We had a five foot square porch off the back of our second story flat on Hill Street in the Mission which had an exceptional open view to the sky and a very passable view of a section of the city. The incident to be related occurred about eight years into living at this flat.
Now over this time our ever frugal landlady had refrained from any non-emergency maintenance because of her dread fear of being taken advantage of unscrupulous handymen, for instance the ones who had painted the house prior to our move in. None the less the house still stood solid, a testimony to the craftsmanship of 1879.
The porch had three sides, one ran along side the next door property and was heavily meshed against intruders coming from the roof of the one story backyard home that bordered our backyard. Across from this was the stairs leading down to the first floor landing. From this lower landing there extended out a three foot wide narrow wooden walkway (attached to the side of the aforementioned one story backyard home) suspended three feet above an adjacent concrete sidewalk abutting the meager backyard leading to a mysterious back studio that I liked to refer to as Steven King’s bedroom. Above this elevated walkway was a slanted semi-translucent yellow corregated fiberglass roof. And suspended above this flimsy roof was the spreading yellow plum tree that stood two stories high and covered, at that time, ninety percent of our postage stamp backyard. Ahh, the little yellow plums.
As I mentioned we had been living at this flat now for eight years. Eight years of gatherings where this porch offered a place to smoke, a place for a small BBQ (another story), many drunken clatches of loud musings on every sort of philisophical meanderings, its railings often leaned against and sat upon. Eight years of viewing owls, bright halos of unseen fireworks, sunsets, curious arguments of various neighbors, what stars one can see in the city and the occasional sitting in the sun with tea and cats. Even with the lack of maintenance never once did this porch hint at anything other than its solidity.
That included the third side railing that stood across from our back door looking out upon the backyard and down upon that aforementioned narrow walkway running perpendicular away from this railing. On this day an acquaintance of my wife had come by to engage her in some 5 Rhythms conversation over lunch. My wife was not in at the time and one thing led to another and here we were heading out to the backyard to pick some of those Autumn ripe yellow plums. He set off downstairs to pluck from ground level and I favored the idea of picking the lovely ripe ones closest to the sun just off our porch.
Again, eight years and no hint of any instability in this porch.
I leaned forward with my full weight intending to use the rail as a brace as I reached out for those little yellow plums. Which by the way I never did think tasted all that good, even told the acquaintance but to no avail. So as I began to lean against the railing at the very first touch the entire top rail snapped from its moorings like a pressure sensitive gate dropping away and hanging down along the face of the stairwell. With my momentum, since I was not expecting this, I also folded right over the side of the porch.
Here is where time slowed way down. I recall reaching out at the face of the stairwell with the idea of trying to stop this fall and having nothing to grab. This gave me pause to reflect on how I am out of control of the situation, that there was nothing in my power to change what was to come and in that sense an odd feeling of letting go permeated my being. I actually think I relaxed. Following the revelation I was unable to stop my fall as I broke through the branches of the plum tree (not even thinking about picking anything on the way down) I began to think about what this fall would do to my slowly recovering chronic lower back injury. And this then led to obsessing over how hard I had worked to be able to just walk down the street without having to sit out the pain. As I broke through the flimsy yellow corregated roof I began to get a bit panicky as the inevitable end of this journey was coming up shortly.
Then SLAM I was on my back on the narrow wooden walkway as the accumulated debris from the flimsy roof slowly rained down upon me. Relieved it was over I took a breath, then screamed. Breathing it seemed was going to cause me a great deal of pain since slamming onto the walkway had, unknown at the time, broken my sixth thoracic vertebra, basically dead center to the middle of my back, highly affected by the filling of my lungs. I tried a miniscule amount of motion and got the same result. My thoughts then were to heed my body’s desire to completely shut down to the pain and stay put right there on that walkway for the next six weeks until whatever was causing this incredible searing pain healed.
The acquaintance of course had watched my fall, even marveled at the graceful half gainer I performed on the way down. My wife arrived home just as I screamed and was there immediately at my side urging me to do exactly what I never planned to do for six weeks – get up. I did, of course, very very very gingerly, managing to move in such a way as to not aggravate the angry gremlin in my back. And at the same time noting that my lower back was not complaining in the least which I could either count my lucky stars or attribute to the loss of general feeling due to shock.
We get up to our second story flat and into the bathroom where I am stripped of the soggy autumn leaf and soil detritus impacted clothing, given a shower (truly a miraculous thing shock) then laid out on the bed for further considerations. My wife and acquaintance head out for their lunch and I drift into semi-I-don’t-want-to-be-conscious-conscientious. I awake as friends have been called in to assess the next step, all being medically connected. It was determined that we were off to SF General, where a good friend presided over the the ICU, and of course over my strenuous ineffectual objections, for a full work up to determine any internal damage.
The hospital is another story, suffice to say I only suffered fractures to my sixth and eleventh thoracic vertebra. Once I was up with the help of a brace I went to the back porch and marveled at how my luck worked out. That walkway when I slammed into it gave at least five inches on contact but still held. I could have missed the walkway entirely landing another three feet down onto the concrete most assuredly increasing my injuries many fold. I could have hit the walkway’s railing, again, I’m sure incurring worse injuries. Just the day or two before my wife had removed a plethora of glass jars and bottles that had accumulated along that very section of the wooden walkway. And it turns out my lower back was unscathed by my unexpected descent from the second story porch.
As a reminder of my fall I retain a nagging ache in my mid upper back that even yoga has been unable to fully assuage as it has so wonderfully done for my low back.