Unbroken, So Far
(Disclaimer: my risk-taking behavior in this story does not at all represent the high standards of safety that AWC Magazine upholds. And I do not recommend bamboo equipment to anyone, ever.)
Phetchaburi, Thailand, February 17, 2020
The moment before I fell, I paused.
You can see this pause in the video. I wondered if I should have been more patient and waited for the helper that my client had assigned to me, before deciding on what comes naturally: to do it alone. The helper was late for work. The temperature was climbing toward 95 degrees at 10:00 AM. I dreaded having a “babysitter,” and had already worked for two hours, without help, cleaning a glass-roofed pergola, overlooking the river, next to their family-sized golf course, where the ladder stood on grass.
To test the ladder on the synthetic wood patio floor, I gave it a little bounce, thrilling at the creak and springiness of the aged bamboo. I am a risk taker, and I loved that stupid ladder. I climbed the final few rungs, and reached to scrub the upper edge of the second floor hallway window. Then the ladder gave a little skip, paused, and slid right out from under me.
My iPhone was propped up against a pillow on a poolside patio chair, capturing the moment. I was so proud of myself for working without the helper they had following me around last year. It was annoying. When I fell, the ladder slid into the patio furniture, which flipped the phone over, so you can’t see my landing. But it did catch the fall.
Sometimes - to make myself feel better - I watch the video in reverse.
The previous year, at their first cleaning, the Handler had been assigned to me without question. A long-time sidekick and chauffeur to the Mayor, the Handler had surely been out drinking with us at some point over the past decade. I was an English teacher, living and working in the same town, and had been a friend of the Mayor’s for years. The Handler was likely instructed to assist me in two ways, that day: 1. Unlock every room for her, but make sure she doesn’t steal anything, and 2. Make sure she doesn’t kill herself.
The result was that the poor man was either having an anxiety attack each time I climbed the ladder (as he had never seen a woman, especially a foreign woman, doing such a dangerous thing), or falling asleep in a chair as I did the interior panes, room by room.
When the ladder slid out, the Mayor was in a meeting, the Handler was MIA, Mrs. Mayor was in the main house, their daughter was in the detached kitchen, making cupcakes, and the maid was the one who saw it happen. She ran for the wife, who ran for the daughter, who found the first aid kit and ran to the pool area. In shock, I had dragged myself to the pool’s edge, and was putting my bare feet in the water, because I could not control the violent trembling.
The last thing that had hit the ground was my chin. My jaw could be broken, I thought, I could have bitten my tongue in half. Otherwise, the only immediate pain I felt was in my ankle, and shins, as they took the first impact of the fall.
I have had one other fall, three years ago, from a fully extended, 15-foot, aluminum ladder, which took all the skin off of my shins, and fractured my wrist. I still have scars. It was a slide-out situation, too, also related to a crappy patio surface, and to the fact that I was decidedly not paying attention.
When the Mayor’s fourteen-year-old ran up with the first aid supplies, I tried hard to be nonchalant, because she looked so scared, and I felt terrible for scaring her. I’ve known the kid since she was seven. She speaks English well, but I enunciated carefully, because my voice shook so badly.
“I have a very dangerous job,” I said, “Maybe too dangerous,” and then I tried to laugh.
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Her brow furrowed, she took out wipes to sterilize my bleeding abrasions, and unwrapped band-aids to cover them. Her beautiful mother came running out, asking in broken English if we should go to the hospital. I felt nauseous at the idea, and refused to go. I had already been to the local government hospital on this trip, and it was a nightmare. I wasn't in a hurry to visit again.
“Let’s wait a while,” I pleaded, moving and flexing all my limbs, “I’m sure that nothing is broken, so maybe I can finish the job.”
The maid who had witnessed the fall came to the patio, eyes wide, and the three Thai ladies started chattering in their native tongue, deciding what should be done about me. I felt horrid.
When I stopped shaking, I called my mom, a retired nurse, in Colorado. It was midnight there. I described what had happened, and asked what I should do. Even she suggested that I wait - a full 24 hours, even, with ice and ibuprofen - before going to the hospital. That was overruled, however, by the Mayor, who contacted the head of the very government hospital I dreaded, a friend of his, who had me skip over the line of dozens of Thai people waiting to be seen.
I felt like an asshole. But the Mayor had insisted, and had arrived from his office to oversee my visit.
Instead of trying to explain what had happened, we simply showed the young doctor the video of my fall. His eyes widened as he watched. He sent me in for X-rays of my right elbow, my left wrist, and my right ankle. The elbow and wrist had become painful and swollen soon after the fall, even though they had not hurt at first. Those two areas of my body had actually taken the biggest impact, but had been numb throughout the first hour. When they tried to feed me lunch, that’s when I realized I couldn’t bend my right elbow enough to put the spoonful of Pad Thai to my mouth, and ate with my left hand instead.
Nothing was broken. The Mayor went back to work. I was prescribed a high dose of ibuprofen, and an arm-sling. In the process of reviewing the X-rays with the doc in the emergency room, I saw an elderly woman literally dying in front of me, and I struggled and failed to keep my shit together in front of the Handler. That was the only time I cried that day.
Two days later, I had received multiple messages, in both Thai and in English, from the Mayor, his wife, and the Handler, asking about my recovery. The inquiries were very caring and concerned, but soon became overwhelming. When I protested, the Mayor explained that they are obligated to check up on me, as the accident happened at their home, and they feel responsible. I told him that I am not, in fact, the delicate lotus flower they believed me to be, that I was healing just fine, and asked politely that they stop messaging me. Finally, they did. I finished the job about three weeks after I started it. The Handler was at my side during all the remaining ladder work, and they had bought a new ladder. Also bamboo.
Today, three and a half months later, I still feel pain and have limited mobility in my right elbow and left wrist almost every day.
All of us who work with ladders have fall-stories. Those of us who are middle aged or older seem to have a sense of stoic acceptance to our injuries. For me, this sense says, “You have had two really bad falls. You have re-lived these falls hundreds of times, usually standing at the top of a ladder, causing anxiety at work. Your body is feeling the results of these injuries on a daily basis. If you fall one more time, you should find another career.”
But really, should I wait until the third fall comes?
I stretch my limbs daily, and I strengthen them twice or three times a week. I have to remind myself, constantly, that I chose this career. I could have had many others. Each would come with its own set of occupational hazards, some physical, and some mental. Sitting at a desk, indoors, all day, for example, would cause me significant mental distress.
The choice to go from ladders and traditional cleaning to watered pole systems often comes to window cleaners in middle age, when the carefree, immortal attitude of youth crashes into the reality and physical limitations of aging. I completely understand that. But, for a variety of valid reasons, I stubbornly choose and stick to “trad” cleaning. Nose to glass. I love this work. I am happiest at work.
But I need to be real with myself. Maybe I only have a few years left of this. Until then, I accept my human fragility, and resolve to be more careful. I am devoted to window cleaning until I decide not to be. I am unbroken, so far.
See the video of my tumble, and other Window Ninja content, on YouTube.