Yves here. As much as the guest writer, Shepherd Bliss, gives important advice, I have mixed feelings about it, since I’m the just about last person to follow it. I took a very bad fall last year, on January 1 in the Atlanta airport, stupidly tripping over my shoelaces. I landed so hard on the linoleum over concrete floor that if hadn’t been weight training for 30 years, I would have broken my hip. Instead I tore my labrum and resprained an ankle.
I’m not as badly impaired as Bliss became, but without boring you with details, this is a pretty bad injury, and with my daily peregrination and exercise as my big ways of reducing stress (and yes, I do meditate), this is an even bigger deal than it might appear (as in even using the accelerator and brake on those occasions when I drive often bothers both injuries). Please don’t offer advice; I’ve been contending with orthopedic issues all my life and have spent the better part of 25 years since I sustained a bad knee injury experimenting with treatments and practitioners to find what might make a difference.
Even though Bliss has had to make difficult adjustments, he seems to have the personal and financial resources to reduce the pain. As we all know too well, that is becoming less and less true for the aging in America. I’m sure readers know of stories like this one: I have a friend who relocated to Oklahoma about a decade ago who is now 71. She moved with a partner that she discovered had stolen a lot of her savings. She took a very bad fall about a year and a half ago and shattered one leg. She can get around, not well, with a cane, and the meds she is taking have led her to gain a lot of weight. The worst is her sister, with whom she had been close, recently cut her off, with no apparent provocation. She at least can still work, but she also has to work. When I speak to her, I can too often hear the exhaustion and despair in her voice.
This is a long-winded way of saying while it would be far better to be evolved, as the New Age types like to put it, I am of the Dylan Thomas school:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I now tell everyone I see with dangling laces to tie them ASAP.
By Dr. Shepherd Bliss (email@example.com), a retired college teacher, farmer, and writer in Sonoma County, California
The organic Kokopelli Farm has been my home, as well as my main work, identity, and love, for the last two-dozen years. Then I fell into a badger hole in the ground, covered by grass, on Jan. 15 this year. I crawled painfully uphill back into the house, as if I were a baby. This unwelcome anniversary will remain in my now 73-year old body and memory.
The fall plunged me into deep reflections, followed by life-changing behavior. “You must change your life” is a poetry line from Rilke that kept emerging as I spent hours each day in bed, no longer able to provide “the farmer’s shadow” with daily walks on the land, so essential to good farming.
Growing up is not always easy, even for elders like myself, closer to my death date than my birth date. Maturing can be sparked by a sudden, unexpected incident, like falling. What to do, other than feel sorry for one’s self? How can one turn an apparent loss into a learning experience and gain knowledge from it for one’s self and others?
I began by lightening my load. I decided to give away hundreds of books, DVDs, records, furniture, luggage, dog things, etc., which I had been collecting for decades.
“I call that ‘essentializing,’ commented Alexandra Hart of Transition Sebastopol’s monthly Elders Salon, which has been happening since 2010. “Aging makes one slower, so it means simplifying and seems to require letting go of stuff.”
“We’ve noticed in the Elders Salon that loss almost inevitably brings some kind of gain,” Hart added.
I’ve appreciated the smiles of friends and strangers as they load up books and other things, taking them on a journey into their lives and homes. I’m even asked to autograph some of the 24 books to which I have contributed, reminding me that I can at least still write, even though my body has been diminished. I can still grab a pen, which is how this old-fashioned writer starts every article or book chapter, only using the computer for revisions.
The fall, though deeply painful into my vulnerable knee and neck, became a blessing in disguise. Many friends brought me chicken soup, other food, and helped lessen my isolation. I listened to their stories of having fallen, being sick, and experiencing excruciating pain. I now appreciate even more living in the small town of Sebastopol with its caring community.
Loss, Identity, Function, and Control
“Loss can be conceptualized along three intersecting axes: loss of control, loss of identity, and loss of relationships,” writes Dr. Barbara Sourkes in her book “The Deepening Shade: Psychological Aspects of Life-Threatening Illness.”
My identity as a farmer has considerable importance to me. I farm most days of the year. After my fall, I have been unable to farm for weeks—such a loss. Among my losses have been many basic body functions and control. I have also had to change my self-image and body-image. Being more dependent on others than usual has been a stretch. I’ve had identities other than as a farmer, especially as teacher and writer.
I’m used to having a good, solid bowel movement every morning, on schedule, which I looked forward to. Yet for two weeks after my fall I had no bowel movements and lost 15 pounds, which is 10% of my weight. What a relief when I began gaining weight and had my first bowel movements, though they came out mainly as liquid.
“When I’m physically drained, I often don’t feel like talking,” a client told Dr. Sourkes. As an introvert, though also a public person, I sometimes feel the same. Some friends have worn me down by their needs to talk, talk, talk. “I’m all talked out,” I say at times, which can make me feel like the bad guy.
My fall dramatically changed my self-image and body-image. I now consider myself temporarily (hopefully) disabled. I notice others with canes and am more cautions with my movements, which have been limited. As my friend David Goff writes, “Falling is scary.”
Friends Tell Their Stories
Instead of hiding my fears, I have been sharing them with friends, some of whom report their own stories. “You strike a familiar chord of vulnerability that we all face, especially in our later years,” observed body-worker Jeff Rooney. “I work with many people now older than I and a big theme is falling and fear of falling. People know from observing others that falling is often a step away from dying. A hip breaks and before you know it, the person is gone.”
Being in bed alone for hours can be boring, oh so boring. Add some pain and it can be even worse, with sleep being difficult. At times I have felt distant and even absent from this now-broken body.
“With my long illness I have had to reevaluate what I can do, which is tied to who I am,” writes my friend Janus Matthes. “Passing along our worldly goods is a positive action as we round third base.”
“I chose to embrace and not fight age and what goes with aging–less energy, more simplicity, enjoy what things truly feed my soul,” she added. “We are such a youth culture in this country. As I age, I realize we all have our day in the sun and hope the youthful generations take full advantage of their time on this most amazing planet.”
“Reflecting on my upcoming April hip replacement and the 3 surgeries I’ve had in the past 4 years has put me through many changes and changed the way I look at life, see myself and look at the world,” said my neighbor Robert Teller. “It has taken me on many journeys, altered my life style, challenged my spiritual core and offered me an inner peace that I have not known before.”
One date stands out in my recovery: Jan. 27, which was my most painful day. I’ve never contemplated taking my life, except on that day. That extreme pain, accompanied by crying and screaming, educated me about why some people commit suicide. Fortunately, I had a strong painkiller. I took it reluctantly and was finally able to sleep. Blessed Be!
One means of taking some control of one’s life as a person feels loosing it because of sickness or something else is to do what I am doing here — write it down.
So what have I been learning from my fall and the subsequent shut-in? Now I know, in my body, that one day it’s going to all be over and now I am a step closer to death. I’ve been here before, in my mind, but now I feel it in my soul and in the core of who I am.
Humans are so “fragile,” my brother Steve Bliss recently reminded me about we two-footeds. I am actually now three-footed, since I walk with a cane, to stabilize myself, but that should eventually change. “Tomorrow’s a new day,” my brother reminded me, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote.
This learning experience is still evolving. So where do I go from here? I’m not sure. I feel suspended between the no-longer and the not-yet.
Or as the elder Doug von Koss recently quoted a Sufi saying, “We have three days to live, and two of them are gone.”