You’re two, playing on the porch with Abike, your Yoruba nanny, while your missionary parents work. In white lace-ups your mother will one day bronze, you are still uncertain on your feet. Regardless, you are strong-willed. Abike coaxes you into the yard. You refuse and reach for the screen door. She tugs at your hand; you pull back. Something catches your eye, a yellow bird lifting from the ground, and you lose your balance, hitting your head on the concrete. You’re knocked out. By the time your mother arrives , you’ve come to, and for the next several hours she keeps you awake. A child in a coma is nothing to shrug off in Ogbomoso, Nigeria, in 1956.
At a conscious level, you don’t remember the experience. Yet you are stamped with this story.
- You’re eight, roller-skating on a tennis court in Eku, Nigeria, in the middle of the rain forest, the court slick with mildew. A boy you love is with you and you think of him when you are falling, scraping your face against the concrete, shaving the skin, the same concrete tearing up your pedal-pushers, leaving a scar you will carry forever.
- In the tenth grade you fall hard in love for the first time, with a charming, unkind boy. He gives you your first kiss, stiff and penetrating. You tell yourself you should like it. Briefly, he dates you and then drops you. As penance for being undesirable, you go steady with a boy you dislike. This is girlhood: you on your knees.
- You’re seventeen. For the past year, you’ve lived in Arkansas with strangers while your missionary parents remain in Nigeria. You and your sister are flying back to spend the summer with them: from Little Rock to New York, continuing to Amsterdam, and now you’re on a KLM flight en route to Lagos via Accra. The plane is half full. You and your sister could spread out across three seats and take a nap. Instead you roll your hair on huge plastic rollers that straighten rather than curl. Your sister has moved several rows away.
Between Accra and Lagos, you re-do your make-up and take down your hair and straighten your panty hose.
Looking out the window as the plane breaks the clouds, you see below the landscape of your real life: palm tree crowns green like the eyes of God. Brown compounds, rusted tin roofs.
At some point the metropolis of Lagos appears but the plane banks and you see ocean and then within moments, you land. Though it’s early morning, the sun casts a light brighter than any that ever appeared in Arkansas. Brown puddles from last night’s rain remind you of everything true you’ve ever known.
The Lagos airport is still humble. Families wait on the other side of the fence from the runway. You step from the air-conditioned KLM plane onto the top step of the mobile staircase and into the African sun. You smell your country – a vat of simmering palm oil, exhaust fumes, rain water and cut grass.
On the other side of the fence is your father in sunglasses, his hands at his waist. Did you decide then to fly?
You start down the stairs, your sister behind. On the third step, you raise your eyes again to your father. Enough time passes that the passengers in front of you have fully descended.
Taking the next step, you fall the rest of the way down.
Your hose are shredded, your American ingénue image crushed.
That summer in Nigeria you diet and lose forty pounds.
Was your falling always failed flight?
- You’re a freshman in college. You’ve been in the U.S. for two years while your parents assist refugees of the Biafran War. You were turned down by the only college you wanted and have ended up at a Baptist college in the middle of Arkansas, with your sister. You’re gaining weight again. Perhaps that’s why your parents agree to send money for a ten-speed bicycle.
You find yourself at twilight headed down a steep hill in the center of campus. A car cruises behind, its headlights throwing shadows on the road in front. You’re going too fast and without knowing what you’re doing, you attempt to shift gears. The bicycle bolts and skids, taking you down with it.
You slide long enough to reconsider your attachment to life. When you finally stop, pain shoots through you like an electric current. Your foot throbs. Someone comes to your aid, disentangling you from the cycle, putting you into a car, and finding your sister, who brings ice and an Ace bandage.
You stop going to class.
You gain more weight.
You read The Exorcist, the only book you remember from that year.
Before long, you drop out of college.
- In your mid-twenties, you’re diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes. Your spirit does not fail. That comes later.
- You’re an assistant professor at a Research I University, hired as a feminist critic. This is before you understand that being a feminist writer is your only avenue for articulating your general dis-ease living in the United States of America. Though you publish steadily, the patriarchs in the department flog you verbally every year in your annual review and you sink beneath their fury. You garden like a maniac, believing you might control this quarter acre.
You edge the grass with scissors. By hand, you pick up every gum ball. Your yard looks like a scene in a glass ball.
And then one day your ten-year-old son comes running out from somewhere and skids on the gravel, falling across the garden, crushing newly planted pansies. Before he can cry, before you speak to him or check his shins or his face or his still-baby hands, you begin feverishly to reset the pansies.
“You care more about the flowers than you do about me,” he says.
This is when your spirit fails.
- In your forties you’re diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. Your feet swell in your shoes like rising dough. You begin dialysis and you do it at home for two and a half years, four times a day, seven days a week. Finally, on Thanksgiving evening in the first year of a new century, you get the call. The next morning, at Duke Medical Center, you are given a new kidney and a new pancreas. The organs work even before you wake from your dreams of red roses, of flying over fields of evergreens.
- After publishing two scholarly books, you begin the memoir of your Nigerian youth. Writing the book carries you home. Flight time from Raleigh/Durham to any destination in Nigeria, ten seconds. In 2003, after the transplants, after finishing the memoir, you board an aircraft bound for Lagos. You do not stumble. You do not fall. When you return to North Carolina, your memoir is published and finds an audience. You’re a real writer.
- Teaching yourself the craft of fiction, you begin a novel but you’re turned down by a prestigious writing colony for a summer residency. At the last minute, you apply for five weeks at a private retreat in rural Massachusetts. Early June and it’s still cold. Blue mist shrouds the evergreens every morning. The house where you stay was once a stable. You occupy the Thoreau room upstairs. You’re in love with the village, walking miles every afternoon, to the small grocery, the lake, the cemetery, along an old mill trail, arriving at a field full of milkweed as tall as you are, the blossoms violently sweet.
You find a creek and collect stones, bracing them in your pockets, thinking of Virginia Woolf, though you are not suicidal. Not by a long shot. You are eating the nectar of life.
A new writer arrives, wearing clogs. She pounds her way up and down the staircase just outside the Thoreau Room. Day and night your reverie is interrupted. One afternoon, you start down the stairs to the kitchen holding a crockery dish. Four steps up from the landing, your heel drags, throwing you off balance, and you fall the rest of the way. Why didn’t you let the dish go? To keep it from breaking? It did break, into your hand, carving a new moon into your palm. The crescent turns into a full moon of blood and overflows your hand. A new acquaintance drives you to the local hospital where your hand is stitched up. You move to a different studio, away from the clogger, and swear you will never again descend a stair without holding onto the rail. It’s a lie.
- In your fiftieth year, you and your husband are at odds. One evening you put on a pair of smooth-soled shoes and step out the back door onto the doormat, placing your heel near the edge. Though the mat is just half an inch thick, when you shift your weight, the shoe slips. Your ankle turns; a bone breaks. You hobble indoors. For six weeks you wear a boot and are warned against putting any weight on the foot. You live in a tri-level house so you learn to go up and down stairs using crutches. It’s the greatest trick you’ve ever mastered. You’re like a stilt walker in Nigeria. People should pay to see you. This is the most athletic you’ve been in years. You’re a genius. The protagonist in the novel you’re writing dreams of flying. It takes time to mend a marriage, but you will.
- It takes you ten years to complete your novel. Your agent sells it in three weeks. When the cover art arrives, it makes you cry it’s so beautiful. Yet you’re visited by moments of terror. The novel won’t garner enough attention or it will garner bad attention. You should be young. You should be a tougher writer as a woman, or a man writing a tough novel tenderly. Instead, you’re an outsider, a late-bloomer, old.
Your local independent bookseller plans the book launch. You buy new clothes, beautiful to match the book cover. The day of the launch, you go into the neighborhood and cut stems of dogwood, forsythia, and quince for an airy bouquet. That evening there is standing room only. Your family sits before you. A colleague introduces you. You begin to read. Within minutes, your vision begins to blur. Breathe, you tell yourself, just breathe; you’ll level out; you’re just anxious. The words on the page slide around or go missing but you press on. Later, you’re told that you started to sway. Maybe you passed out. But your colleague knows your medical history of low blood sugar.
He catches you.
- At age eighty, your athletic father develops a drag in his step. One foot works, the other not. Doctors can’t diagnose the cause. He goes to physical therapy but after several months, he’s told there’s nothing more to do. He accepts the news stoically and spends more time on the back porch, listening to the trees. He still serves coffee to your mother – a marriage-long ritual – but each delivery is the precarious dance of a wounded bird.
On a late October morning, you and your husband help him plant pansies in the front beds.
A week later in sleep, he experiences a brain aneurysm and never wakes.
Your light-footed father is dead.
- Your eight-month-old granddaughter spends the night; her parents are down with the flu. She wakes at two a.m. and you carry her to bed, then pat her until she falls asleep. At five she wakes again and you carry her downstairs. A thunderstorm brews and you walk with her onto the front porch, letting the mist wash your faces. For a moment she is curious and then, still in your arms, she leans back toward the door as you did so many years ago with Abike when you fell and knocked yourself out. “It’s a rain storm. It’s rain,” you say. She touches her hair. Thunder rumbles in the distance and she leans again toward the door.
Inside you turn on the lights in the living room, lay out a pallet and toys. The child doesn’t crawl, she rolls, tossing the weight of her head to begin her movement and letting her body follow. Your husband gets up and makes coffee. The two of you behold the infant. Later you carry her upstairs to change her diaper. Coming back down, you slip. One leg goes behind and the other in front. Your entire focus is the child.
You almost make it, sliding on the shin of the bent-back leg.
She slips from your grasp, sliding down your leg stretched out in front. Your husband, who heard the fall, appears in that instant like a receiver on the field. The child bounces once on a step and into his arms.
She is unharmed.
You: you’ve gashed your leg – a red line ten inches long. It blooms lavender for months.
- Your son and daughter-in-law divorce.
You’re a cracked plate, a broken pot, a withering tree.
Your heart dulls, then becomes heavy, then sinks.
You cannot turn to the literature. There is no literature on the heartbreak of mothers and mothers-in-law of divorcing children.
Your mouth opens, bowl-like, for a howl that never comes.
God help you. You dive into writing your second novel.
- A year and a half later, a hurricane heads your way. Putting things in right places, you miss the last step into the den and fall with all of your weight on your right big toe. The center bone in the toe fractures in three places. When your podiatrist shows you the X-ray, you’re astonished to see that the image mimics the map of Nigeria, carved by rivers Benue and Niger. Perhaps this break is a metaphor for every other break and fall. Perhaps the sections are not Yorubaland, Igboland, and Hausaland, but Nigeria, the U.S., and the country between, which is you.
- It’s election day, 2016. An absurdist nightmare is almost over – the presidential season of Hillary Clinton v. Donald Trump. You’re nervous even though you’re sure she will win. The question is how long you have to stay up. Your sister and brother-in-law come with champagne. Meanwhile you serve coconut pie which you call suffragette pie because it’s white. The polls close and the first states are called. It begins badly with Trump leading but that’s because the first states are places like Kentucky and Indiana. It turns out the pie is too sweet and there’s not enough coconut. No one eats more than half a slice.
You’re glued to the television. At last enough states come in to put Hillary ahead. But troubling signs emerge. Trump is leading in Pennsylvania. Virginia is an uphill climb.
Now there’s frightening news from Michigan and Wisconsin. Florida is called for Trump. Then North Carolina, your state. Everywhere you look, Trump is winning. How can this be? All the polls showed Hillary.
You’re counting on the urban centers.
Hillary gets New York. For a moment she’s ahead. Virginia finally comes through.
But then everything starts to slide. The world goes sideways, tumbling into darkness.
- You dream you’re back in college, at UNC Chapel Hill, a university you never attended. But you’re not young. You are your very age or older, rooming with twins whose long blond hair and petite figures make them the antithesis of you. In the morning you get up and go to class. Halfway across campus, you realize you’re naked. You scramble to get back to the dorm, back to your room before anyone notices. In the mirrored elevator of the high rise, you see your reflection. Skin puckered. Flesh slack, fallen.
- Fall lingers in North Carolina. It’s your favorite season. Long shadows across the grass. Yellow leaves falling like stars.
Your three-year-old granddaughter visits. She is in love with the St. Francis statue in your yard. She calls him “she.” “She’s our neighbor,” Scarlett says, squatting in front of the figure, cupping the face with her small hands.
“St. Francis loved animals and nature,” you say.
“Like squirrels,” she says.
“Like birds,” you say, your heart tumbling upward.
Together you mount the little hill of the yard into the lighted house.
- You make a habit of walking the greenway near your house. It’s not especially remarkable, no grand vistas or natural wonders. Still, at any moment, a blue heron may lift and soar above you. The path winds and the surrounding woods are quiet. A natural cathedral of trees arches overhead. When the hardwoods lose their leaves, the white spires of their limbs reach impossibly upward and flame in the afternoon sun. A pair of mallards paddle beneath the bridge. You envy them their fluid life. They will never encounter stairs nor heartbreak.
You wear a backpack and carry your journal and mute your phone. You have come for the most essential thing. You have come for yourself.
- A friend invites you to her yoga Shala. At first you can’t even do child’s pose, because your knees are too stiff. But you keep going because for one hour all you need to think about is the space of this mat. There is no judgment, no competition. You like the pink and lavender room with a painting of the elephant god Ganesh on the wall along with a picture of Jesus. You like dedicating your practice: to anyone, anything – the red cardinal, your mother’s presence even in death, yourself, your husband or son, a friend, the cosmos, the entire country of Nigeria. For the first time in your life, you understand prayer. Movement, meditation, intention. Om.
In yoga, you give everything up, especially anxiety.
Your former daughter-in-law tells you you may call her daughter-in-love.
Still you fall. You fall doing warrior pose. You fall in high lunge. You fall especially in balancing poses.
It doesn’t matter. The wooden floors absorb the fall. You catch yourself.
You try headstand, against the wall. This is how you do it:
On your knees, place interlaced hands at base of wall.
Place the crown of your head in the cup of your hands.
Lift your bum by rising on your toes (head still down).
Walk feet toward head.
See Jesus on the opposite wall, upside down.
Now throw your legs up – first one, then immediately the other – toward the wall.
Not enjoying your falls, exactly–cos i feel for you. Buy I–and obviously many others–love knowing that we’re not alone–and rejoicing at the object lesson that it’s not whether you fall, it’s whether -and how well–you get up. And you have certainly both gotten up–and gotten up well! Thank you for a well written piece that resonates with many and gives hope to all.
Dear Elaine, this piece is so poignant for me at this time. I’ve learned that in creativity disparity works for me, in spite of wanting most of my life so very orderly and shaped. This is my second reading, and I might have already commented somewhere; if so, consider this extra applause for the first comment. My falls have not ended with rejoicing, but I’m glad you’ve shaped your work into something positive. It gives me hope. Best wishes!
I very much enjoyed reading this. I have fallen a few times, as well. The last fall resulted in a broken clavicle; which, due to my age, has not healed (after a year and a half.) Let’s both resolve to hold the railings and firmly plant our feet in 2018. Okay?
Such a smooth, steady flow of language and the process of time, of falling and surviving as to learn in subtle ways through pains and gains of living. Great accomplishment!
It’s refreshing to read a piece about falling, and then getting up. You know I love vignettes and reading this has given me the impetus to use vignettes as a form for writing about Annie. Thanks Elaine, for always being my mentor.
I, too, have had a lifetime of falls; one where I broke my neck. That one taught me to slow down and that Christmas will come and go, every year, with or without all the accoutrements. Can’t wait for the new book.
Wonderful! Such familiar falls — I do it all the time, so far without breaking anything (at 78, that’s amazing, considering how often and how far I’ve fallen). I’ve come to experience falls as “corrective” — coming at times I’ve become un-grounded, i meet the ground with a blow that knocks me straight into lovely, forbidden self-pity — the pain unlocks a tsunami of unshed tears I’ve been carrying around from one loss or another — Beautiful. These vignettes all speak to me, wonderfully told — so glad you’ve come through so far, and the baby wasn’t even hurt!
blessings! Happy falls!