After the Fall

Learning the extent of her injury, Helen McKay worries about the threat to her image, her independence - and her love life.

February 17, 2004|By Story by Ellen Gamerman | Story by Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

This is what Helen McKay remembers the morning after:

Her boyfriend Peter drove her, fast, from the ballroom at Leisure World to Montgomery General Hospital. He held her up as she limped from the car, stayed with her on the blood-repellent plastic chairs in the waiting room for three hours and sat beside her while she lay on a stretcher in the ER.

It was 1:30 a.m., and she was trying to rest. But she couldn't.

Her boyfriend ought to have been an hour away from there. But he wasn't.

Peter called home with an excuse, told his wife he got tied up and she shouldn't expect him until morning. Helen knows last night has put her boyfriend in a mess, threatened the delicate balance of their affair.

And not just that, but what has happened to her? The devoted ballroom dancer always thought she'd tricked old age - lost it in the folds of her ball gowns, turned it around so it couldn't find her in the confusion of the dance floor.

But it did. And who would recognize her, scared and needy like this? This isn't the Helen who could dance all night, who gushed about her boyfriend like a teen-ager, who couldn't wait for what came next.

Now what's next is pain. And another day making her older than the one that came before.

It all started at the May 24th ballroom affair when someone smacked into Helen, toppling her during her favorite dance. That disastrous cha-cha landed her in the emergency room, dressed in a drab hospital gown, trying to shut out the noise and the bright lights. All she wanted was to disappear inside herself until she could go home.

So she closed her eyes to the cut-outs of spring flowers around the ER - as if anybody could be cheered by paper blossoms pasted to walls that surround death on bad nights. She closed her eyes to the plastic ID band wrapped around her wrist in place of her rhinestone party watch. She closed her eyes to the name "MCKAY" on the board listing all the ER patients - not exactly the kind of company she wanted to keep last night.

But this morning, she cannot close her eyes to the memory of that accident, the tumble through those few feet of space where the line between strength and frailty lies. In this hard light, it's all she sees, slicing across her future like a new horizon.

Helen admits it: Her mornings are consumed with Regis and Kelly now.

Before her fall, the 74-year-old guzzled coffee, downed toast with her arthritis pills and rushed to tap class in the auditorium of this Silver Spring senior-citizens community. For two hours, she did split jumps on the backs of folding chairs and shuffled off to Buffalo in black tights and a T-shirt barely covering her derriere.

But these days the widow sits in her apartment, watching TV in her bathrobe late into the morning, avoiding her closet and the ordeal of pulling on an outfit. She listens to Regis talk about what he did last night. She tries to ignore the ripping pain in her back, but almost all she can think about are the aches and the humiliations, like the other day when she dropped her toast and had to crawl on all fours like a baby to pick it up.

The fracture is supposed to take a month to heal - that's what it turned out to be, a fractured vertebra. So, while she waits out one week, then two, then three, Helen stays sealed inside her apartment. She doesn't join her ballroom dance friends for their weekly dinners. She asks them not to visit.

The Percocet the doctor prescribed is not really working. As far as injuries go, this is not nearly as debilitating as others, but it is the worst pain she has ever felt. She tried walking around her apartment with a cane, then abandoned it in disgust. She is used to living alone, eating alone, waking and sleeping alone. And now, she wants to suffer alone.

Helen worries she has lost some of her old powers, especially where her boyfriend is concerned. Before the accident, she spritzed herself with perfume for Peter's arrival, charmed him with pre-dance cocktails, posed for him in sexy lingerie. Now she has a heating pad and a grimace and nothing but bad news on her mind.

She does the math on her fingers: There has been a death in nearly two-thirds of her building's 30 units since she moved here a decade ago. She doesn't know it, but other daunting statistics surround her - like the one that puts the risk of dying twice as high for older Americans without spouses as for those who are married.

Peter still shows up for their dates - the 77-year-old with a slight stoop appearing twice a week at her door, all gray and rumpled and professorial. But instead of the outings that used to reward his long drive to Leisure World, the two just sit. They don't go out to lunch or take a walk or go shopping. One afternoon on the Lay-Z-Boy loveseat, they try to enjoy the movie Unfaithful, about a cheating spouse. Peter sees the potential for a more plucky ending; Helen sees only darkness. They argue.

"We used to laugh so much together," she recalls telling him later. "What happened to our laugh time?"

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