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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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I’ve seen them out of my peripheral vision. I’ve always seen them, even when young. Never have I turned to look at them head on. White straggly hair, bony shoulders, eyes on the ground, slow progress along the sidewalk. Women using walkers.

These women embody one of my fears. Old, barely getting around with a clunky piece of equipment that screams infirmity. Women invisible to all but those who, like me, fear their condition, see them and avert their eyes. Well, not quite all. These women are also visible to those more enlightened than I, those who don’t see a stereotype, but a person.

Sometimes I have coffee with a man who is the ex-fire chief of my city. He likes to pass on tips he’s learned in his long life. “Always stop at the top of any stairs,” he’s told me. “Transfer anything you’re holding in your banister hand to the other. Take hold of the railing.”

Often, I ignore good advice. But this man’s words carry authority. In his 93 years, he’s seen it all. And his tone is pleasant. It becomes a little habit I enjoy – “hearing” his voice, stopping, transferring.

One Friday evening, I’m wearing a housecoat and pyjamas. In my right hand, a bottle of glasses cleaner. I stop, transfer it to my left, grip the banister. I’m on my way down to watch Netflix with my husband.

Near the bottom, something happens that transforms me in an instant from an active, well-groomed woman into a helpless, dishevelled crone. I fall, try to grip the newel post to save myself, spin and crash into the hallway. I strike my head hard on the bathroom door, blacken my right arm from wrist to elbow and fracture my right hip.

There is instant recognition that I’ve broken my hip. Then instant forgetting of this fact. The amazing power of denial. After all, I’m the person who has gone around telling my friends never to break a hip. It’s the beginning of the end, I’ve said. The downhill stretch. I tell my husband that it’s strained, that’s all, ask for two extra-strength Tylenol. I’ll get on the couch; we can still watch Netflix.

For an hour, I worm my way across the floor, then try, with his help, to get onto the couch. Where there’s a will there’s a way, I always say. But this time, will fails me. Yes, it takes an hour to understand that the only way out of this is an ambulance.

I phone 911 and ask them not to use the siren, there’s no real rush. I ask my husband to unlock the front door, to bring my toiletries and makeup from upstairs. Shoes. My box of pills and list of prescriptions – readied back when I turned 70, in case I ever had a stroke or heart attack.

Flashing lights alert me to the ambulance’s arrival. A man and woman enter, carrying equipment. They ask questions and discuss how to get me out. An hour passes. Every time they try to move me into the position they need, an involuntary scream escapes me. I ask them to give me something that’ll knock me out. We’re not allowed, they say. Finally, they use a seat that looks like a piece of horse saddle and carry me, one on each side, over thick ice to the curb.

I see our neighbours’ shadows in windows and experience myself as I imagine they see me. Greasy hair due for a wash. Housecoat with a milk stain. No makeup. An old woman being carted away to the Beginning of the End. I’ve become one of “them.” Yet the real me still exists, under this disguise. Just as, I realize, the real “them,” the crones with walkers, still exists under this disguise. Why oh why, I berate myself, does a thing always have to happen to me before I truly understand it!

There is a wait in the drafty area of the ER before a promotion to a curtained cubicle and a chair for my husband. X-rays. Then a procession of polite young men in white coats. The news that yes, it’s broken. I’ll need surgery. At 2 a.m., my husband is finally persuaded to leave.

I’m sent to a ward. Nothing to eat or drink. Sunday morning at 10, I hear the news that I’m going down for surgery. The wait has been 37 hours. A young man appears at my stretcher: “Do you want a half or a whole hip replacement?”

I’ve never wanted half of anything. I tell him that I swim 30 lengths regularly, walk 40 minutes most days, shovel snow for our corner lot. He says he’ll give me a whole.

After six days, my sister and brother-in-law arrive at the hospital with edible food and clean clothes. They drive us to Wingham, Ont. This is home. My sister lives here, my brother is near, the graves of my parents and ancestors, as well as my living relatives, all close by.

My sister produces a raised toilet seat, a shower stool, a walker, a cane, special shoes and a physiotherapist from town. She and her husband cook us nutritious, delicious meals. She stands over me while I do a painful set of exercises, three times a day. She corrects me, chides me, insists on my best. She keeps us for two weeks. As a result, four weeks later, I will hardly know that my hip was broken.

The day we arrived in Wingham, my sister put on her bathing suit and got into the shower with me. She washed my body and my hair. Childless, she said later that she had never washed anyone but herself. She said it was almost a religious experience.

My sister was born when I was almost nine. I walked the floor with her, fed and dressed her, taught her everything I knew. She was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Now, as in Robert Munsch’s classic picture book, Love You Forever, the roles are reversed. Once again, the cycle of life opens its peacock tail and displays its inevitable unfolding.

Marilyn Gear Pilling lives in Hamilton.