The collective noun for umbrellas
is a phalanx
Hello. This post is about Death. Birds get a cursory mention.
Earlier this week, I was in the supermarket, performing my usual ritual of half-running past the laundry detergent aisle in order to avoid the violent assault of perfumes there within. I wondered how it is that I will run towards, and quite peacefully sit with, suffering, yet (literally) run away from things which have been designed specifically to attract.
Last Autumn, driving home from work, I pulled over not far from home to call David and ask if the entrance to our lane was still blocked and whether I should leave the car on a side road. There was a young woman with a pram talking to an elderly lady a little way up on the pavement and, as I hunted around in my bag for my phone, I saw in my peripheral vision the two of them part ways. The elderly lady stepped off the curb, walked a little way across the street and then fell. Hard.
As though this was the most common occurrence in the world I got out of the car, jogged over and lay on the ground next to her, our faces close. She was on her side, panicking. Saying over & over “I don’t know what happened, I don’t know what happened”.
I explained she’d fallen, but that everything was ok, and that she needed to be slow in trying to move. She shifted herself onto her back and howled in pain. Little dots of black grit speckled the side of her face where it had met the road. I’m no doctor, but it seemed obvious that she’d broken her hip. A man walking by asked what had happened and said we should move her; I asked him to call an ambulance, and explained why I felt we should not.
It was about 5pm, the street was damp from an earlier rain, and, worried that she might be in shock and about to get very cold, I asked her to try to sit up momentarily. As she did I positioned myself behind her; one of my legs either side of hers, my chest pressed into her back, my right arm wrapped around her front, and my left hand holding her thigh off the ground, as any other position seemed excruciating for her.
She was tiny; ‘all skin and bones’, as they say. Holding her reminded me of holding a baby Blackbird. She let her head rest back onto my shoulder, her ear conveniently by my mouth so I could tell her not to worry, and that we would wait like this until an ambulance came.
It was hours before an ambulance came. During which time I learned that her name was Joan, she was 91, she had not been drinking that day and she would not have anyone saying that she had been, thank you very much. She lived alone, and did not have any family. Joan would cyclically ask what was happening and why we were sitting in the road, which I took to mean that she had some kind of dementia; a thought later confirmed by a gentleman from the village who had been walking by.
Funny little waves of pedestrians would stop to ask what had happened and whether an ambulance had been called, hang around a little while and then, unsure as to what they could do, stroll along, wishing us well; Joan and I thanking them.
While we waited I found myself feeling into the the reality of the situation. At 91, a broken hip can often mark the beginning of the end, complications aren’t uncommon, and extended immobility brings its own risks.
I wondered whether, once there, Joan would ever leave the hospital (she would not, it turned out). I wondered when the last time that she had been held in this way was. I wondered why it was that I found myself wanting to stroke her face and hair, and to sing to her, as if she were a child.
As the light faded out of the day some people from nearby houses came out with blankets, wrapping Joan and I up into a sort of chrysalis. When it began to rain, people went to find umbrellas and eventually formed a canopy over the two of us. One man moved his car into the middle of the road and put his headlights on, so we weren’t in total darkness. Joan—wet, cold, in pain and exhausted—had been slowly slumping to her left, and I was essentially cradling her. My legs were wrapped around hers under the blankets and I was holding her head to my chest, whispering, “Not long now, they’ll be here soon”.
I wonder what that little scene must have looked like from the outside, car headlights illuminating the bars of falling rain, the cluster of umbrellas, the circle of people stood with heads bowed, faithful witnesses to a young woman cradling an elderly woman in the middle of a road.
The ambulance eventually arrived, and it was at least another hour before they moved her onboard, the paramedics needing to give her intravenous morphine very slowly so that her heart rate didn’t drop dangerously low, and the process of moving her taking considerable time and effort. Joan and I never got to say goodbye, I doubt she remembered me; but I remember her.
Fragility can evoke an interesting array of responses. It can elicit the desire to turn toward, to embrace and protect. It can evoke irritation, frustration at the inconvenience of a thing implicitly demanding ones attention. It can even provoke outright panic, especially if we fear that fragility might mean we are somehow deficient.
Our own, personal, relationship to our own, personal, fragility will always inform the ways in which we are able to show up to the fragility of others.
And by fragility, I mean mortality.