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.

Bringing the Light

We went everywhere looking for Hanukkah candles. We were having our big Hanukkah dinner that night and we only had three candles, one of them broken. It wouldn’t do. It was the seventh night of Hanukkah so we needed eight candles, one for each night, and one to be the ‘helper candle’ and they had to be special candles that fit into a menorah, regular candles wouldn’t work.

We went to Winkie’s, a high-end variety store, selling fancy everything. Their tiny Hanukkah inventory had glitter and menorahs but no candles. “You don’t have any Hanukkah candles?” I asked the stern looking sales lady. “No,” she replied, offering no apology or explanation.

“Do you ever feel marginalized?” I asked my husband when I got back in our truck. He looked at me, a full-on Jewish look, and said nothing.

We then went to a synagogue, hoping that its Judaica Shop would be open, but the shop was closed during services. We stopped at a high-end grocery store that had a Happy Hanukkah sign out front but the cashier looked baffled when I asked for Hanukkah candles and directed me to a counter with fat balsam Christmas candles.

Then we remembered the Jewish school at the bend of the road only a mile or so away and so we drove there thinking that because it was a holiday there may be people there celebrating. A man in a black suit, black face mask, and stocking cap stood at the door, the guard. My husband parked our truck and climbed the steps to talk to him. Masked man listened to him and they talked back and forth and then both gestured toward the truck and I waved. Masked man waved back and then he went inside.

Then (now the story is related second hand) a very young thin man, maybe 20, maybe not even, came out of the door. He was dressed in the manner of an Orthodox Jew – a black suit, white shirt, and black hat. My husband explained our dilemma and the young man, whose name was Noah, nodded yes, indeed, the school did have Hanukkah candles which he would gladly give us but he couldn’t because it was Shabbos and he couldn’t do any work until sundown.

He said he would bring us candles at 5:15. He wouldn’t write down our address because that would be work, nor would he let my husband write it down. So they went back and forth with the numbers and the street until it seemed that Noah remembered it. “I will bring you candles later. It is a mitzvah,” Noah said, and then he explained the concept of mitzvah – a good deed – to the masked man and to my husband who had heard it all before many times.

After the sun went down, we waited for Noah. The hour passed. “He forgot the address,” I said. It seemed certain that we would be without Hanukkah candles so I found eight votive candles and lined them up on a platter. That would be our menorah. It would be fine. We talked about being disappointed that the wonderful story of the young man bringing us Hanukkah candles would end up being about his intention rather than the delivery. “That’s what counts,” we agreed. Noah was genuine in his intention to bring us candles so it was still a good Hanukkah story, Noah’s kindness, his readiness to help us, even if he didn’t make it. People forget.

And then of course when we had given up on him, Noah arrived at our front door. He had in a grocery bag seven large boxes, each containing a menorah, a dreidel, and enough candles for the entire eight days of Hanukkah. We were awash in Hanukkah candles. Noah stood just inside our door just inches from the ceramic mezuzah painted by one of our kids in Sunday School years ago that was fastened to the door jamb at just the right angle to protect us from visiting harm. It hadn’t always worked but its intention was clear and powerful.

Later that night, long after guests had left, at the back of the drawer of the china cabinet, my husband found a box of Hanukkah candles left over from last year. We were glad we hadn’t found them sooner.

Come Back Next Time

My T’ai Chi instructor teaches beginner and intermediate classes. I have taken the beginner class six times, maybe more.

The teacher is kind to us beginners even when we are experienced. There is a group of regulars who come back session after session and stand next to new people who’ve never t’aid a chi. For a week or two, we know more than they do and it makes us feel accomplished. The feeling fades fast though as the teacher moves to the more advanced forms. Then, we all flail.

Last week as our beginner class was ending, I saw one of the beginner regulars sitting with a small group of intermediate people waiting for the intermediate class to begin. Through the glass, he watched us do the final series or run-through or whatever it’s called. I gave him a why are you sitting there look and he grinned a mustachioed man’s grin, a grin that crinkled his eyes into little half moons.

I was astonished.

He always stood in the front row and he always wore blue jeans. Sometimes he wore suspenders and a plaid shirt, a plaid button shirt. That was his T’ai Chi wear. He was stiff and his moves were slight suggestions. Other students T’ai Chi’d circles around him but he never seemed to care. He was always grinning like being in class was the most fun he’d ever had. It always made me merry to see him.

So when I saw he’d decided to move up to intermediate, I thought hey! why not me? I’m better than Mustachioed Man.

So today, I went to the intermediate class. Right away, I noticed that MM had gotten little T’ai Chi shoes, like ballet shoes for men, a clear sign that he was upping his game. He still wore jeans but no suspenders. The shoes changed his whole look though, made him look contemplative, like a serious student. I wished I had shoes like his. Make me more authentic-looking, like I belonged in intermediate.

The class was much smaller than the beginner class; there were maybe seven of us. The instructor started with the usual set of forms, the ones I knew from beginner’s, and then she embarked on a 15-minute long series of moves I had never seen, one after the other, each of them more dramatic than the last. It was the Nutcracker of T’ai Chi.

Then she settled on one new move to teach us. We repeated it a dozen times. “One more time,” she says after every effort. “One more time.” She is Chinese, slight with a wide open face and a thin ponytail. She wears an athletic shirt tucked into long pants. She doesn’t speak much English except to tell us where to put our parts. Left foot to the right. Right hand over the left.

It is hard and I miss my beginner class. I remember her kindness and low expectations with the beginners, her lack of correction, her never singling us out. Today, she came up to me and moved my right arm higher. She touched me for the first time in two years and I felt like I’d graduated in some way. I had become worth correcting. I liked that.

“Now practice on your own. I will watch.”

The others in the class started to move about, each doing their own version of “wax on, wax off.” I stood immobile. I’d never moved without watching the teacher. I just had to mimic her, I never had to remember on my own. But one can’t stand frozen in a group of T’ai Chi-ing people; it is being a tree in a river.

So I began at the last place I could remember to put my hands and feet. I moved here and there in my clumsy way and out of the corner of my eye I saw Mustachioed Man in his own unembarrassed oblivion, grinning, so I started to grin, too. I can move these arms in some kind of way and that’s what I’ll do and be glad doing it.

The class ended. I was nearly to my car on the street when I felt a tap on my shoulder. My teacher. “You come. It’s good. Kenny, he new, too. It’s hard but practice. You come back next time.” She nodded and smiled. She tucked her shirt into her long pants and walked back inside.

“You are so kind,” I said after her. You are so kind.

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Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash

Kindness for Its Own Sake

Today, I’m posting a link to a piece I wrote about thinking that there’s magic in single acts, that doing one thing will change everything. And how I realized that putting my expectations on someone else is wrong-headed.

Kindness should happen for its own sake and not as a means to an end. That was the lesson for me that I tried to write about in this piece called “Wearing My Kindness Like a Coat” published today on Mamalode.

I’m in Those Shoes

I’m not an autism mom but that doesn’t mean I don’t get it. I get it. The world and everything in it has to be okay for all of us – the halt and the lame, as a professor of mine used to say. And I count myself in that fine company, the company of the halt and the lame, my blessed hearing disability that has me twirling in confusion at the boarding instructions, asking total strangers to mouth the words SHE CALLED GROUP THREE to me.

There’s got to be room in the world for me. And for the girl with autism on the United flight and her family and maybe the guy sitting behind them with bipolar disorder and the woman in the back with a bum bladder.

We are a bundle of our imperfections, each of us flawed, a mistake, missing a gene in our own unique way, flying in a plane somewhere. If all of us imperfect beings disembarked, the plane would fly empty, on autopilot.

My ‘situation’ as we call it, my increasing deafness, has made me fall in love with people with disabilities. I see a man in a wheelchair being rolled up to the ticket gate and I look at him as my brother. I figure, looking at him, his wife or his sister or his friend pushing him along, that I am safe as long as he is part of the landscape.

The man with cerebral palsy who is lurching, tangled, as the boarding line moves forward, I feel your brilliance and fearlessness. That you are here makes me braver. I can hide what’s wrong with me. You can’t and you march along undeterred. I endeavor to follow in your footsteps. To be undeterred from boarding. From going. From taking my place somewhere I have a right to be.

So I have gratitude to autism mom and her daughter. I don’t care if autism mom threw a fit. I don’t care if autism girl yelped and shouted. I do care that United Airlines couldn’t find a way to embrace them. It bothers me that an act of simple human kindness seemed so far out of the reach of the flight attendants and pilots. Is the distance from where they see themselves as  un-flawed people so far from autism mom and daughter that they have no ability to relate, to empathize? They couldn’t possibly see themselves or their loved ones being in autism girl’s shoes?

Man, makes me grateful for the 400,000 times I listened to Joan Baez sing There But for Fortune.