Jordan E. Rosenfeld
My right hip has been giving me problems lately. A wrong move and a hot, electrical twinge stops my movement. It’s nothing more than the repetitive strain of exercise and hours compressed in a chair writing, but it aggravates. Hunched over, whining one day this week, I hear myself say aloud, somewhat melodramatic, “Ahh, the ails of getting old.”
My four year old thrusts hands to hips, part superhero stance, part scold. “You are not old, Mama!”
I know that he is not consoling me the way other adults might, but rather insisting on a truth that makes a crucial difference in his world. I am not “old” because I am too valuable, too necessary to his comfort and safety.
“You won’t be old for a long, long, long, long time,” he insists.
I know he’s right. I’m not “old, old” as a child-version of me once told my grandmother. But somewhere in the continuum of olds, my body is also not as supple and lithe as it once was. My bounce back takes longer, my ouchies are not so quick to heal.
Unlike me, almost 34 when my son was born, my parents had me in their early twenties. In photographs of my first year, they seem barely more than teens, their faces still round and unwrinkled, hopeful and maybe a tad bewildered. In one, my mother balances me on the curve of her hip, my father poised behind her, a tall centurion protecting the two of us.
In his 60s now, my father carries a kind of eternal youth with him. His blonde hair barely shows any gray. He is long and lean and fit, for he rides his bike to and from work and for fun on the weekends and takes week-long trips across country.
My father is not “old, old” either.
But neither is he infallible.
The other night, on my way into my exercise class, I missed a phone call from my dad’s girlfriend. I planned to check it later, but as I was pulling into the gym parking lot my brother’s name lit up my phone.
Two in a row is never something good.
“Dad broke his hip,” my brother’s voice, anxious and full of emotion.
Only truly old people break hips—and they do it slipping in the shower or missing a curb. My father is not that kind of old.
“He had a bad bike accident.”
Heart thumping, I try to eke out details. Over the next few hours they trickle in. Broken femur, bad road rash. Small bleed at the temple. CT scan upon CT scan, we wait.
The picture painted is this: my father on his bike, an afternoon ride on newly rain-slick roads. He was on his bike, and then he wasn’t. What he remembers next is a stranger looming over him, asking if he was okay. What happened in between, that which broke the ocular bone around his eye, shattered that femur, and changed his mobility and reality in moments, will never be known—it’s lost to the protective forces that come into play with trauma.
Here is where my imagination goes darkly to work, the image I can’t get out of my head, even after seeing for myself that he is, at least mostly, still here, still himself, broken, but not diminished: my father, crumpled and unconscious in the middle of the road, blood-slick, limbs splayed as in sleep, vulnerable to any passing car, a victim of circumstance.
Several things saved his life: beyond the helmet, and the good man who, as my father lay unconscious in the middle of the road, blocked him from further injury with his car. Namely, the fact that he takes care of his body; a lifelong focus on healthy foods; regular exercise. The decades as they’ve passed, though not always kind, have not convinced him that he should stop living life.
It’s hard in the face of this kind of trauma not to stop and acknowledge just how primal our relationships are with our parents. Just as my 4 year-old cannot bear to think of me as “old,” or being anything less than an ongoing, permanent part of his life, this reality check of my father’s fragility has stopped me cold.
Because he is not “old.”
And neither am I.
And in the end, I hope he gets back on his bike, just as I am going to keep going to the dance classes I love, and sit at my desk to write, hip flexor pain and all. For pain and injury may slow us down, but stopping what we love will surely kill us.