Saturday, May 12, 2012

On Falling

The grape arbor before pruning

I fell off a ladder on Wednesday. I was pruning an old gnarly grapevine on top of a small arbor. I’ve been removing dead wood for months in my overgrown yard standing on tiptoe, waving pruning shears overhead, and it was time to tackle plants beyond my reach.

I used the aluminum ladder because it was easiest to carry. I didn’t know it had an unreliable history, collapsing on anything but the most level surface.

I unfolded it carefully, the front legs were higher than the back, but all four supports nestled in the grass. I didn’t climb higher than the third step, stretching and reaching, and realizing I was probably leaning further than was safe, I decide to move the ladder to another spot.

As I stepped down to the rung below, I felt the ladder lurch toward the asphalt driveway, and I toppled in the opposite direction, onto grass.

I hadn’t fallen in years. Oh sure, I’d tripped and stumbled and bumped and bruised, but I hadn’t tumbled through the air.

The last time I’d really crashed I was in eighth grade taking gymnastics lessons from Farouk, an Egyptian man who’d left the YMCA, where he’d broken a set of uneven bars showing off for our mothers, and was renting the gymnasium at my public school on weekends.

I was practicing a hecht. I stood on the low bar with one hand behind me on the high bar, leapt into the air, straddled, released the bar, sailed behind it, re-grasped as I brought my legs together, swung, wrapped my hips around the low bar, circling as I let go of the high bar, propelled my body tucked my legs, flew forward, and landed on the mat.

My daughter, also a gymnast,
as if she had completed the initial jump and straddle of the hecht,
and is on her way to wrap around the lower bar.

I learned the move by jumping from the ground over the low bar and working my way up the apparatus. And then, at one practice, my straddle wasn’t wide enough, one of my feet caught the high bar, I fell forward, my torso smacked against the low bar, and I crashed onto the mat.

Shaken and shocked, I felt betrayed by my body and my coach. Farouk was supposed to spot me, catch me, keep me safe. He told me to get back up and try again. I stood on the bar, trembling and could not will myself to jump, to fling myself into the air, to trust my skill, or him.

For the next month, I’d begin my bar routine, swinging and grabbing and circling until I found myself standing on the low bar, hand behind and above me, heart pounding, knees shaking, panicking I’m going to crash. Each time I balked at the hecht. I couldn’t rely my body to make the leap, or my brain––I’d grown five inches that school year––to know where I was in the air, and I’d lost confidence in Farouk.

Usually gruff and impatient, he was patient with me the first, the second, even the third aborted attempt, but after that, he shook his head, his disgust evident, told me to get down, and I skulked to the end of the line behind the other girls, bright, eager, trusting.

I didn’t know how to overcome my fear, so I quit gymnastics. Farouk tried half-heartedly to talk me out of it.

Falling off the ladder, I couldn’t have dropped far, three feet, maybe two, but it was long enough to think, Oh, I’m falling, I can’t stop it, I’m going to hit the ground, I wonder what’s going to happen. Based on my bruises, I think my arm/elbow hit first, but I felt myself thud all at once, as if I’d flopped into a low bed after running toward it.

I heard the ladder crash. I heard my husband call from our lower lot, out of sight, “Are you okay?”  I wasn’t sure. I lay on the grass, assessing. “I fell,” I called to him after who- knows-how-long a pause.

The grass was damp and cool. I could breathe, no shooting pain, but then, I hadn’t moved. I stayed in place, wondering if I could move, more curious than afraid. My knees hurt (were bruised and scraped). My elbow ached (it would develop a large hematoma).

I didn’t move until my husband came up the hill. I slowly sat up. He hadn’t seen the fall, and ever helpful, he said, “That ladder’s no good. Do you want me to get another one?” 

I shook my head no. “I’m not going back up,” I said. My brain felt fuzzy, I was muddled, tired.

Soon I’d be sore and swollen. Soon I’d wash my elbow, apply ice, fashion a sling from a scarf, try ineptly to cook dinner one-handed, and quickly pass that chore to Kevin. Soon I would wonder if I’d fractured my elbow, and the following day I’d drive myself to the local clinic for an x-ray to find I hadn’t.

But I knew even as I took my husband’s hand and slowly stood up that I would climb a ladder again, a sturdier one and soon. I know what it’s like to let fear win, and I’m done with it.
I was up on a stepstool today finishing the grape pruning. I slid a two-by-four block under the legs when the angles were unstable. Even so, I couldn’t reach very high.
pruned grape arbor with new growth.

Soon, thanks to Kevin and his Internet shopping skills, a heavy-duty sixteen-foot orchard ladder with telescoping pole will arrive at our doorstep. It weighs forty-five pounds, so I won’t be lugging it alone.

Together we will carry it into the yard and I’ll climb that ladder, but no higher than twelve-and-a-half feet, with my pruning shears in hand. I’ll finish the grape and tackle the maples and rhododendrons whose dead branches have remained out of reach for months. I’ll snip away at the dead wood and satisfied, climb carefully down.

Even if I fall I will try again and remain curious about what’s going to happen next.


  1. I was getting dizzy just reading about hecht. You're a brave woman for having tried. I can't imagine doing something like that. Even the fourth step on a ladder is too much for me. Thanks for sharing. Very moving.

  2. So glad you didn't break any bones! Healing time....great for writing! Love you! Laura