Tumbling After
Pedaling Like Crazy
After Life Goes
Downhill

Susan Parker
(Crown)
Suzy Parker lives with her husband Ralph in North Oakland, California. They spent many years hiking, rock climbing, and biking (they met during an extended bike trip through Baja).

A freak bicycle accident in Berkeley in 1994 caused Ralph to fall and break his spine at the high C-4 vertebra, which renders him a complete quadriplegic (no use of legs, feet, torso, bowel, bladder, arms, or hands). Tumbling After is Suzy's story of what happened to her, and to him, over the succeeding years.

Ralph was a scientist by trade --- a nuclear physicist --- a meticulous man who did the shopping, cooked the meals, and kept the house in apple-pie order. After the accident, he is a man in a wheelchair, who uses a mouth-stick to perform a variety of activities, including use of the computer. He can talk and sing and shout and cry and think and sleep --- but little else...

This is a pretty hum-drum review and I am going to stop it right now because this Tumbling After is a gem. If you are interested in quadriplegics or chance accidents out of the blue or disability rights or the secret lessons the body has to teach us get this one and settle in with it.

Susan Parker writes like an old master, and she has a way with words that is as rich and funny and sad and lonely and mad as one could ask. She is a stylist who manages to strike the perfect balance between despair and wonder, the curse of fate and hilarity, stoicism and genuine soul-cracking honesty...

...So much so that when I got done (I did it in one day, not because I had to but because I wanted to) I felt like I should call her up just to be sure that everything was still OK with Ralph and Mrs. Scott the plump lady from down the street and Harka from Nepal who gets mugged on the streets of Oakland and goes into a funk for six months and last but not least Jerry the Personal Care Attendant, the black man with ghastly eating habits (cheeseburgers, Tasty Cakes, candy bars, pop corn), a funny man with a mysterious past who ends up --- have mercy! --- sleeping with Suzy.

They all came so alive for me that I wanted to check to see that what she calls her "makeshift family" is still going on, that she is still snuggling with Jerry, that she still cares for Ralph: picking him up after he falls and flossing his teeth and watching for bedsores and drying his eyes when he cries and taking him out from time to time and fighting with people who set them up with a party that's up ten stairs with no elevators and then when they are back home telling him about the fact that she is sleeping with Jerry and apologizing.

This is a woman who didn't volunteer for this job (she just wanted to go rock-climbing with her man) but one day found herself with someone who couldn't get it up anymore, hell, who couldn't get in or out of bed or even turn over by himself, much less get up to go to the bathroom alone. This is her new job and these are the new people who came along with the new job, people who live there in the low-rent district of North Oakland who become part of her new family, what the therapists would call "her support group."

§     §     §

There are diversions. Four or five times, Suzy alone or Suzy with Ralph in his chair go off to therapists to find out why she is so depressed. The first gives her Prozac which makes her break out in hives but also makes it possible for her to survive without wanting to dump it all so she ignores the hives.

She goes to another therapist who asks her about her new part-time job working in an indoor climbing gym. The therapist wants to know if she is attracted to the men there:

    "Do they know you want them?"

    "Do I want them? No, I don't want them. I'm into big, bad, older black men. Haven't you been listening to me?"

§     §     §

Tumbling After is crawling with quotable lines, lines like:

  • On people looking at Ralph. I knew what they were thinking. They were thinking, if it were I, I'd shoot myself. But they didn't know that was impossible. Shooting Ralph was my responsibility, because Ralph couldn't lift a gun to his head. I'd have to do it.

  • On a possible intruder in their house. I stood frozen in the dining room. Ralph, of course, was permanently frozen.

  • On her new friends in the ghetto. Collectively, the ages of my new girlfriends totaled approximately 2,000 years. They all appeared 150 years older than I, but that didn't matter to them. I was the one with the car and some spare change.

  • To the supervisor at the DMV who says her husband has to file papers on his own for a disabled license plate. "But he can't write... he can't move his legs, he can't move his hands, he can't even take a shit on his own."

  • On charity being offered to her. I didn't mind accepting charity once in a while. In fact, I wouldn't mind accepting a lot of charity: a few free movie tickets; someone else to drive the van and fight for a parking spot; enough money to redo the bathroom, buy an electric door, pay off the credit-card bills; a new house with wider door frames and no steps; a van that was reliable and had a radio; extra cash to buy a plane ticket and leave Ralph at home with Harka and Jerry.

Great grief, great tragedy, demands great writing. Many who try collapse into bathos --- where drippy sentiment, ill-kempt sentiment, rules. Or, worse, they try to convey the reality of it in a style that is icy, dispossessed, well separated from the heart.

There are very few who have learned to merge the agony and the comedy and the woe of it. Suzy Parker has figured out how to do it. Rather than reading my words about it, you should be reading it.

--- L. W. Milam