With Mama, After the Fall

One of my favorite photos of Mama and me, in St. Augustine, Florida, 1968.

My first post of 2024 was about how I started the year off on a walk wearing mismatched shoes, or one wrong shoe. Just two days later, my mother started the year off with one wrong step. A seriously wrong step. As she was preparing to head upstairs for the night on January 5th, she fell. In recent years, she’s been quite the frequent faller, and her attitude toward falling is best described as cavalier. She rarely complains about the bruises and occasional cuts she acquires with each tumble. But this fall was different. She was unable to get up, or to contact us, and the pain in her leg was intense. Her little red Jitterbug phone lay just out of reach. Her emergency call pendant was by her bed. She spent twelve hours on her family room floor. I had checked on her around 6 PM, as I usually do, and she’d been fine. My husband or I should have noticed that her bedroom light never switched on. But we didn’t. We didn’t find her until the next morning.

Every time we hear the urgent wails of approaching ambulances and firetrucks (and we hear them often) we know that at some point, they’ll be coming for someone in our family. January 6th was one of those days. That morning, my mother was carried out on a stretcher, and I sat in the front seat of the ambulance. The paramedics couldn’t have been kinder or more thoughtful. We’re grateful to live within easy reach of excellent medical care.

Mama and me, 1970, in Atlanta. We’re wearing our of-the-moment midi and maxi fashions, sewn by Mama, of course.

Surgery to repair a badly broken femur was followed by four days in the hospital. On Day 3, Mama remarked that she was rather enjoying the stay; it felt like a rest in a nice hotel. Anesthesia and pain meds were masking the discomfort, no one was bugging her to try to stand up, and I was a constant presence in her pleasant private room. The staff was attentive and capable. Over the years, she has spent time in three Northern Virginia hospitals, and she found this stint to be by far the least miserable.

It was a different story altogether when she was moved to a nearby rehab facility. I could no longer be with her every minute, day and night. She had a roommate, whose demeanor vacillated precipitously between angelic and menacing. There was an ongoing, simmering dispute over the ideal room temperature. Mama could neither see nor hear the TV on her side of the room, yet her roomie’s TV was always on, too loudly, tuned to a station Mama would certainly not have chosen. There was considerable difficulty in ensuring that she received her prescribed medications, especially those for her asthma, and wasn’t dosed arbitrarily with unnecessary ones. As in any such facility, the staff are too few, and they’re doing difficult, often disagreeable work for low pay. It’s a place where no one wants to be. Mama described it simply as a house of horrors.

Atlanta, 1975

Not quite three weeks later, insurance abruptly decreed that her time in rehab was up. Thanks to a wheelchair-accessible transport van, Mama was summarily deposited back in her own home. For her, it was not a moment too soon, although my husband and I were not sure how we’d care for her effectively when her mobility remained so limited. There’s a good reason that babies are smaller than their parents.

We’ve all managed, somehow. Mama has learned to walk again. She’s progressed through a series of walkers, from wheel-less, to partially wheeled, to a rollator (a word I’d never heard until recently), the kind with four wheels and a little seat that can be used for carrying things. Several times a week, we do the exercises together that I watched her learn in physical therapy at rehab. She is getting somewhat stronger. She can do a few things for herself, including preparing simple meals.

Her falls, though, continue. Since her return from rehab, she’s fallen about twice a month, typically while making a transition from sitting to standing. Her legs simply “give out,” she says. With each episode, we make some changes and many suggestions. I remind her that I sleep in her guest room and can hear her summons on the baby monitor if she needs me in the night. She never expects to fall. So far, she’s suffered no further major damage. But we know that may not always be the case. The next broken leg, or arm, or worse–awaits.

Wales, 1988

Throughout her life, Mama was exceptionally active, involved in multiple projects–sewing clothes for everyone in the family, upholstering and refinishing furniture, decorating, gold-leafing, crafting–all while working part time at various jobs, reading voraciously, teaching Sunday School or Bible study, doing the housework, cooking, and being a devoted, compassionate wife, mother and daughter. (She and Daddy gave up their bedroom to move my grandmother into their home and care for her at the end of her life. ) Mama was generally too busy to consider physical exercise for its own sake.

Or for her own sake. And mine. If I could turn back the clock and change anything, it would be to encourage Mama to start weight training around the time I discovered it, in college. Why didn’t I try harder to get her to join me in regular work-outs, at home or at the Colony Square Athletic Club when I worked at the High Museum? Because she had too much else to do, of course. She would remind me that there was a time, when I was in grad school, that she and my father walked for exercise in the early mornings. At least they did that. Every little bit helps.

The frightening truth is that we’re all one small misstep away from catastrophe. That’s life. Our circumstances can change, for better or worse, in an instant.

So we keep on, doing what we can. I’ll continue the PT sessions with Mama. I’ll keep to my weight routine in our basement gym. My husband will, too. I’ll walk the neighborhood with my dog-mom friends, and he’ll use our treadmill. We’ll do our best to maintain our strength and balance. We’ll think of it as a gift to ourselves, to our daughter, and to anyone who may need to care for us one day.

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