Stairway to trouble

David Feela - 11/24/2016

There’s a black and white 8 mm movie clip running in my head: my 94-year-old father is standing on a ladder, pruning the maple in his front yard. The time of year is unclear, because I wasn’t there, so I’ve relied on reports from my siblings. A decade of autumns has passed, yet his last fall gets replayed in my head every time the mountain aspens start flickering like a pilot light.

The ladder, supported by the same limb he decided to prune, lost its purchase when the saw’s teeth eventually broke through. The man went down, without witnesses. He must have groaned, lost his wind, sucked a healthy portion of air as he regained the world. Hard to tell, because the film has no sound, and the camera spends too much time zooming in on the top rung of the ladder, magnifying his mistake.

Foreshadowing is a technique, sometimes used heavy-handedly, a conjurer’s trick that grants mere mortals a glimpse of the god-like power of omniscience. It’s also a kind of artificial intelligence, because it doesn’t exist in our day-to-day lives. If it did, we’d all be frantic to edit the scenes of our most awkward moments.

Or maybe genetics is nature’s way of hinting about the future. Either way, some of my most breathtaking regrets have been sponsored by missteps and faulty observational powers. I always should pay closer attention.

Bicycle crashes, tumbles down stairs, stumbling over my discarded shoes – a short list of personal collisions. Early on I developed a reputation for bumping into unyielding objects. My third-grade teacher, Sister Winifred, reserved a wide butter knife in the school’s freezer so she could minister to my lumps. Apparently prayer proved inadequate when it came to reducing the swelling.

People unfamiliar with walking beside me find themselves occasionally reaching out to steady me as one of my ankles folds like a pocket knife. I know (but they don’t) that these unexpected wobbles are just part of my gait, or what I prefer to call “hockey moves.”

In fairness to my father, I should disclose my own blunder. I decided to stain my second story cedar shakes, which the sun had bleached to the color of bone. I deployed my massive ladder, the one I can barely carry out

of the barn, because of its reach. It is rigged with a primitive rope and pulley to launch its extension into the air. I locked the rungs in place, leaned the entire contraption against the side of house, grabbed my brush with a bucket of stain, and started the climb toward heaven.

Either the lawn was damp or the ground too soft in the spot where I propped it, but when I reached the top of the ladder it shifted, started to lean, then slid sideways. That’s how I ended up plummeting, the ladder barely missing me during its descent, shattering a first story window on the way down.

When I hit the grass all the fall colors flashed in my brain, but what I most vividly remember seeing as I managed to roll over onto my back was a pattern like a Rorschach inkblot test that a gallon of redwood stain left clinging to the white vinyl siding. Psychologists might have had a field day with that image, tracing and interpreting the rationale for my unconscious attraction to death.

I blame the ladder.

Not that particular ladder, and not the genetic strand of aluminum twisting all the way back to the one my father unfolded to prune his tree. Any ladder possesses the mojo to shake a climber loose like a dry leaf from an autumn tree.

Nearly 100,000 people are taken to emergency rooms every year for injuries their ladders inflict. Fractures are the most common type of injury.

My father broke his hip, but because he always resisted doctor offices, nobody knew. He treated himself with aspirins for six weeks before my siblings insisted he seek a medical opinion about the chronic pain he was experiencing. X-rays revealed the fracture, an operation repaired it. During his recovery, he was temporarily moved out of his home to an assisted living facility. He seemed to be doing fine.

When my brother visited, they watched a football game in the lounge. Because of a head cold, my brother returned home before the end of the game. My father went back to his room. Caregivers found him on the floor, gone, five days before the winter solstice. They assumed his heart had given out, that perhaps the stress of surgery followed by his body’s attempted recovery had taken its toll on his old ticker. Nobody could say for sure.

I still blame the ladder.

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