto to her, is that she seemed to come apart at the seams like a suit of old clothes.
She wept, telling me about the fall; an aluminium ladder; a bent leg. She sobbed telling me how she found him on the deck, bleeding and unconscious. She said he’d be in surgery most of the day.
So we waited. I held my mom’s hand, and then I would go off to call this relative or that one. I called my sister and we cried like babies; she said she’d call my brother. She said Be strong for Mom. I had never had to do that before and wasn’t sure how, or if, I could do it. But I took care of things for her.
And, in the silences between phone calls and tears, I thought about all the things I hadn’t told my dad. That I loved him, and how much he meant to me; how much he’d taught me when he didn’t even know he was teaching. What if I didn’t ever have the chance to tell him those things face-to-face?
I decided I did have the chance. I sat in the ICU with my father for hours on end, taking turns with my mom. At first, he was unconscious, and hooked up to all sorts of beeping, breathing, clicking machines; he couldn’t hear me, I don’t think, but I talked anyway. I told him I loved him. I talked about things I’d done and wanted to do. It was like trying to cram a lifetime of conversation into twenty minute visitation sessions. I begged him to come back, for my mom, for me and my brother and sister.
A few days later he did come back; he was out of the ICU. He spent another week in a regular room, wide awake and slowly returning to normal, and then we got to take him home. For awhile, he was different–but then who wouldn’t be after all he’d been through; he moved a little slower, he was always tired, and he was more than a little bit cranky. But all of that was good because he was back.
That was well over ten years ago and everything is back to normal–except my mom is no longer with us. And I can’t help but think, that while my dad was the one who fell, the one who had the surgery, the one in ICU, the one who almost…….I felt as though I’d suffered a near death experience of my own. I realized life was too short for not doing what you want, and being who you are, and saying how you feel. I realized I didn’t want to be in a hospital one day, wondering what if.
My dad fell down, but he wasn’t the only one who got up.