I Lay Still for a Few Seconds

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – About a week ago, in literally the blink of an eye, I went from giving Kiki a treat to lying face-down on the tile floor of the kitchen. It was, thankfully, my own damn fault, and not a systemic collapse.

I often dispense treats by holding them between my lips and bending over, holding onto the countertops, left and right, about four feet apart; she dances on her hind legs to reach the treat. But one hand slipped, then both. I must have turned my head instinctively, because I hit the floor with my left eyebrow and bridge of the nose. The tired old pair of reading glasses I was wearing went every which way; the little peanut butter-flavored treat was in pieces; and there was a little blood on the floor. Nosebleed. I lay still for a few seconds to check my various systems.

Kiki, who had somehow vaporized before I reached the spot where she’d been dancing, came back to collect the scattered pieces of the treat, and then to inquire anxiously how I was doing. I wrestled myself back onto my feet and headed for the paper towel rack about eight feet away, thinking, “By golly, I ain’t gonna do that again!” The nosebleed stopped right away. I poured a cup of coffee and headed for the safety of my office chair, but still hanging onto the paper towel.

A couple of days later, when the scabs had formed on my forehead and the bridge of my nose, I posted a selfie on Facebook. Clearly, it resonated: To this moment, it’s gathered 572 hits and 265 comments. My Facebook pals seem to be of mature years and, I’d venture, mostly bipedal; many of them have fallen; and almost as many have stories to tell and advice to dispense. Some have stumbled on the top step and fallen down whole flights of stairs; some assume the tile floor is slippery (it isn’t); many offer advice for prevention of future incidents; and a few are humorous.

The whole experience has prompted a week of reflection on the hazards of old age and the measures necessary to extend it as far as possible. I noticed during the days following the crash that I was a little wobblier on my feet than usual. Luckily, I’m not playing in the National Football League. I treated that symptom less as one of trauma – there’s naught can be done about it – than as a harbinger of future disability. That in mind, I considered the features of old age.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve focused on those of us 75 and older – what I call the First Flight of COVID Vaccinees – and what we face as we enjoy a privilege denied many of our contemporaries.

Our five-minute mile, if it ever existed, is gone. Our minds are full of memories, some disastrous and others melodic (like waking up in the morning to an earworm of Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000”); yet we often strain for the word or a name we want, and wonder as we do if it’s the start of something more threatening.

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ll never climb Mount Katahdin again, or that the woman smiling at me from the photo beside my computer isn’t ever again going to call from the next room, or that the worst hazard I face in daily life is raised door sills. That it’s not possible anymore to just stand up from a chair and start walking without shifting, as it were, from Park to Drive. That the loss of sensation almost imperceptibly creeping up my legs probably isn’t going to stop. That at least half a dozen of my old friends no longer recognize me.

It’s easy to reflect gloomily on the apparent lack of improvement in human nature over millennia: that we’re still just rolling rocks down upon each other. That far too many of us want more than our share and are willing to make others suffer in order to get it. That the hills above Ventura and the hills above Wheeling, though both in the United States, are galaxies apart. That no nation can long accommodate both multiple billionaires and tens of thousands of financially struggling citizens. That the climate is sending us ineluctable signals about our future environment.

On the other hand, there are many exciting things going on that I can hardly imagine being disengaged from: the exploration of Mars, which in my childhood was still thought to be covered in “canals;” the triumph of medical science over cancer, muscular dystrophy, and Alzheimer’s; the dawning of a new age of innovation in sustainable energy. Also, as days like today, warming into the 50s and luring the little open roadster from the barn, the dog whining with eagerness as we climb the hill into the park, and finally her pure joy as I trudge my 55-minute miles and she scours the woods for squirrels and pumas– these are pleasures that make me so happy to be still around.