Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her fall. Slowly. In slow motion.
Her baggy wool sweater and corduroy pants made it hard to tell if this old, falling person was a woman or a man. And gender seems to fall away as we age out of the demands of reproduction, doesn’t it?
She hit one of those massive, sharp-cornered bookcases on the way down. She was at first lilting sideways, overweighted by her tote bag full of borrowed books. And then the weight was too much and down she went like a cut tree falls slowly, first vertically, then sideways. She cried out, and cried out again when she hit the ground.
Once on the ground she yelled again, giving words to her pain and calling for help. I was thankful that she was conscious. If she hadn’t been—or if she had been a man—would I have leapt out of my chair and run over to her like I did? If she didn’t have the voice of a cultured woman? A voice and a request that said she had grown up with enough, suggested her homefulness and that she would smell sweet—or at least not offensive—if I got close?
I took her head in my hands and laid her down gently. I put my hand on her shoulder like I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I spoke soothing words and sent her love through my hands. Perhaps I was being sweet, but it is her sweetness that lingers with me.
I wished I had known more what to do. But I didn’t, so I talked. I asked her if she was from Santa Barbara.
—Born and raised, she said.
I asked her name.
I told her my own name, that I was just visiting, and that I come from Oakland.
—That rabble rousing city, she said. And I laughed lightly. Gently to not inflame her injury and her fragile, greying state.
She told me I had to go see the botanical gardens while I was in town. And the courthouse—there’s no other building like it. And the Alice Keck Memorial Park and Gardens.
—They’re beautiful, she said, closing her eyes tight as she said it. —Just beautiful.
I’m nearing the end of my time in Santa Barbara and I have not been to any of these places. These places that a 75-year-old woman who has lived here all her life can still describe with such a kind of awe that she has to close her eyes so tight and purse her whole face just to keep it together in the face of such beauty.
As the paramedics wheeled Diane away, sitting up on a stretcher, she waved to the librarians with a pained smile. That kind of wave where your hand is still but you move your fingers—either altogether or in a wave.
She didn’t look to the back corner to wave goodbye. I don’t think she ever saw my face.