Yesterday afternoon I spent an extended period of time flat on my back on East 16th Street near Fifth Avenue in New York City, staring up at the bluest of blue late winter skies. The view of the sky — the tops of the buildings as they cut a swath across the sky on each side of the street — was exquisitely beautiful. I've never seen the city from this particular angle.
How I came to this delirious, if most unexpected perspective, remains something of a mystery to me. I had been crossing the street with a young woman who is interested in what I'm writing about autism. We were planning on having lunch, and set out between two parked cars, to cross the street. I looked left — the direction of the oncoming traffic — and assessed that we had plenty of time to cross before a taxi van coming off of Fifth would be near.
Then I heard the sound of myself making a small shrieking noise. I don't recall making the sound; I only remember hearing it and thinking, oh, an awful sound. A shriek, but incomplete. Interrupted. Abrupt. Is that me making that sound? I wondered. This acoustic information was followed by the sensation of my back slamming against the street. An instant later, I felt the back of my head slam hard against the asphalt, bounce once, and then slam again. I think I was conscious through this, but I don't really know for sure. The good news was that nothing seemed to hurt.
The woman whom I was meeting, whom we'll call Sharon, came to my side, holding my glasses, and asking if I was okay.
I said I didn't know, but I that I thought I was, other than the fact that I had the impression that the back of my head was rather squishy. My arms and legs were happily doing well, so I tried to feel the back of my head, but gave up my efforts when I realized that I would have to move my head to check it out. Having absolutely no idea what happened to me, I thought it unwise to try to move.
Many solicitous strangers, some of them physicians, stood nearby discussing whether to move me, and deciding against. Some asked me how I was, and I said I think I'm okay, but the back of my head feels squishy. It could just be some swelling, I said, but I think I'll just stay here and use the asphalt as a cold compress until someone can assess me.
Sharon asked if there was someone she could call and I offered our home phone number. She told me — and my answering machine at home — that I was struck by a bicycle messenger. I couldn't tell if she got through to my husband. The sky was so blue, so beautiful. People came and went. Someone leaned over me and said he was a doctor, and asked if I was okay. He was, I must admit, rather lovely. I said I thought so, but that I wasn't sure, and that I thought I would just keep my head still until I felt more certain about it. He agreed that this was a good idea.
A few minutes later, a woman leaned over me and said she was a nurse, and asked if I was okay. I said I think so, but I don't know. I'm not sure. I'm not sure it's a good idea to try to get up, but I know there is traffic on this street. Let them wait, she said. Don't move. An ambulance is coming. We called, but we called from the clinic and since we are a clinic they sometimes don't come as quickly. A clinic, I thought. What clinic is on this block? How can she also be so lovely, I thought. There has been a sudden outbreak of exquisite beauty on 16th Street, looking upward from the asphalt.
Someone told someone else to keep cars from coming onto 16th Street and I could hear the sound of a person running down the block, a receding thud thud thud through the asphalt.
Very far away I could hear the sound of an ambulance.
I was getting cold because my coat had fallen open during this unexpected turn of events. Sharon put her coat on top of me and stood shivering. She looked so much colder than I felt. I felt badly because she was actually shivering and I was only cold.
Soon after, perhaps fifteen minutes later — though I had no real attachment to time — an ambulance arrived and some EMTs put me on a backboard and hoisted me into an ambulance and took me off to the ER. Sharon offered to come with me, and I was happy to accept her offer. She had my glasses, my bag, and the only story about what had happened other than the fragments that I have shared here. We went to the ER, and after a brief interval I was assessed. The Dx: head trauma without neurological symptoms. After some confusion about what they wanted to do with me, I was told not to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch and released.
I have spent a considerable amount of time in the last twenty-four hours to try to understand why I didn't just get up off the asphalt on 16th Street.
After all, my arms and legs were working. I was blocking the street, blocking traffic. I probably could have just gotten up. I tried to move but it made my back hurt, so I stopped and waited for help to come.
As soon as I had been checked out by a doctor in the ER, I was happy, even eager to sit up, and walk around. Everything was still working, more or less. Despite all of my ambivalence about medical authority — so often discussed in this blog — I had waited to hear from a doctor that it was okay to move before I got myself up.
I wondered, all day today, what has happened to the cavalier young woman who had once been me. Where was the woman who would have just gotten up and brushed herself off? The answer unfolded over the course of day, but in the end it was a very simple answer.
Autism and motherhood has changed me. We don't need a paraplegic parent and a child with a developmental issue all in the same household. Sweet M relies on me, and so I rely on a whole world of others all of the time, but most clearly in moments like this, when a chance collision derails my own trajectory, my own foolhardy sense of autonomy.
My thanks to all of the people who came to my aid: To Sharon, who set out for a lunch meeting and wound up in the ER. And to the lovely doctor and nurse who have left me wondering if people actually look more beautiful when they are looking after you. To the EMTs who hoisted and the ER doctors and nurses who palpated and pronounced. To the person who ran down the street to send the midday traffic another way. And to my sweet husband who collected me at the ER and took me home. Many many people stopped to help. It is impossible to thank them all — particularly as I could only see those who leaned right over me.
Today I feel fragile, as well as fortunate. I have been spared the headache that many had foretold.
I hope that the bicycle messenger has fared at least as well. He left the scene quickly, though I am told that he apologized to Sharon over and over and over again. Apparently he was covered in blood, but I imagine that he could not afford to wait for medical attention — and the possible blame that any attendant authority might assign to him, riding, as he'd been, the wrong way down a one-way street. I never saw him. Not even for a second. But he's left his inadvertent mark.
Tonight, out of the blue, maroon bruises are blossoming in unexpected places all over my body. I discover a tire tread on a thigh, and an enormous red patch spreads out from just above my cesarean incision. Strange aches and pains come with these marks. I am changed — I can feel that — in ways that are more hidden than strained muscles and burst capillaries.
There is something to knowing that even if it takes only one person (and a speeding bicycle) to level you, that there are dozens who are willing to help you get back up again. This is a new perspective for me — as strange and perhaps even more beautiful than the view of the late winter skyline from the asphalt on 16th Street.