Cake Walk A writer meditates on aging—and the joys of homemade dessert—as she recounts her mother’s recent slip down the stairs.

By Chris Stewart. Illustration by Francis Blake.



cakefallOne night, deep in the throes of a cold, I did a rare and dangerous thing: I turned off my phone, took some medicine and fell into a coma-like sleep.

The next morning I woke to a string of texts. 1) From my father with the vague but worrying message to “please call.” 2) From one of my two sisters (I’ll use her middle name, Lynn; my sisters are fine with being used in fiction but not nonfiction) that she was going back to the house because “Mom said no to an ambulance last night” (what?!). 3) From Lynn that they were leaving the emergency room for home.

Freaking out, I finally reached her and the story emerged. The night before, my mother, who is in her mid-70s and has developed vertigo, had been carrying a plate with some unfinished chocolate cake down the stairs from her bedroom and slipped (vertigo, rugs and socks are sometimes a lethal combination, take note).

The stair railing in my parents’ house is on the same side as the hand in which she carried said plate and, instead of dropping it and grabbing the railing, my mother tried to save the cake and tilted her body, hitting the stairs hard, bruising several ribs. The cake went flying, landing on an expensive rug, the exact thing she’d tried to prevent.

Dad rushed up from his basement man cave to find her in a heap. In response to his “What happened? Are you all right?” my mother said, “Get the cake!”

This pretty much sums up my family.

My mother refused to go to the emergency room because she didn’t want anyone to see her leave the house on a gurney without hair and makeup done. In the end, that happened in broad daylight, for all to see—though with makeup and hair—because of course you can’t sleep on a bruised rib and wake up healed.

Lynn and my brother-in-law Jack were going out of town, and Marie (middle name) is a couple of hours away and has three children, so I (single, childless) called in sick and took over the first few days of my mother’s convalescence so nobody would get hurt. Mom isn’t always the best patient and Dad isn’t always the best nurse.

We made a chart of pills, dosages and when to take them, and I took the first night’s watch so Dad could go to work the next day. I delayed going to bed as long as I could, though my head felt like the equivalent of a crumbling stone ruin on a misty, foggy day. Sleeping in my childhood bed sends me back into the old struggle for identity and independence. As if I haven’t accomplished anything. I’m 14 all over again. I just lay there thinking, I should be on vacation. Or a book tour.

When my phone’s late-night alarm buzzed, I got up to wash my hands before gathering up pills, crackers and water. Mom couldn’t afford to catch my cold. Still groggy from the first doses, she kept falling asleep as she chewed crackers. After swallowing the pills and drinking water, she reached for the kidney-shaped bowl the ER had given her. “I’m going to throw up.”

Prepared for this, I said, “You are not. You’re not going to waste those pills.”

This being something all mothers understand, mine flopped back against the pillows. “No. Right. Goodnight, honey.”

“Wait, don’t go to sleep. You have to do the breathing thing.”

The doctor had also given Dad a plastic device that measured her breath and made sure she inhaled deeply enough to prevent a lung infection. I handed her the tube. She blew into it and the indicator flew up.

“There!” She flung it away from her and tried to lie down again.

I pushed her back up. “Mom, this isn’t a Breathalyzer test after too much wine. You have to inhale.”

“Oh, I’d love some wine.”

Our attempts grew more ridiculous, leaving us in a fit of giggles that didn’t help her ribs and woke my dad. We decided to save the exercises for morning. Dad’s mom-care shift started at 6, and I fell asleep at last.

I woke to find my mother downstairs unloading the dishwasher. Dad had gone to work and Mom had gone rogue.

“What are you doing?” I yelled at her. “You have to be careful! Go back to bed!”

“I can’t. I’ll lose my mind.” She started crying. Mom walks 5 miles a day—every day, in all weather, visiting with neighbors and their dogs along the way—so I knew her recuperation would be difficult. “Do you want some eggs? I’ll make you some eggs.” She shuffled to the cabinet with the pots and pans, wincing and gasping.

I took her by the arms. “You are going back to bed and not coming down until Monday’s doctor’s appointment. What if you’d fallen again?”

She lifted a foot, staggering against me. “I’m fine. Look, I’m not wearing socks.”

Tough love the only option, I helped her upstairs and into bed. “If you don’t stay here I’m going to get you one of those buttons to press when you’ve fallen down and need help.”

Her eyes widened in horror. That had done the trick. “I’ll be good.”

The seed planted, though, I started researching options on the internet while she slept. Dad worked all day and my mother often left her cell phone upstairs when she was downstairs and vice versa. She’d never wear it clipped to her clothes, and if she fell again she could break something and lie there in pain for hours. Or worse.

As children, my sisters and I had made fun of the commercial for such devices, with the older woman lying on the floor, moaning. Now the idea was no joke. With the vertigo, her needing such aid was a real possibility. My parents are both in their mid-70s, and I realized we’d officially crossed into the phase of life when the children became parents and the parents, children. We’d never talked about Do Not Resuscitate orders, or wills, or even where to find the important paperwork that lurked in the metal filing cabinets in Dad’s man cave.

As I read through the different websites, gadgets and plans, an unexpected and unwelcome question popped up: Do I need one of these too? I was a few months from turning 50, living alone. My row house has very steep, shallow stairs that I’d fallen down several times—taking that first step too quickly, resulting in a bumpy slide that bruised hips, arms and legs. I’d laughed it off by posting it on Facebook, taken some ibuprofen and gone for a walk to prove I could.

I added that danger to all the others: how late I come home, where I park my car, what I wear, who I make eye contact with, when I smile. Other single friends and I had started looking out for each other when our cars broke down, when sick, etc. But if I had a bad fall the next time, who would know? If conscious, I could scream and eventually my neighbors would hear. The walls are thin.

If conscious?

I picked a company. Mom and I could get a two-for-one deal, the monthly fee wasn’t too high, and the device came in black—Mom’s favorite color. She wears it every day. (She often says to me, “You didn’t notice my new top.” To which I reply, “Seriously?”) It made sense to be careful. Halfway through the ordering form, panic hit me in the chest. I am NOT READY. Not for what my mother’s fall meant for her, for my father. Or me.

I’m not the first person to have this realization about their parents’ mortality, or their own aging and fragility. Or how vulnerable they are because of the choices they’ve made. But it felt too soon for that much truth. What next? Make my own funeral plans? I logged off, decided that if she fell again I’d buy the alert device, and felt the kind of knee-buckling relief that’s a clear indication you’re fooling yourself.

Then I unloaded the dishwasher.

Sunday night, Lynn and Jack stopped by the house on their way home and Dad performed a reenactment of Mom’s fall that had us crying-laughing. We’d gotten off with just a warning. No one wanted to think about how we might not be that lucky next time. Because, at my parents’ age, there would be a next time.

For a while longer, we could laugh in the face of what loomed ahead. As I hugged Mom (gently!) goodbye she said, “I should have finished the cake first.”

Let that be a lesson to us all.

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