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Chronically Upbeat

Unplanned Landing

Author and TV producer Richard M. Cohen writes about living with a chronic illness.

My body stretches forward in perfect flight, parallel to earth, with arms outstretched as if to grab the air. Launch has been involuntary, and the landing pad a sidewalk or street, busy with pedestrians or vehicles or unkind cracks that sent me flying in the first place. Grace is gone, lost with a thud and a gasp, personal effects tumbling gradually down around me.

This is my life: primitive flight, Kitty Hawk revisited. At least the Wright brothers had a goal, a dream to work toward. All I want is to stay on earth, feet planted surely on the ground. But illness has its own plan. I cannot control the disease overtaking me any more than I can choreograph my every misstep and crash landing.

I am not alone in midair. Falling is the dread fear of the elderly, the sick. We know when we are at risk because the graceless spills come, no matter how careful we think we are. I have escaped injury beyond the inevitable cuts and bruises, but not so my wounded ego.

Humiliation upon falling is immediate. Damn. Apologies flow rapid-fire, as if the crash was planned. We cannot help it. Illness and disability attack self-esteem, and what more public show of my lack of control can there be? I wish I could guide motion and emotion with a stronger hand, but I lost control long ago.

The problem is more than a wounded ego, however. My sense of self is at stake. I am gratefully aware that I am strong of spirit, if not body. Frailer humans may not be so fortunate.

Emergency rooms have welcomed legions of us veterans of flight, the injured requiring stitches or casts to be made whole again. I have little patience for the able-bodied who fall only on ski slopes and do not appreciate the trauma of the unpredictable slip. It is a big thing. I have learned to laugh at myself frequently enough, but I want to cry each time an accidental flight sends me spiraling to the ground.

We cannot give up our freedom and mobility, or love of walking, and stay emotionally whole. This is who we are. I will not sit at home because I dare not venture down the street anymore. Admonitions to be careful suggest that any of us is reckless. My mother used to tell me to be careful when I got behind the wheel. I chuckled.

Add up the illnesses around us that compromise eyesight or impede mobility. It is a wonder we are not all smashing into each other all the time.

But life is about choices. Risk is implied. We recognize reckless and unacceptable brinksmanship when we see it. The line we must not cross rests at that point when risk is too great and is no longer acceptable. Then, then, perhaps, comes the unthinkable: a walker.

Actually, no. For me to suggest that those at risk should go for the walker is pure hypocrisy, not to put a fine point on it. Among my friends and followers, my aversion to such devices is well known, though not necessarily sensible.

If there is no answer, my answer is this: I am a believer in pushing the envelope. Keep going until you can go no more. Then take stock of your life. Live with risk until it is time to stop. Know where that line is. When you reach it, grow up and do what you have to. Then teach me to do the same.

Richard M. Cohen is an Emmy-winning TV news producer and author. His column is published on AARP The Magazine Online every two weeks.

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