I look at the picture and it reminds me of what I’d done to get it. The covered bridge in the photograph is pretty—timber trusses and beams, tongue and groove vaulted ceiling, Burr arch—very New England. Had its sides been wrapped with boards and batten it would be almost as quaint as the historic covered bridges of Vermont. But it’s likely sturdier than most of those old bridges—some of which are too structurally compromised to cross any longer—as it’s constructed to merely allude to a simpler time. The wooden rail, shiny in the left hand corner of the photo that I am now scrutinizing, runs the length of the bridge and drops down to road level at either end. It sits just below the Burr arch truss that sweeps over its span and against the beams and it is only about three feet high. It doesn't look it though. Not in person. It looks a bit higher in person. No, perhaps it looks lower. It looked to be, I had thought, however high or low, something of which I could easily step on—for a better view.
What I had done first, that fateful Saturday evening, was get out of my car at the bridge. I had just dropped my teenage daughter, Lulu, off at a friend's house, and my husband and son were away, in Lancaster, for the weekend. It was a lovely fall day and I had the evening to myself, some free time to kill (kill, that's an odd thing to do with time), about four hours, and I decided, before heading back home, that I would stop by Lincoln Woods, take a few pictures, and then head on home to get some work done. Read. Write. Clean the house. Do laundry. So I kissed Lu goodbye in the car, went straight to Lincoln Woods and immediately parked by the bridge just yards from the entrance. You might say the bridge marks the entrance. The beginning of a serene wooded landscape. The entry point is as far as I got before I knew my plans might change. It was such a lovely fall. Nothing more than photos is really all I wanted and I determined there and then, standing in this tranquil setting, that I’d be there a while, would explore the whole park (screw everything else, it will always be there for the doing, especially the laundry), take as many lovely photographs as possible. Home was not where I desired to be; home was a place of calamity. Months earlier the kitchen had flooded after the dishwasher's no-burst supply line cut loose, walls and wood flooring were torn away, mold was found, the inside was dirty and dusty and displaced, and I felt like I was living in squalor. And it had rained all day and now it wasn't and the light was beautiful with early evening glow; the foliage like a slick field of concentrated carotenoids, ripened pompoms of color. Everything sprouting and dangling glistened.
Looking into the woods from this entrance point reminded me of the October weekends I had spent with my grandmother, whom lived on a dairy farm, and as I peered deeper into the woodland, beyond the bridge, I sensed a sudden childlike awe taking hold of me. On those brisk weekend days, Grandmother and I would hike through the woods bordering the farm to collect pinecones and other gems—things my grandmother would sometimes have to identify for me—fallen from the enormous conifers. Later, we would make wreaths with our takings, wiring pinecones, seedpods, acorns and other dried botanicals to bent clothes hanger frames. I thought of the crispness of those autumn woods, the smooth boulders on which I had jumped and climbed that seemed to have fallen from the sky, plopped in the woodland’s deep recesses, the crunch of autumn’s blanket beneath my feet as I ran between swaying timber, and the smell of fresh pine tinged with the odor of manure wafting up from the farm. Everything about the woods back then was magical and mysterious, and when I entered it I always had the sensation of something I can describe only as being put under the sort of spell that one would never want broken.
I walked across the road, and, near the wooden rail, looked over the bridge to a silent stream running below. A better view could be gotten from atop the rail—that was clear, and what became manifest was my impetuous need to have that view. I placed my right foot up on the wood rail, which was about eight inches wide, and tried to follow with my left, boosting up from my toes, but I didn't have enough of a start since I was standing still. My shoe choice didn't help—little brown ballet slippers. Truthfully, it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I wasn't, it turns out, as strong as I used to be and this surprised me. What is this? I used to vault over a leather horse and pirouette across the balance beam in gymnastics. I used to jump from rock to rock. For chrissakes I used to fly across city rooftops when I was a kid. Rooftops! (This was close to forty years ago but I still had a spring in my walk, I still felt limber and strong.) Man I need to get back to the gym. Boy I hate the gym. That's what I thought, yes, I hated the gym and my body was betraying me.
Annoyed by my limitations, but only slightly deterred, I worked out another approach: Step back from the rail. Step back, a slight start, just a bit of speed and a hop onto the rail would get me up there. It seemed a plausible plan. A running start and a bounce was all it would take.
Now at this point, you might ask why I did not simply walk over to either end of the rail, where it bows down to the road, bend my foot up onto it and pirouette across its top as if it were a balance beam—a surface on which I had always felt comfortable maneuvering, my balance being impeccable. I would tell you, though, if you asked, that this sensible idea never occurred to me. My eyes locked on the rail, and everything but the rail became a smudge—like the blurred edges of an old photograph, a tunnel vision that narrowed my cognitive reflection of the scene. Standing on the paved road of this pretty bridge, at the edge of luscious and enchanting surroundings, under the tincture of fall, a spell had been cast upon me like the woodland spells of yesteryear. My true age, the age I felt for that brief moment in time, was precisely the inverse of my fifty-two years. (Though, truthfully, this feeling is not always short-lived and has, in the past, proved a perilous idea to hold on to.) An uncontrollable optimism bubbled in me, my body resonated with the same audacity and flushness as my backdrop and, in an instant, a full lionhearted transformation took place. I remembered all the hopping and jumping and leaping of my youth, and, comparing what I used to do with what had to imminently be done to get the perfect picture, hopping up on a wooden rail hardly seemed like some insurmountable hurdle. Oh yes, leap, I thought. To leap again! Yes, there was only one option: leap. (Lulu would later ask me if I thought I was Spider Woman.)
Looking back now, I see I may have gotten more than just a slight start. I may have gotten a bit of a running start prompted by thoughts of another familiar scene, that is, rooftop leaping with my younger brother. Neighbors chasing us away. Hey, get off my garage! What do you think you're doing, I'm going to call the police! (Today, my kids call them popos. When I was a girl we called them pigs, and I think popos is much more civilized.) And the neighbors certainly could have called the police, at least that is what my brother and I imagined for we were stealing grapes off the neighbor's vines, vines twisted around whitewashed arbors, arbors we had climbed and marauded, and we were giddy with guilt. It was so easy—aloft, breathing in higher altitude, fat grapes in hand, nothing underfoot, rooftop to rooftop. There had been one close call: a toe hitting the edge of a tar shingle, a sudden jolt and then a lunge forward to the safety of a black sea of sandpaper. Except for scratched hands, we never got hurt doing it, though some grapes were squashed. But, as we know, that was decades, a lifetime ago. Still, I don’t often get hurt. Life is fairly uneventful except for, well, events.
Such as the time I fell and hit my head hard while skiing. I probably had a concussion but I didn't see my doctor, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Back then (that was a lifetime ago, too) nobody paid much attention to a head injury. They shook them off. Nobody signed paperwork confirming they had read all about the danger of concussion. If I had seen my doctor back then, I may have healed quicker. I may not be so fuzzy today.
At six o'clock, as the sun lowered, I bent my knees slightly and got my running start under the covered bridge, noting that the bridge did not have a wooden floor, and too bad, for it would be even prettier and feel softer underfoot than had it a wooden floor. Pavement is hard and cold and, on this day, a bit slippery from the rains and the coating of wet crimson and gold leaves. My stride, though, quickly narrowed to a skip, and I adjusted my body above the hips to match it. Yes, three skips and...
...Ah, a leap!—I was in the air just like between rooftops!—leading with the left (or was it the right?) leg, the other leg trailing, one foot hitting the top of the wood rail. I felt so alive, body in motion ascending upon the top of the rail, right or left leg following, soaring above ground in unison with the mind's intent. Yes, yes, just as planned! The air, sweet with the scent of plump Concord grapes, tasted the same as it did from rooftops! I squeezed my iPhone tight like a stolen cluster of fruits, and then my left (or right) leg came in for the landing, my knee like a hinge thrusting my foot toward the wooden beam, and my foot stuck to its mount, sliding in aside its size 9 mate...
...When, in that moment, the moment I stuck my mount, my knees knocked together and I at once ascertained in a deep, panicky breath, a sudden and horrifying loss of equilibrium. In the next second, a second, my feet shifted and I teetered, my iPhone still in hand, reaching out to nothing—no wall, no guard, no rooftop—and lurched toward the ground, and down,
I hit the pavement hard, flattened like a grape in a crusher, at a 45º angle from the rail, all the air from my lungs trapped in the same panic I carried from the mount. My left elbow had dug into my abdomen just below the rib cage and the palm of my left hand was scraped and pocked by small stones. Oh no, oh no, this didn't just happen! The pain was sharp, throbbing, spasmodic, it was everything an old body must feel when it unexpectedly hits a hard surface with all its might and muscle and tendons stretch and twist and bones splinter. A moment passed before I raised myself from this, this hurdle, this terribly painful hurdle—more painful than the ruptured ovarian cyst that had sent me to the ER two years earlier. But unlike the agony and shock of this accident, the pain from the cyst had been building momentum, orbiting through my gut for hours, and I had time to organize my thoughts, chart the pain’s trajectory and prepare for the worst before it engulfed me. I never went easily to the ER. I can tolerate a good deal of pain. Once, as a young girl, I stayed in a soccer game long after my backside (the part where the sun doesn’t shine) had been impaled with the branch of a broken shrub. It was only after I had gone back to my keeper position in the goal, wiped my dirty hand on the backside of my pants and saw blood on my palm that I went running across the street to the old colonial. My mother quickly brought me to the local ER where everybody discussed the merits of playing with the boys as my little French derrière was sewn up.
Did anyone see? I was worried. Mortified, which was just how I had felt after being shoved into the shrubbery; I felt like a child—having done something foolish, only I did not have youth to blame. From my low vantage point on the ground, I scanned the landscape and did not find anyone staring my way. In fact, I found no one around. Thank goodness I was alone, for how silly, small and foolish I must have looked jumping up on things of which I had often warned my kids to stay off. I felt as foolish as a silver-haired man in a little red coupe (only he would not feel foolish at all), as foolish as a woman far past her prime wearing a mini-skirt (neither would she). Yes that's what I thought, as clichéd as it was—had I become, like many other baby boomers around me, hooked to our pitiable culture of youth, hypnotized to deny all signals of advanced age? We are not in decline! We are really years younger, our birth certificates lie, and if we are not we might as well be extinct! And yet, I must confess, I might be tempted to wear the miniskirt—in a stylish wool tartan—had I the nerve. Perhaps, after my children have gone off to college, I would buy the coupe?
There was a decision to be made now. I was up on my feet, creased at the waist, gripping my sides with crossed arms around my chest. I bent forward and back, turned from side to side, tiny, painful movements. I wanted to cry but no tears would come, I was too angry with myself. Now what. Now what will become of this weekend? Should I go home? Should I call the popos? 911? I didn't dare call my husband—I didn't want to alarm him or my son. I limped over to the side of the bridge, the walkway behind the rail, and made my way to the overhang above the stream where I stood for a long while, gripping my midsection while chastising myself. When it became apparent that the pain would not subside and I would have to soon leave, I lifted my iPhone up to eye level and looked out over the stream, at its dense, leafy fringe of rust and pine hues. I centered the pinhole of the phone above the stream and pressed my thumb to the white circle three times. Click, click, click. There. I've got my lovely fall photos.
My decision was to go home. But the pain my body registered superseded pragmatism—or denial—I could barely walk, it hurt to move, to touch my torso, to turn in any direction, and the car took me to the hospital as if it wasn't my decision at all. I writhed in the car as the pain intensified, I moaned, I ran two red lights, drivers glared at me with dirty looks, and several cars honked at me. So what. Fuck you! Oh man, it hurt. It hurt even if I didn't want to know, didn't want to believe it hurt.
All the way to the hospital the accident looped through my head making me shake incredulously; I simply couldn't believe I’d slipped or done such a silly thing. Now I was worried that I had waited too long to go to the hospital—that I wouldn’t be out by ten when I had to pick up Lu. I was too embarrassed to call anyone for help. Should I have turned around? What had happened to my judgment? But now in the hospital's parking lot I was committed, having lifted myself from my car, a nurse in the lot saw me wobbling and walked me to the ER.
Blood work first. Six vials. (Were they checking my blood alcohol level? I'd drunk nothing but seltzer water and coffee all day, and I was glad I hadn't gotten into the wine—I was saving my glass of red for when I returned home.) X-rays—too many I thought. And to be on the safe side, a contrast dye CAT scan to check for internal bleeding or other injuries. My pain, tender in the belly below the ribs, had indicated spleen damage, and so the doctor was concerned about the spleen, the physician's assistant confided. I could have severed my spleen. Oh no, oh no, not that, I winced. That would mean immediate surgery. Surgery on a Saturday night! What could be worse? I watched the clock over the nurse's station move its long arm down to the six. It was now eight-thirty and I began to feel a chasm widen and sweep me in, its jagged black walls consuming me. Will I be out before ten? I asked a nurse anxiously. We'll see, the nurse said, staring at a monitor from behind her desk, We're waiting for results.
Shaking the quiver from my voice, I called Lulu—I am fine, don't worry, I'll keep you posted—bit my lip when Lu got weepy, and then dialed up a friend. With the prospect of having my spleen removed, back-up plans were now in order.
Moments before ten o'clock, a languid-looking young physician shuffled beside me on my gurney just as I was expiring air from a spirometer (precautionary measure to keep the lungs clear, prevent pneumonia) after successfully keeping it in the "best" zone (like the assistant had demonstrated, saying: See good, better, best on this chamber? You want the little yellow cap to float in the best zone. Pretend it's a hookah, breathe in slowly, hold, then out, prompting me to think, a hookah, ha, right! and I sucked the air in, the cap rising and falling, and then let go the mouthpiece and pushed air out, joking that I hadn't done anything like this since college). Eeerrr, I whispered, holding the blue flexi-tube before the doctor—for comic relief— like I was handing her a water pipe. She smiled lightly with a sort of suspicious look that made me want to say, Kidding! I don't do that anymore, not in thirty years! I was afraid I might implicate myself in something I hadn't done; I was perfectly, perfectly, innocent. (Unlike the woman on the other side of the curtain who was brought in handcuffed and escorted by guards in gray clothing.) Besides they had the blood work to prove it.
My failed attempt to make light of the situation, to make the young physician laugh, made me self-conscious of the totality of what I had done—dismissing the boring and brutal truths of my advanced age, behaving like a teenager and paying the consequences. I couldn't possibly be more than a half-century-old; I didn't feel it—at least not up until this very moment, when the young physician looked at me with her long face of sympathy, as if I were as fragile and historic as the old covered bridges of New England—and in that moment I knew it had to be true, I was old, my body was not as strong or as limber or as resilient as it once had been. The doctor straightened her posture and told me that I would be able to go home. My ribs were badly bruised, contusions was the word, but I would be all right.
But I did not feel all right. Nothing seemed all right—the fall, forgetfulness, moments of ambiguous limpidity—nothing about me felt sharp or balanced. I was getting the picture, a timeworn version of myself, like a daguerreotype portrait—dark, silvered, antiquated—too mature for miniskirts or sports cars or running around and leaping onto or over things. Everything does have a time, doesn't it? There was a time I leapt over rooftops like a cat , a time I swung from tree branches as if they were uneven parallel bars, and there was even a time when I skied five, six months pregnant (but never fell!), yes, there was a time when I had done many foolish things, thinking myself invincible, and now was a time to breath deeply and digest the truth: I wasn’t any longer as limber or quick as I once had been. I was now a cautious skier, and with each passing winter I enjoyed the quiet and peace of skiing cross-country, along wide trails and fields, more than racing down icy slopes. It now takes me longer to read a book, to fill a page with words, to formulate plans and execute them. The truth of the matter is that some things are not as simple as they used to be, and the creeping progression of years has caught up to me, and I would have to accept and adapt to the alterations of mind and body that coincide with aging, embrace my new limitations. After all, should we not, in our advanced years, be freed from the need to have to prove anything any longer? Perhaps it was, it is, time to let go of this persistent youthful image of myself.
I got in my car and back on the road, feeling like I had regained some control over myself, and picked up Lulu, who plead with me to let her drive, never mind she was too young to have her license. Her talk caused me more discomfort—I didn’t want her to think me helpless. I snapped: I can do it, don't worry! I didn't take any pain medication at the hospital! Enough! You will listen! I was in control, yes I was.
Sunday morning I woke to a terrible headache and a call from the hospital, someone telling me that the radiologist had found a fracture in my tenth rib, and continued rest was the cure.
On the couch, sore and sallow, I wondered if I would, or should, ever leap again. I’d never before broken a bone, I told Lu. Lots of sprains, scrapes and knocks, but no breaks, and I marveled at hearing myself say these words, how it is that I managed to live through decades without one serious injury. What the rib break indicated, I was sure now, was a brake— a signal to yield to the years. And the headache was a trumpet in my ear, a high decibel warning that I was moving closer to extinction. Soon, like the old photos, I would be only a memory, and then, nothing, nothing at all.
I looked at Lu and smiled, Is there a Spider Woman?
Lulu scanned the picture of the bridge on my phone, gave me a hard look, and said, Don't go out alone like that again. Not ever again.