Unplanned Flight

January 15, 2010

My body stretches forward in perfect flight, parallel to earth, with arms outstretched as if to grab the air. Launch has been involuntary, and the landing pad a sidewalk or street, busy with pedestrians or vehicles or unkind cracks that sent me flying in the first place. Grace is gone, lost with a thud and a gasp, personal effects tumbling gradually down around me.

This is my life: primitive flight, Kitty Hawk revisited. At least the Wright brothers had a goal, a dream to work toward. All I want is to stay on earth, feet planted surely on the ground. But illness has its own plan. I cannot control the disease overtaking me any more than I can choreograph my every misstep and crash landing.

I am not alone in mid-air. Falling is the dread fear of the elderly, the sick. We know when we are at risk because the graceless spills come, no matter how careful we think we are. I have escaped injury beyond the inevitable cuts and bruises, but not so my wounded ego.

Humiliation upon falling is immediate. Damn. Apologies flow rapid-fire, as if the crash was planned and carried out with evil intent. We cannot help it. Illness and disability attack self-esteem, and what more public show of my lack of control can there be? I wish I could guide motion and emotion with a stronger hand, but I lost control long ago.

The problem is more than a wounded ego, however. My sense of self is at stake. I am gratefully aware that I am strong of spirit, if not body. Frailer humans may not be so fortunate.

Emergency rooms have welcomed legions of us veterans of flight, the injured requiring stitches or casts to be made whole again. These people must have little patience for any suggestion that mishaps should be greeted with nonchalance. No big thing. It is a big thing. I have learned to laugh at myself frequently enough, but I want to cry each time an accidental flight sends me spiraling to the ground.

We cannot give up our freedom and mobility, or love of walking, and stay emotionally whole. This is who we are. I will not sit at home because I dare not venture down the street anymore. Admonitions to be careful suggest that any of us is reckless. My mother used to tell me to be careful when I slipped behind the wheel. I chuckled.

Add up the illnesses around us that compromise eyesight or impede mobility. It is a wonder we are not all smashing into each other all the time. Age alone puts us at risk of taking that unwanted header to nowhere.

But life is about choices. Most of us understand risk. We recognize reckless and unacceptable brinksmanship when we see it. The line we must not cross rests at that point when risk is too great and no longer is acceptable. Then, then, perhaps, the unthinkable: a walker.

Just kidding. For me to suggest that those at risk should go for the walker is pure hypocrisy, not to put a fine point on it. My aversion to such devices is well known, though not necessarily sensible. If there is no answer, my answer is this.

I am a believer in pushing the envelope. Keep going until you can go no more. Then take stock of your life. Live with risk until it is time to stop. Know where that line is. Then, grow up and do what you have to. Then teach me to do the same.

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