I vividly remember the afternoon I visited my mother, Beatrice, in her suburban Los Angeles home. We were relaxing in her backyard. She stood a short distance from me when I saw her fall. Mother didn't cry out. Running to her, I helped her get up and sit in a wicker chair.
"Can't we just sit here?" she asked. We couldn't. Beatrice was 94, the situation was urgent. Life moves on, which is what it was doing at that particular moment. I called 911, an ambulance came quickly and carried her to a nearby hospital. Hours later she underwent surgery for a broken hip. Soon a medical decision placed her in a nursing home-convalescent hospital where she remained until her death at 99.
Her life had changed dramatically and completely. She had long been an astounding role model as a regular volunteer teacher at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. In 1977 she received the hospital's Kate Page Crutcher Award for her volunteerism, and in 1982 the Mary Helm Memorial Award. Beatrice regularly washed and ironed her hospital uniform and drove herself to the hospital. One day a small boy, a patient, asked Mother "You're old, aren't you?" "Yes," she replied. "Good!" he said. "Then I can talk to you."
I was grateful for her courage and strong desire to be of service in her life. But bad things can happen to good people. As John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn poiint out in their book "Successful Aging," falls are a major cause of fracture. Disorders of balance and mobility boost the incidence of falls.
Little did I know that, years after Beatrice's fall in her backyard, I'd take a scary fall of my own. it would be followed by a second fall that was more painful and forced me to engage in serious thinking about my own life. My initial fall occurred one morning when I took a familiar stroll around a lake in a nearby park. I hadn't a thought in the world, yet up ahead something unusual was taking place. A large group of Middle School youngsters suddenly came into view on my path, moving rapidly toward me. For some reason I didn't simply meet them head on in a light, boisterous way. But I felt a surge of panic. Taking note of a grassy knoll to my left, I chose to follow the incline. But then I fell. A friendly kid extended his hand and pulled me up. Everything seemed OK. But was it? I felt threatened by the experience. A new element had entered into my consciousness. I did not want to fall again. This slowly grew into a new sort of anticipation or fear.
Shortly afterward I was invited to an initial screening of a new documentary film. In fact, I made an appearance in it. The screening was in a glamorous Beverly Hills talent agency. Invitees slowly gathered in an anteroom. Without warning that new mysterious sense of panic hit me again. Suddenly I couldn't see a convenient railing to hold onto. Now the floor itself appeared threatening and slick as ice. Then I fell. Of course, someone pulled me up. I hurt. I'd been part of a crazy, perhaps somewhat funny, certainly unique party scene. ("He fell down in the midst of the party? How did that happen?") But what, if anything, had I learned?
I learned that in the park with the kids, I needn't have reacted in fear when there was, in fact, nothing to fear. Too, I learned at the film screening that I was obviously surrounded at close hand by friendly people. I could have reached out to anyone near me, holding onto a friendly arm or a shoulder.
I had let my intimation of panic get in the way. But now, I decided clearly, I prefer balance, serenity and reason as core elements of my life. Beatrice's undying gift to me -- come hell or high water -- was her absolutely untouchable core of security. As fate would have it, I was with her in the nursing home years ago when she died. It was a slow, lazy Friday afternoon in the home. Now Beatrice had devloped pneumonia and the end was near. I sat with her holding her hands which were limp. Her eyes were closed. But all of a sudden her eyes opened sharply. They looked into mine with an almost fierce strength. Her hands gripped mine with power. We stayed that way for a moment. Just as abruptly, her hands relaxed and were limp. Her eyes closed.