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The alarm blasted staccato. Another damn car alarm shattering my concentration. How can I write with that assault? I tried to stretch open my mind, like the view on this morning’s hike, wide and serene. I tried to attend to the words on the screen. But the jarring noise exploded into my brain. I stuck my fingers in my ears. STOP IT! Or was it in the house? Bolting out of my study/zendo, I chased from room to room, my border collie Roxie in tandem, squealing at the painful attack. Of course, the smoke alarm. Not the first time that high-pitched clamor had driven me into a fever. Reigning supreme over our bedroom door, affixed to the 14-foot ceiling of the living room of our Victorian house, this queen of smoke alarms has tyrannized our family for many years. It sounds off whenever we’ve over-baked or over-broiled, when we’ve seared a fish or burned a soup. In the pandemonium of braying beeps I’ve flung open the windows, thrust open back and front doors, sped into the living room and waved a blanket underneath to clear the fumes. Now I stood beneath that beastly alarm, my heart beating wild. The blasting seemed to increase in intensity. It was unrelenting, a violation, a failing battery on steroids. I’d knock it out. In a fresh rush of outrage and bravado, I tromped down the backstairs to the yard to fetch the 10-foot ladder, Roxie barking and squeezing past me down the stairs. I hauled it upstairs, clanking along the steps and shoved it below the offender. I’d dispatch this in a nanosecond. After all, I was a run-around-get-things-done kinda gal, just back from my daily hike with Roxie on the steepest trail in the Berkeley Hills. That was me, even in a rainstorm or when I was bone tired. Get there, do it, I’d take it on. So I clambered up the ladder and reached towards the screaming alarm. But even on my tiptoes, I simply could not dislodge it. I kept batting at it, but the battery refused to jiggle loose. I’d slam out that squeal. Just as the tips of my fingers grazed the case, my ladder wobbled, then tilted precariously. Panicked, I lurched to right my balance. I plunged down and smashed into the floor feet first. A shock jolted through me, tremors of pain up my legs.

Photo: Jeannie O'Connor

As I collapsed, the battery plummeted, crashing next to me on the floor. But that crazed noise persisted, the intense bleats, now inseparable from the throbbing in my feet. The housekeeper, Laura, hurried into the living room, kneeled down next to me. Thank god it was her day this month. Stroking my hair, she kept repeating, “Missy Barbara, you’ve got to call 911!” My young tenant Gwen came pounding upstairs and through the kitchen door, left open when I’d dragged in the ladder. Clutching her three-month-old baby, she leaned over me, another tender voice, “What was that crash? Are you alright?” I waved towards the ladder. It was impossible to explain. In a burst of effort, I tried to push myself up, rearranging my limbs for traction, pressing my feet to the floor. A pain jolted through my body sending me into sobs. “How can I help?” Gwen’s voice seemed to be calling from far away. “The alarm,” I blurted out. “Make it go away!” I pointed up at the ceiling. If only that god-awful racket would stop, everything would be okay. “But you’re hurt,” she said, “We need to get you to help.” Through a jumble of half-heard exchanges, Laura, Gwen, Roxie racing through, I saw Gwen’s husband, Charles, who had somehow materialized, bending down and offering me his hand. “I gotta call the doctor,” I heard myself announce. Then an order, “Right away,” waving for the phone. I stopped crying and found myself laughing. This was crazy. Disordered thoughts ricocheted in my spinning mind. I fell, but I can talk. If I just lie here, it doesn’t hurt so much. I’m really fine. Get this show on the road. I’ll get up in a few minutes. How blessed I am. “The phone,” I demanded from the floor. In a chaos of phone calls to the doctor’s office, to my husband, Patrick, at work (in a meeting), to my 24-year-old daughter Caitlin (not picking up), a plan emerged, to lift me onto an armchair, apply ice. A nurse called back, referred me to a podiatrist the next day. Unless the pain increased, the nurse advised, don’t go to the emergency room. Put my feet up, take a heavy dose of ibuprofen and ice the swelling. In the hubbub of arranging, of tears and laughter, I don’t know when the metallic beeping stopped. But at some point I couldn’t hear it any more. What a relief. In the bedroom, someone had located and re-plugged the true culprit. A wigged-out carbon monoxide alarm, recently installed had somehow come out of the socket triggering intense warnings. It was too confusing to grok. All this to quell the wrong alarm.

*** The next day the x-rays revealed broken bones in both heels. Dreaded calcaneous fractures with dislocation on the right—much more severely broken, almost, not quite, demanding surgery. If I’d crashed on my head or hip or spine, I might have ended up paralyzed or even dead. By some uncanny grace, I’d landed on my feet, both literally and figuratively. Yes, I have broken bones. Slow healing. Yes, I have to use a wheelchair and am confined to my home—16 non-negotiable steps up in our Victorian House. But the doctor says that after three months in the chair, four more on crutches, and painstakingly re-learning the basics of putting foot to ground, I will hike again in the beloved Berkeley hills.

Photo taken by Jeannie O'Connor 3 hours before fall from ladder

Blessed. And supremely challenged. If a master teacher were to design stern practice, exquisitely tailored for a jump-up, run-around, hiking maven…this wheelchair-bound confinement to the home would be a worthy choice.

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