The Fall

I fell. I fell on a boat ramp that had jagged rows of bumpy concrete intended to prevent falling. I gripped the end of the kayak in my right hand, faced up the ramp like I had done so often before, and waited for my husband, Howard, to give the signal that he was lifting the other end and we should walk the kayak up the ramp. He signaled, I pulled hard, and then I fell.

We had been kayaking along the shore of Islamorada in a double-seat, heavy plastic sea kayak. We started from the old resort where we had stayed nearly every year for thirty years. There was just the two of us now, our kids were grown, so we stayed in the resort’s smallest room, in the back near busy U.S. 1, the only highway in the Florida Keys. I missed the old days when we drove from Wisconsin over spring break with our carload of children. Then we stayed in the front unit, a cabin with a sliding glass door across the entire side facing the Florida Bay. After our first day there, the concrete stoop by the cabin door would be littered with snorkel gear, swim fins, and fishing poles with tangled lines. Our kids ran in and out of the ocean like they’d been born there.

Our family’s history in this place is long and deep. Howard had stayed in the same cabin with his family when he was a child and had told the story a dozen times of breaking his arm falling off the roof of the adjoining building playing tag with the owner’s kids. His grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine, made gefilte fish from their daily catch. Her name was Bertha, but Howard called her Moy. When we stayed in the same cabin years later, I could imagine Moy latching an old cast iron meat grinder to the side of the kitchen counter and grinding snapper and yellowtail into the paste that is gefilte fish. All of this history, his and ours, made this small, old-fashioned Florida Keys resort a beloved place for me, a place I yearned for quietly nearly all the time but visited only every couple of years now that it was just the two of us.

The kayaking before the fall was smooth and almost effortless. It was hot, though, and I wished I’d brought a water bottle. The water was still except for soft lobs from the powerful wakes of speeding fishing boats far out in the bay. We paddled past old Keys houses and new mansions, sometimes a dog would run to the end of a dock to bark at us. We looked for the parrot fish and barracuda that we often saw when we snorkeled, but the water seemed empty, like everything had left to find deeper, cooler places.

We watched a helicopter hovering over houses on shore. It was so close to earth that I worried it would crash. I thought maybe there was an escaped criminal. The copter’s blade- slapping roar alarmed me, maybe because it was all I could hear. Knowing we would be on the water, I’d taken off my hearing aid and the receiver for my cochlear implant Without them, I was deaf except for the helicopter noise which rattled me with its loudness.

We turned around about two miles down the shore. We paddled back, next to the resort’s dock and then to the base of the boat ramp. I got out in waist deep water and steadied the kayak for Howard to negotiate getting out. We positioned the kayak to hoist out of the water, so we could put it back in its storage place along the bamboo fence.

And then I fell. It hurt. It hurt in the shocking, painful way that it hurt when I fell off my bike as a kid skidding around a corner on the dirt road near our house, the scrapes on my elbows and knees thick with gravel. Falling stunned me like I had suddenly become infirm, unable to do the simple thing of bringing a kayak out of the water. I gathered myself, stood up, and looked over my shoulder at Howard, “It’s just too heavy for me.” He nodded, shrugged as if to say, “no big deal.”

Two young men who had been watching came to help him with the kayak. Still dazed, I walked across the boat ramp, up a small hill, and sat in a white plastic chair at the resort’s little tiki hut where I’d sat a hundred times reading The Miami Herald and drinking Bustelo, watching my kids fishing or swimming. Sitting there felt like sitting in my living room, it was that familiar. Except now it wasn’t.

I sat still with my hands folded in my lap like I was at church waiting for the homily.  Howard walked by taking the life preservers and paddles back to the resort office. He disappeared, and I imagined him having a nice chat with the lady at the desk. Maybe he was telling her about the helicopter. I put my head on the table.

A man and a woman on their way to the dock looked at me concerned, they mouthed the words “Are you alright?” and I nodded yes, I was fine, and put my head back down on the table, looking at the door of the resort office, praying that it would open soon, and Howard would come back. I couldn’t talk to anyone else. They would ask me questions I couldn’t answer. He was the only person I could understand when I didn’t have my hearing equipment, when I was deaf. We had our own language, hand signals and lip reading. I could tell him I was in trouble with just my eyes if he would only come back.

When Howard finally returned, he suggested we move to better lounge chairs for a while and enjoy the sun. He doesn’t know I’m hurt, I thought. “No, no. I’m really sick,” I mouthed, not wanting anyone to hear me. Somehow, it was important for only him to know. He looked at me, baffled, and then called out for someone to call 911. Later, he said I was gurgling when I talked, and my eyes were glazed and seeming to roll up in my head. I remember it being strange that he was so concerned but trying hard to look nonchalant, gesturing to other resort guests to move them to action but keeping his eyes on me all the while. I sank into the chair and surrendered myself to his care. Everything would be all right now that he was here.

From nowhere, a young, handsome Latino man took my wrist and felt my pulse. He decided I should lie down on a lounge chair and he and Howard pulled one over. Then he put his arms around my waist and hoisted me from my plastic chair to the lounge chair and felt my pulse again. “Her blood pressure is very low,” he said. I heard him although I didn’t; his lips were easy to read. He smoothed my hair off my forehead. He looked in my eyes and stroked my face, first one cheek with the palm of his hand, then the other with the back of his hand. He smiled at me, nodded gently, and kept stroking my face. I felt like his dying mother, his beloved mother, his touch was so tender. Later, I learned he was a pharmacist from Peru. Did he learn to be so kind in pharmacy school, so reassuring and gentle or had his mother taught him before she died? Of course, I didn’t know if his mother had died. I was only guessing from his touch that she might have.

The EMTs came with their boxes. One with a full sleeve of tattoos took my blood pressure and inspected my left arm which by then was throbbing. It wasn’t broken but it hurt in a powerful way and seemed to be swelling while I watched. The EMTs had me drink water and stand up, then shepherded me to our tiny room where I lie on the white comforter and looked out the window, a plastic bag full of ice on my elbow. They never said what was wrong with me, just that I needed to rest, and I’d be okay.

When I got up after a few hours, there were tiny drops of blood on the sheets, but I felt better, dreamy, though, like a person feels after an accident, delicate, fragile, adrift. Old and unwell but still living. I missed being robust, missed being a person who could haul a kayak out of the water.

Hours later, we decided to go for a drive. Traveling up and down U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys is what people do. It’s about seeing both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, the weightlessness of speeding over bridges, white fishing boats below, making out dolphins in the distance, the possibility and freedom of it all. The drive would be a healing thing, I knew that from experience.

Before we left, we saw a group of people near the resort office. On his knees trying to entice a squirrel with small pieces of bread was the pharmacist. I wanted to thank him, so we moved near the group to watch and as we did, the squirrel started to eat out of the pharmacist’s hand. A woman, maybe his girlfriend, took pictures on her phone. The squirrel was perched in the bougainvillea, red flowers framing his tiny, knowing face. It was entrancing, and I wondered if it was the pharmacist’s magic or the squirrel’s habit that brought them so close together.            

“Sir,” Howard said. The pharmacist looked up, then recognized me as the woman with the weak pulse. He reached out and I hugged him. “Thank you for being so kind,” I said, remembering how he had stroked my face when I was so ill. He asked how I was feeling and for the first time I heard his soft Spanish accent. I told him my arm ached a little and he took my arm in both hands and stroked it softly like it was a bundle of orchids that would wilt with too harsh a touch.

We said goodbye and got in our car for our drive down the Keys. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the pharmacist walking with his friends down to the dock. They were laughing and chatting, luckiness and gladness dancing around them like fireflies.

Anti-Flag Day

I was astonished that Walmart decided to stop selling Confederate flag-themed merchandise. Astonished like I was when Richard Nixon, Mr. Anti-Communism, went to China, deciding that his and others’ decades’ long campaign to demonize countries with communist governments was a strategy going nowhere and, besides, it was hurting the balance of trade big time. Even though there was an economic motive, the doing of it, seeing this rabid anti-Communist strolling the Great Wall and smiling at Chinese leaders was worth getting up in the middle of the night to watch it on live TV. (It was in 1972 for all you history buffs out there.)

That’s what it takes. The retail king of the earth, born in the deepest South, just deciding to stop selling Confederate goods. Done. It didn’t take them weeks or months of pondering, they just pulled the plug. And then Amazon and Sears and then big flag manufacturers followed suit. Who would have cast Walmart as a moral leader?

In this case, that’s exactly what Walmart is. The company immediately marginalized the Confederate flag and people who think it’s an appropriate symbol to use on their homes, their cars, their clothing. Walmart, of all places, is redefining what is appropriate in our great American culture. I’m sure they’ll make money on it somehow but I don’t care.

So all of a sudden what was always impossible – changing the culture of racism in the U.S. – becomes somewhat less impossible than we thought. Mitt Romney, another unexpected hero, just flat out says the Confederate flag should come down. Unsuccessful and more than a little weird as a presidential candidate, he came off as presidential, just for once saying what he believed without his typical parsing and fine combing. And the President, another hero in my book for saying the N-word out loud and in public and just putting it out there. Stop the masquerade people, he was saying, this is the deal. Listen to the deal. I loved him for that.

Yes, I know it’s just a flag.

And I know more than you might think about racism and the history of slavery in the United States.

So, no, I don’t think we’re in the clear now. The flag is just a symbol, that’s true. But its effect has been to normalize racism everywhere the flag was displayed. That it represented some kind of noble history is a joke. It has been lying posturing to say it really stood for the much-admired General Robert E. Lee and all the other courageous men who vote in the Civil War to protect, don’t you know, state’s rights because, of course, that’s a principle warranting an enormous murderous war rather than a compromise fashioned in rooms with tall windows that look out on to green lawns and rose gardens. The justifications for the Confederate flag go in my personal category of Biggest Crocks Ever Perpetuated.

Right. The Civil War was about slavery. And so is the flag. Everybody knows that. A good old boy riding around town in his Ford pick-up with a Confederate flag decal on the back window was just saying his thing – ‘I’ll always be better than you.’ So now, it gets harder for Joe-Bob to get his Confederate decal. No big deal. But after a while, people who have the decals are the hold-outs, the true-blues, the way far ends of the bell curve. Good. We want that. We want them to be freaks.

The message here is that we need to love the unexpected messenger. We need to love poor ill-fated Richard Nixon for going to China and we need to love Walmart for stuffing all its Confederate flags back into the boxes they were shipped in (probably from China) and tossing them out the door. We need to love Mitt Romney and President Obama for saying what’s true. And we need to always make it safe for those who know the right thing but hide it to stand up in public and be proud. What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Bless the folks who go against type to say what’s true.

We owe them.