Tumbling After: One Caregiver's Story, Down-And Up Again

Article excerpt


Susan Parker begins her memoir, Tumbling After: Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill (New York City Crown Publishers, 2002), with the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill went up the hill ITo fetch a pail of water/Jack fell down (And broke his crown lAnd Jill came / Tumbling after." Parker's "Jack." is her husband, Ralph Hager, who spilled over the handlebars of his Italian racing bicycle as he sped down Grizzly Peak toward Berkeley, Calif, on April 27, 1994, and "snapped his neck" In the ensuing years, Parker penned a column on disability and caregiving for the San Francisco Chronicle and delivered commentaries for KQED public radio, which serve as the basis for her moving and unflinching memoir. Aging Today presents the following except from Tumbling After with permission of the author.

There was a time not long ago when I loved to ride my bicycle up hills. It was my favorite activity, along with snowshoeing on a powdery slope and climbing a vertical rock wall. I think Ralph fell in love with the uphillness in me. I could keep up with him on windy passes and minor climbing peaks. But I never stayed with him on the downhill. He was always too fast. He'd wait patiently for me at the bottom of a black-diamond run, at the end of a long, winding mountain road, or at the foot of a crag.

I wasn't with him the day he had the accident that left him a C-4 quadriplegic, Maybe if I had been with Ralph his accident wouldn't have happened. Maybe he would have slowed down to wait for me. Maybe if he had been three-quarters of an inch to the right or to the left on Claremont Avenue, his front bicycle tire would not have been pierced by a tiny sliver of glass, a sharp pebble or an upturned thom. Perhaps, it is the uphillness in me that is keeping me with him now. It is all uphill from here. I'm good at it. Ralph is good at it, too. He's an uphill man all the way.

There were friends who disappeared the moment the accident happened, and friends who held on for a while but had to let go. New friends came and went, and others stuck by us. A few old friends hung in there, even when I didn't return their calls and didn't have anything fun to talk about.

A religious friend was the last to get in touch with us. She told me if I prayed hard enough, Ralph would be cured. Then she left her husband for a coworker and moved out of our lives completely. Another friend said everything happens for a reason. Someone else stated that God works in mysterious ways.

A coworker compared taking care of Ralph to raising children; another likened Ralph's accident to his own orthopedic knee surgery. A friend of a friend told us of his strained back; another whined about her tennis elbow.

One childhood friend called from New York and suggested I put Ralph in a nursing home where Brownies would visit at Christmas and sing carols. A cousin advised that I leave Ralph while I was still young and could possibly find someone else. Others proposed that I go away but didn't say how or with what or where, and didn't volunteer to take care of Ralph while I was gone. …