Nothing can be truer than what writer Joan Didion once said, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” One minute you could be on top of the world, the next the rug yanked under you.
Could it be just because I’m getting older and creakier that things seem to be happening more quickly and more disastrously than ever? Not to be too morbid about life, death, and accidents, but it sure seems that those around me have had their share of misfortune lately.
I realize that it has always been a family or ethnic trait (shikata ga nai, ne?) to face adversity by looking on the bright side, but sometimes it’s difficult when confronting situations that could change your life forever (or at least for a long while).
A series of life catastrophes around me began a few weeks ago when I learned that a cyclist friend (with whom I regularly bike) was helicoptered out of Topanga Canyon when she hit a rock while going downhill and cracked her ribs, clavicle and back. Now confined to her home in a back brace for six weeks, she is unable to do even the simplest things that involve her back or arm — like wash her hair or tie her shoes.
A few days later, my eldest sister totaled her car and cracked her ribs after running into a parked car blocks from her home. Now on the road to recovery, my sister’s injuries were less severe than my friend’s, but more far-reaching in that at age 84, her driver’s license was taken away and she was ordered not to drive a car again.
Still, it’s the accident that hit closest to home that had the most severe repercussions for me since it involved the person I live with. Even though we were not even at home (in fact, we were 4,000 miles away), my mate (who ironically just finished a bike ride clear across the country a month earlier) was at the end of a leisurely Saturday morning ride with a friend through the streets of New York City when he plowed into the back of his biking buddy and smashed to the ground with a broken acetabulum, otherwise known as a hip socket.
He was taken to Bellevue Hospital’s emergency room where we got to spend the next 14½ frustrating hours. Whatever horrible stories you’ve heard about a big-city emergency room, they’re absolutely true. Everyone from an elderly Asian woman to not one but several alcoholics and double amputees passed through the hallways anxiously (and sometimes loudly) awaiting any word on how long it would take before they would be treated. The emphasis here was on waiting.
We were told that no matter who you were — whether a billionaire or a homeless person — you would not be attended to any faster. Somehow we had a hard time believing that if Mayor Bloomberg came in with a fractured acetabulum, he would have been held in a tiny noisy room with two cots for 14½ hours.
As bad as that seemingly endless waiting was, nothing could compare to the difficult days that followed and even worse, to what appears to be the many weeks ahead. Getting on a plane with crutches, two suitcases and our 20-pound dog was not nearly as fun as riding in a wheelchair through security would seem. Then there was the cab driver at LAX who took one look at the wheelchair, crutches and dog, and refused to take us anywhere.
It brought to mind an interview I recently did with Norman Mineta, who told the story of being elected mayor of San Jose and asked by a disabled friend to consider staying in a wheelchair during his first week as mayor. “No problem,” said Mineta, until he got the wheelchair out of his car and couldn’t get it up the curb to get into City Hall, couldn’t get into the bathrooms, couldn’t get to the drinking fountain, and couldn’t make calls from a pay phone (remember those?).
“You can intellectually think you know how it feels, but you’ll never know exactly how it feels until it happens to you,” exasperatingly insists my now-disabled mate. The positive result of Mineta’s newfound understanding was San Jose becoming one of the first American cities to have curb cuts, and led ultimately to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991. So there you are — my first bright side to this story.
However, the long-term consequences of these accidents of life are more difficult to fathom. Fortunately, Mineta got to toss the wheelchair a week after this edifying test, but others with more permanent disabilities are not so lucky. In our case, not only can my living partner no longer ride his bike (a sport he loves more than just about anything), he’s in pain, on crutches, and stuck way too much at home than either of us can bear.
In my sister’s case, it’s been decided that she will spend the rest of her days in a managed care facility — albeit a luxurious and beautiful one — which though seemingly fine with her, caused her to admit, “I never imagined I would be living in a place like this.”
In an instant, she went from being completely self-sufficient to depending on others for things she was always the best in our family at doing — like cooking Japanese food like a master chef and taking care of others’ every need.
Having recently seen “Parallelogram” at the Mark Taper Forum, I can’t help but draw some parallels (pun intended). The play is about how little control we have over our own lives, and asks the question, “If you knew in advance what was going to happen in the future and you knew you couldn’t change it, could you be happy in the present continuing to live it?”
I sometimes wonder how getting older and dependent is going to feel (the positive alternative to dying, I guess), and now that I’ve gotten a taste of it, I’m hoping I can muster up all the shikata ga nai from my cultural heritage to face my future with lots of knowing smiles.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.