The Fall | First Person

There is special meaning when friends and neighbors answer the call for help. Tim Clark reflects on the blessing of a tight-knit community in this touching holiday essay.

By Tim Clark

Oct 24 2019

Photo Credit : Image by Hagar Lotte Geyer from Pixabay

After my wife, May, fell down the 10 steps leading to the choir loft in our church, the first thing she wanted to know was if the choir, who were downstairs in the sanctuary, had heard her cry out. None of us could remember hearing a cry. What we heard was a rumbling sound, the kind you hear when a thick layer of snow slides off a roof during a thaw. 

“May?” I called out. There was no answer. Our choir director was at the piano, closest to the bottom of the stairs, so he got there first.

Illustration by Sabra Field

May was crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, lying on her left side, her head almost in the sanctuary, her right foot and ankle still on the lowest stair. Her foot drooped down at an unnatural angle. Scattered around her were the Christmas carol books she had gone upstairs to collect for rehearsal. It was the first week of December.

Her first words were to our director: “I’m sorry to interrupt rehearsal.” Then she said, “Give me a minute, and I’ll be right there.”

He looked at her dangling foot and said, “I don’t think so.”

Our volunteer fire department’s ambulance crew arrived in a few minutes. These were our neighbors—the oldest was Brian, our former highway superintendent, whom we’ve known since we moved to this small New Hampshire town 40 years ago. The youngest, Corey, went to school with our youngest child. The fire chief, Tom, held May’s head perfectly still, and made a few jokes.

They went about their work swiftly and competently. After asking May where she felt pain (her right wrist and ankle, both of which were broken, and her neck), they cut off her new winter coat and her favorite flannel-lined jeans and carefully, tenderly, moved her onto a backboard. They had to maneuver down a short staircase to the front door and then into the rescue vehicle. There was a slow, almost sacramental quality to every motion; they might have been carrying the Ark of the Covenant. I followed them, clutching her ruined clothes. I had some notion that she might want to use the jeans to patch other clothes, but mostly I just didn’t want to let go of them.

I got into our car and followed them to our local hospital, where we found Eric, the emergency room doc, another neighbor. After pain medication and X-rays, May was taken away for CAT scans. She was clearly not leaving, so I went home and to bed, only to be awakened by a phone call from Eric. He had found a possible brain bleed in the scans, and sent her off to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where there were neurosurgeons available if necessary.

And that’s how your life changes—not with an anguished cry, but the sound of snow sliding off the roof during a thaw.

The fall was 10 weeks ago, and we celebrate each step back to normality: switching from a wheelchair to a walking boot, standing in the shower, sleeping in our own bed upstairs. She’ll start relearning how to drive next week. It could have been much worse. The brain bleed stopped, and her bones are healing. The scans found a blood clot in her lung, possibly from an earlier injury, and surgeons inserted a device in her chest that would protect her if the clot started to move. It’s possible that her tumble down the stairs saved her life.

And every time we see Brian, or Corey, or Tom, or Eric in the general store or the post office or at church, we share a special smile and remind ourselves: If we must have a life-threatening crisis, how grateful we are to do it among friends.