When I was in the fourth grade, I fell off a cannon and broke my elbow. It happened on the President’s Day school holiday multiple decades ago. Although they say I went into shock when it happened, I still recall everything about it: From my mother calling over her shoulder as I walked out the door to go up the park for the first time without her, “don’t climb on those cannons,” to the sound of my grandfather’s voice in my ear assuring me everything was going to be ok, as he ran to the doctor’s office while cradling me in his arms, which was on the corner of the street where we lived. I also vividly recall the worried look in my 55-year-old grandfather’s eyes during his sprint for 5 blocks from park to doctor. I was only 9 years old and the baby of the household. He was my best buddy.
Yes, I did indeed climb atop that cannon after being told not to but for good reason. First, we were supposed to do something productive with our time during the President’s Day holiday and my actions were directly related to a history lesson we had in school earlier that week. You see, I was re-enacting a war that took place in that very spot. A war that was waged to save my home town from those pesky British who were trying to deny us our liberties. There was also the very important task that Francis Scott Key had before him of writing the Star Bangled Banner. The particular cannons provided back up to those at Ft. McHenry. So, this was serious business at hand. I didn’t just climb the cannon to disobey a direct order. Even though this is all sounding a bit military with the war references and orders and such, it was really just total disobedience. I don’t remember this detail but I’m fairly sure the reason my mother even had to tell me not to climb a cannon (like, who does that?) was because she overheard us kids talking about it and we skedaddled out the door whilst she did a sink full of dishes, providing nary a moment to get her wits about her and stop our fool hearty spirits from heading to warfare (see, that’s how we would be talking I had I not fought that war- whilst and wits).
And did I say this fall from a cannon happened multiple decades ago? I meant over half a century. Yes, it’s been that long and I can recall vague memories of what happened including a 3-day hospital stay where they put me to sleep to set my arm using some kind of medicine that made me hallucinate, to the buckets of sand I carried through the house in the dead of August heat to try to get my arm to straighten out again (that’s what physical therapy was back in those days). Oh, the smell when that cast was removed. Who came up with the idea to put powder down in the cast to alleviate the itching? They did not consider the resulting aroma said powder would emit when combined with the hot summer heat. And we did not have air conditioning back then.
The trauma of the broken elbow incident and the cannon came back to me so vividly this year because I fell and fractured my wrist in 3 places. This time I was alone, and although I am decades away from the age of 9, I got myself up off the ground but, like the cannon fall, I was in shock. I realize that now. Falls like these are traumatic at any age and they are a shock to your system. Sick to my stomach, unable to rationalize the severity of what I saw as I looked at my twisted (mangled?) wrist, I spoke aloud to my grandfather who, had he been alive today, would have helped me make the walk back home – oddly also a 5-block walk – as I cradled my broken wrist like a baby, just as he would have done. I felt his presence. More oddity, this fall was in the shadows of another park that had been used to fight off the British had they been able to get past the Fort defenders and those cannon fighters from my neighborhood park. But alas, it wasn’t a cannon that got me. This time it was raised concrete in the sidewalk.
So, in the middle of the COVID pandemic I had to visit the local health facility on foot where there were questions about the possibility of me having any other injuries as people began to move my ankles and knees to assure themselves nothing but the wrist had been injured. Finally, someone just came out and asked me if I hurt my hip and I was relieved to know they weren’t going to act like that isn’t what they really wanted to know all along. The hip is fine, by the way. Then the visit to the doctor who announced, as if he was telling me I could have cream in my coffee if I wanted, that I needed surgery complete with plates and pins, etc. All very scary stuff.
I am moved to tears right now though thinking about my grandfather and the care he provided me, not just when I had a physical injury but all through the emotional first 13 years of my life. Before he died. I’m not sure why he was taken from this earth, from me, so young but I miss him every single day of my life – even now.
My grandfather and I spent a lot of time together and had many long conversations about life and clouds and cars or whatever was on our minds at the time. He was my best friend as a kid. I knew it then but I had forgotten. People have a way of putting one foot in front of the other as they go through life, especially in the face of painful grief. A vain attempt at coping with the loss, I suppose. But in reality, the pain doesn’t ever subside completely and it tends to show itself at the most significant moments of life.
This was one of them. My grandfather had this amazing sense of humor and I am blessed to know that trait lives in me. He loved to laugh and make me laugh. That’s why after I first fell and fractured this, my dominant wrist, I immediately went into a standup comedian routine. Humor. My way of coping. I honestly can’t do much of anything with my left hand. It’s been a running joke with me for years. So, with the dominant hand unusable, I could only write straight marks like the number 1. That was it. I quickly realized I could link those “ones” together in different ways to make the letter N or the letter M. I could take notes at a meeting that way. But not the letter B. Couldn’t do it. No letters that didn’t use straight lines but T or Z or Y were good. I couldn’t tie shoes, wash my hair (thankful for the hair salon across the street who did that for me) button my pants (grateful for sweat pants), type or use the computer mouse correctly, or – and this is huge – worse of all, write in my journal. I couldn’t cut food, open a package, or dry my back, and the list goes on. People encouraged me to write about it but I was dejected without the longhand format I preferred for my creative outlet. Well meaning suggestions were made that I record my thoughts on my phone since I couldn’t use my hand. That made me angry and hurt. I considered unfriending the people who suggested such a thing. What I needed for the short term was to drown my sorrows and I did so in a way that would have made my grandfather proud. I ate ice cream. The first thing I learned how to do with my left hand was dip ice cream, the second was squeeze chocolate sauce from a plastic bottle held atop my left shoulder. Sounds wrong but, the bigger the bottle, the better the balance.
When I was a kid, my grandfather used to eat ice cream every day. That’s not a typo. Every night after dinner he ate ice cream. Usually, a few hours after dinner while watching Gunsmoke on TV. If we ran out of the gallons purchased during the weekly grocery store run, he would go over to the pharmacy on the corner across the street and buy a pint from the small freezer they had. When I was old enough to cross the street, I was proud to be chosen to make the ice cream run for him. He would also take me with him and my grandmother when they went grocery shopping on Saturday’s. I loved it because there was a drive-in restaurant next door and we would always order burgers and ice cream after shopping and eat in the car. It was one of those places where you placed your order on a “voice box” right there at your parking space and they brought the food out to you. Ice cream is still my favorite food. Hands (and broken wrists) down.
My grandfather had multiple jobs as I recall. One, as a chauffeur for a judge. Grandpop got to drive a beautiful white Cadillac to take the judge to and from work. He also got to clean said Cadillac and put gas in it. I loved summer days when Grandpop would park the car in front of our house and he let me help with the cleaning. I usually got to wash the tires on the curb side. I’m not sure if he was supposed to do this, but whenever he went to get gas, he would take me with him. And let me tell you I had the best seat in the car. There was an arm rest hidden in the upper back of the rear seat but could be pulled down for the passenger to, well rest an arm. I’m sure the judge used it to rest his arm as he held his newspaper or to simply relax as he rode to the courthouse. But me? I sat on that armrest like it was my throne. My grandfather would pull that arm rest down and I sat there like a queen. Grandpop would look at me in his rear-view mirror and ask where to ma’am? “The ice cream store, please” I would say.
This most recent fall brought trauma to my body, mind, and spirit, make no mistake. But it’s been years since I thought about those childhood days with my grandfather and I sincerely cherished each and every one of them. Then and now. I was quite the dreamer back then and he encouraged my desire to be whatever I wanted to be. He and I would always “play act” as he called it and make up stories about how the Cadillac of a judge was a yacht and we were sailing the seas together. He let me sit in the cellar with him where he had his workbench. I always helped him set up the Christmas train garden he would build every year. We watched TV together. And when he was dying, a long and painful death, I sat with him day and night to pass the time. Until I couldn’t anymore. He was just too sick to even talk sometimes.
So, it was only fitting that when I hit the ground and fractured my wrist a century (or more) after I broke my elbow, that I dialogued with my grandfather. As I write this, I’m smiling knowing it was him who helped me up that day. I may not have seen him. But he was there. I know that because I talked to him all the way home again. Just like the day I fell off the cannon.
I found myself feeling defeated from the uphill climb to recovery but in talking with my grandfather I’m reminded that when I fall, no matter when, he will always be there to pick me up.