My Father’s Fall: A Reminder of What’s Important

My father fell recently. I was out-of-town so Patti rushed him to an emergency room. Fortunately, he  hadn’t broken anything, but it turns out that a bone bruise is equally as painful as a broken bone. It takes time to heal, especially when you are 91 years old.

Doctors think he fell because he got out of his favorite living room chair too quickly. This caused him to black out. He insists that he was only unconscious for a few seconds. My mother says it was several terrifying minutes.

My father is from the “old school.” Even today when we go to lunch, he insists on paying the check. He is a loving and kind father, but he has always been a tough taskmaster. He expected his three children when they were young to do what he asked without question.

Each year our family would travel from Colorado to New Jersey on my father’s two-week long summer vacation to visit my aunt. We made the trip in a beat -up Ford Falcon station wagon that my brother had painted green with a paint brush because my father didn’t want to waste money paying for it to be professionally spray painted. Back in those days, the interstate highway system hadn’t been completed. Our route took us through major cities, beginning with Kansas City then on to St. Louis and Indianapolis.  It was only when we reached the Pennsylvania turnpike that my father was able to drive without having to slam on the brakes because a farmer had pulled onto the two-way highway on his tractor or there’d been an accident that caused miles of backed-up traffic. My brother, sister and I always were excited when we reached the turnpike for other reasons than divided roads. Our drive took us through several tunnels cut into the state’s western mountains. Of course, we always held our breath to see who could keep from exhaling as we passed through the tunnels. The other reason why we looked forward to the turnpike was because my father always stopped at the first Howard Johnson that we came to in Pennsylvania. It  offered 23 different flavors of ice cream.

During one trip, we were caught in a downpour. All of the motels that night had their NO VACANCY signs illuminated. As it grew later and later, I became more and more anxious. What would we do? Where would we sleep? Were we lost? Finally, I curled up in the car’s back seat, confident that my father would get our family safely through this storm to a safe place where we could spend the night. He did. I woke up in a motel bed to the sunshine outside and my mother hurrying us along for another full day of traveling. It was a three day drive to my aunt’s house outside Camden.

When my father fell, I was doing publicity for my new book. I had to cut that campaign short. My publisher, Simon and Schuster, ended up losing money because of this, but the publicist, Justina Bachelor, was gracious about it. I hurried home.

My parents have lived with Patti and me for two years now and our roles have  reversed. If memory serves me correct, it was Shakespeare who wrote that we come into this world helpless, toothless and hairless, and that is also how many of us will exit it. It is the circle of life, but it is not an easy one to witness sometimes. Becoming dependent is difficult for my father and mother too. Patti and I are now the primary caretakers, driving my parents to their doctors’ appointments, taking them shopping, and making sure that they get to church each Sunday. They never miss.

My father’s fall was one of those surprises that occasionally slap us  in the face, a reminder of the unpredictibility and fragility of life. It was also one of those moments that we feel whenever tragedy strikes and we are reminded of how little is actually under our own control, as well as, what is and isn’t really important in our lives.

As the parent of an adult son with a mental disorder, I have had many such reminders.

One of the lessons that I have learned is that you must appreciate the good days and not lose hope during the worst ones.

I think that is a lesson that those of us, who love someone with a mental illness, understand better than most.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Sorry to hear about your Dad, Pete. Hard for them, and hard for us, to see our parent’s independence dwindle. That really says it all when you say,  “we must appreciate the good days and not lose hope during the worst ones.” That about sums it up for me, and it’s not a bad way to look at life. Sometimes that’s all we can do.

  2. Lynda Johnston Vance says

    I I hope your dad recover is swift. My parents still live four house down fron where your parents lived in Tulsa mother is 84 daddy is 89. I’ve seen a lot mental deterioration mentally the past year. Mother some but dady a lot. As of yet they still can operate independently but I know that day is coming that I will basically have to move in. Daddy would never agree to move. Mother would in a heart beat. The neighbor hood is not the same.

    It is so scary when they get ill or take a fall. So sending good thoughts and prayers your way.

  3. I remember the time when my dad was in a hospital with terminal cancer. We had just gotten my brother admitted into a different hospital’s psych ward (through police chases and other extreme dramas) and were driving back and forth between hospitals to visit both dad and my brother each day.  We thought it best not to upset dad and tell him his only son, the young man who never gave him a single day of grief, whom he was so incredibly proud of… was in a psych ward.  I remember having to lie to dad and not tell him where his son was & that everything was just fine, but he knew something was wrong when he saw my face.  We did our best to pretend, lie and deny for our father’s sake and to allow him to die in peace and without the pain of knowing his son was severely ill.  I can honestly say that I had never lied to my father about anything in my life, up until that moment.  I had so desperately wanted at my father’s hospital bed…to just have my father hug me and tell me things were all going to be ok; for me, his youngest daughter, to be comforted by her father’s strength, courage and leadership.  But I realized that  I was now the family “leader” and my dad was the “child” as was my brother.  Having my dad in one hospital with terminal cancer while my brother was in another hospital in a psychotic state was too much for me.  We had no other family/friends or support system whatsoever; just me, my mom and my sister, clueless about mental illness and terminal cancer. I remember making medical life & death decisions for both of them at the same time as my mom was in a traumatized state of shock and unable to make any informed decisions.   In the time before my father died, my brother was released from the hospital.  Three days after we buried my father, my brother had another deep psychotic break and was admitted to the psych ward, this time through, more extreme dramas involving police and the national coast guard.  I was just grateful to my brother for “hanging on” through the funeral and burial of our father as we were fearful he might suddenly “break” at the wake or cemetary services.  A surreal “video” repeatedly played in my head that consisted of me chasing after my brother between the tombstones and lush open fields at the cemetary as the priest tried to finish the service while the coffin was lowered into the ground.

    My story is very much the same story for millions of others.  And I can honestly say, that in those moments in the hospitals, in those days of enduring the unbearable grief and trauma driving back and forth from death to insanity and insanity to death, the only thing I desperately wanted to do more than anything else in the world, was run through the emergency exit hospital doors and keep running as fast as possible until I couldn’t run anymore and my heart gave out….  But I didn’t.  And in the name of love, neither will you, as a family member or relative of somebody who has severe mental illness.