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Down But Not Out

TUMBLING AFTER: Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill: A Memoir, By Susan Parker Crown: 290 pp., $24

June 30, 2002|CHRISTINE SCHOEFER | Christine Schoefer is a writer whose work has appeared in the Nation, Salon and other publications.

If you knew that Susan Parker's "Tumbling After: Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill: A Memoir" was the story of how her life changed after a freak bicycling accident left her husband paralyzed below his shoulders, you might assume that it is a primer on disability or a care-giving manual.

"Tumbling After" does answer many questions you don't dare ask about life with a severely disabled person. But Parker accomplishes much more than that: It's a wake-up call that catapults the reader into possibility. Anyone's life could be turned upside-down at any moment. Together, these 71 fast-reading chapters, some of which have appeared as columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, add up to a riveting narrative of Parker's life transformation.

This memoir is a heart-wrenching confirmation of the aphorism "When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window." When Parker comes home from the hospital with her newly disabled husband, that window seems to open to an endless, bleak tunnel. Their former life, which had revolved around climbing, biking and skiing, vanishes. So do most of her friends. Therapists and counselors offer ridiculously inadequate advice. Just when Parker is on the brink of exhaustion from the 24/7 requirements of catheterizing, washing, feeding and medicating her husband, the bleakness turns light and lively like a dawning day.

The strangers who come to her aid are as colorful as they are surprising. They intercept Parker's downward spin into despair and become more than friends; they become her new family. First, her neighbor Gerstine Scott appears at her doorstep one day "wearing a sequined pink beret and gold rings on each of her plump, large fingers." Though she hardly knows Parker or her husband, Scott calls him "sweet baby" as she massages his limp arms with petroleum jelly.

Before long, "Mrs. Scott" is Parker's closest friend, mother figure, advisor, caretaker, entertainer and social advisor. Then Jerry, "[s]lightly overweight, squeezed into a peach-colored polyester-blend suit" applies for a live-in attendant job which Parker has had trouble filling. The triumvirate of caretakers is complete when Harka arrives to help. Fresh from a mountain hamlet in Nepal, he joins the unconventional household in its modest Oakland neighborhood. Given Parker's flair for description, it is unlikely that a reader could forget this unusual trio.

Parker chronicles what happens when people from very different backgrounds are thrown together and, bound to each other by their commitment to caring for Ralph, do not walk away, despite annoying cultural differences, serious misunderstandings and grating idiosyncrasies. She shows how many of the expectations and conventions cultivated in her "former" life fall away. Scott and Jerry gradually introduce Parker and her white world to the African American community outside her front door.

Parker has an uncanny ability to reveal sweetness and humor in even the most heart-wrenching episodes. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, the effervescent writing makes this a joyful and uplifting book. That is not to say that "Tumbling After" is just a feel-good read. On the contrary, Parker does not shy away from tricky terrain, and her breathtaking candor will surprise and delight readers. Her vibrant descriptions of events and interactions among her African American friends brim with love and appreciation, but the candor of household chatter might not pass muster with the PC patrol.

Parker offers scathing indictments of the health-care system and its counseling services. She explodes the dichotomous stereotypes that either idealize caregivers as saints or demonize them as abusers, offering instead a portrait of people who are able to take astonishing things in stride.

For example, the fact that Jerry eventually becomes her lover neither diminishes Parker's devotion to her husband nor Jerry's dedicated, expert care-taking of Ralph.

Through Parker's eyes, we learn about Ralph's bouts of hopelessness, his dread of being hospitalized, his growing activism in Berkeley's vocal disabled community. He finds refuge in cyberspace, where, by driving the mouse with his chin, he moves as freely and expertly as the other travelers. In the end, though, this is Parker's story. And she demonstrates that ultimately, the ability to open rather than close her heart is the true survival skill.

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