There are events that divide your life into before and after. Perhaps one of the most widely memorable, humans being what we are, is the transition from virgin to not. But there are plenty of others. As many as there are souls probably. Sometimes more than one to a customer. Some you remember. Some you forget, distracted by other things.
Today one of those defining events flashed before my mind’s eye, vivid as when it happened sixteen or maybe seventeen years ago. I wasn’t yet sixty-two. I remember that because I had not reached early-retirement age for Social Security. I parked and walked to the Tacoma Public Library. Down a hill. (I don’t do hills anymore.) I followed a walkway along the front of the building and could see the Law Library though the windows. I was in the middle of what I call my “dark decade,” 1998 to 2008. Unemployed, broke, disabled, under therapy for clinical depression. And fighting three separate law suits pro se. I don’t remember which one took me to Tacoma that day.
The walkway just…ended. A cement curb above a two-foot drop to the grass. So I hopped off.
And my legs gave way. Next I knew, I was rolling sideways down the grass slope toward the city sidewalk, unable to stop. Sun in my eyes one second, grass the next. I tasted dirt. Couldn’t stop til I rolled onto the flat sidewalk. Where I was surrounded by alarmed passers-by. “Sir, sir, are you all right? Sir, let me help you!” They got me on my feet, gathered my briefcase, brushed dirt and grass out of my clothing, all very solicitous. Treating me like a helpless old man. Something clicked behind my eyes: I was an old man.
I hadn’t been when I started out that morning. Now I was. And always would be. What a revolting development. I went back (up the hill) cautiously to my Bronco and retrieved a cane I used when my left knee acted up from old softball injuries. Hobbled back, avoiding the dead-end sidewalk, and into the law library to work on whichever of the three cases had a deadline approaching. I was stiff and sore, but stubborn. A stubborn old man. My dark decade continued. I forgot my anti-epiphany under its many stresses and distresses, a major part being the three lawsuits.
First case: Social Security denied my disability claim almost by return mail. I appealed. Appeal denied. I appealed to U.S. District Court. The Justice Department dispatched a snarky black female attorney to get rid of me. We exchanged dueling briefs. Time dragged by.
Second case: my father died in Kentucky after heart surgery the year the Twin Towers fell. His housekeeper produced bogus trust documents created by a crooked Texas “trust mill” purporting to have left everything to her. This outfit had employees searching for vulnerable seniors with assets someone coveted. Housekeepers and the like were prime candidates for the scam. They co opted local lawyers needing ready cash to sign off on the documents for a flat fee. Grieving families never knew what hit them. In my case, she siphoned off tens of thousands from his accounts on the strength of those documents before I got a court to stop her. We never learned how much she kicked back to the trust mill. I was loaned money for a flight to Kentucky. But the housekeeper hurried his burial and refused admittance to his house — her house now. So I had no place to stay; no credit cards, no resources. Lawyers back there said she could have me arrested for trespass, though my step-mother, quite ill, still was in the home.
But not for long; she died within two weeks under the housekeeper’s sole care. Her will, mirroring my father’s, also was “missing.” My Kentucky lawyer, hired long-distance, demanded fifty percent on contingency, since I was broke. He refused to report a suspicious death to authorities, because the housekeeper offered me half of the estate to go away. I saw proof of guilt. Everybody I knew advised fifty percent of something (actually twenty-five percent) was better than one hundred percent of nothing. A court trial would be costly and who knew what would happen? My lawyer saw a fat payday for minimal effort, said he’d have to drop out if I refused the deal. I did win a single stipulation: the court “extinguished” her bogus documents, and probated my copy of my father’s will.
By the time I fell at the law library, the settlement was tied up in seemingly endless litigation. Because the lawyer attempted to get another fifty percent from every heir named in my father’s will. I fired him. Entered the case pro se, long-distance. The same time I was fighting the Justice Department hired gun. Two lawsuits amounted to almost a full-time unpaid job, researching and typing and printing and copying briefs. Long nights at Kinko’s, which had work space for customers then. Day visits to city law libraries because I didn’t know how to use the internet for legal research.
My third lawsuit was winding down: unlawful termination from state employment under the American With Disabilities Act. I had been fired in 1993. Early this century the case wound its way to a three-judge panel of the state court of appeals. (I lost; the U.S. Supreme Court had decreed ADA did not apply to states, under separation-of-powers doctrine. Congress could not write laws governing state employees.) So I had a lot on my mind the day my inglorious tumble divided my life into before being old and old. I did recognize the significance. In the following turmoil, and eventual success on the other two suits that ushered in the close of my dark decade, I forgot it. Until today.
I went looking in my spare-room clutter for a missing item. Not that it matters, but a back-support belt, since I’d tweaked my back. Didn’t find it. Did find a pair of dress pants neatly pressed and folded under a pile of coats on my old steamer trunk. Hadn’t seen those for a year, and we’d searched all over. Found my “winter” leather bomber jacket I couldn’t find last winter. And two nice wool shirts purchased at Pendleton Woolen Mills a year ago on a road trip. And a T-shirt with a custom design about the first novel I published, when I was twenty. (Mailed to me whimsically when the fiftieth-anniversary edition was published, by an artistic woman far away, whom at twenty I was sure was the love of my life.) And two magazines I always meant to read, one from 1967, one from 1970. One for a story about Tom Mix’s widow selling real estate in Tampa. The other about mob involvement in Nassau casinos I thought might be grist for the Nassau novel I was sure I would write after living there that year.
You might say these discoveries distracted me. I lifted the heavy lid of the trunk to see what other forgotten treasures I might find. Incautiously leaned forward to prop it open. My back gave out. I fell, hard, to my knees. Face-planted a box of trinkets and coats. Sharp flare of pain from my right arm, ripped along brass fittings of the trunk. Almost lost consciousness for a minute. The arm-pain was bad. There was blood. I could not push up; my legs refused to work. Neuropathy makes my toes useless, and if they won’t work you aren’t getting up.
I didn’t hear my lady love, on the back porch on the phone to a friend, shout my name repeatedly. She said she heard the thud, and a yowl of pain worse than typical groans and grunts of an old man. When I wasn’t at my desk, she searched frantically through the bathroom and bedroom before she realized where I was. Eventually I heard her, and felt her touch.
My knees on the hardwood floor hurt like hell. No way I could get up. We scrabbled some of the coats down under them. I crawled to the recliner and clung to it, got one foot under me. Still couldn’t get up. She got my arm and added her strength so I could straighten my other leg. Blood smear on her blouse. I flopped into the recliner like a beached whale, demanding bandages. Surprised there wasn’t more blood with all that pain. Just an ugly swelling and some split skin that leaked. Sweat poured off me like I’d run a mile.
She applied an alcohol wipe and gauze, and hunted for my crutch. I’d felt good enough today to put on my boots and walk a little outside with my walker. Didn’t need the crutch inside. Couldn’t think where I left it last. She found it, and I was able to get up and move around. Took Ibuprofen for the aches and pains. No apparent broken bones; at my age a real worry.
The strangest thing: the long ago prat-fall in front of the Tacoma library came vividly to mind soon as I got settled in front of this keyboard. I’ve had falls since. None as spectacular as the one that divided my life between man and old man. Not even this one. Getting old is not for the faint of heart.