Phillip Simmons was diagnosed with ALS in 1993 when he was 35. He was a husband, father, and professor. At the start of a promising literary career he suddenly had to learn the art of dying. Nine years later he wrote a joyous and sparkling book about his journey to live while dying. Learning to Fall, The Blessings of an Imperfect Life was published in January of 2002. Phillip Simmons died on July 27, 2002.
Simmons begins his book with the story of his earliest memory. He is standing alone at the top of the stairs. “I call for my mother, but she doesn’t come. I grip the banister and look down.” The memory ends here, but the fall down the stairs left scars. He goes on to say:
My little tumble down the stairs was my own expulsion from the Garden: ever after I have been falling forward and down into the scarred years of conscious life, falling into into the knowledge of pain, grief and loss.
We have all suffered, and will suffer our own falls. The fall from youthful ideals, the waning of physical strength, the failure of a cherished hope, the loss of our near and dear, the fall into injury or sickness, and late or soon, the fall to our certain ends. We have no choice but to fall, and little say as to the time or means.
Perhaps, however, we do have some say in the manner of our falling. That is, perhaps we have a say in matters of style. . . . I would have it that in the way of our falling we have the opportunity to express our essential humanity.”
When I was the executive director of a family literacy center, I had two wonderful volunteers who became life-long friends. Both of them were retired when they began volunteering. One was a fantastic English as a Second Language tutor. A company in our county was bought by a Japanese firm and asked our agency to teach the English language and American ways to the wives of the Japanese management team. Lucile jumped in with both feet, teaching English, hosting coffees for groups of wives, inviting her students and their VIP husbands for dinner.
Gini volunteered every day as our be our receptionist and administrative assistant. Her skills had been honed by her many years in the work force. But she also brought a loving personality and a gift of hospitality that was truly the result of her long walk with God. She was the glue of our organization for many years.
My admiration for both of these women grew as they aged into their mid-eighties and nineties. Each of them recognized that they were “falling” and they willingly gave up their volunteer work, stopped driving, sold their treasures, and moved into smaller homes. They also dealt with the onset of a variety of illnesses, including, at the end, dementia with grace. They taught me what it is like to face a changing life with “style.”
Who am I when my body fails me? I can be someone who moans and complains or someone who gives up and fades away. Or I can be someone like Lucile and Gini. While I’m falling, I can have “a say in matters of style.”