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The Maltese Fall

March 30th, 2012 · 9 Comments · Real-life Adventure Tales

The  Maltese  Fall



It’s Friday, May 15th, 1998, our final port of call, Valletta, Malta, the ancient capital, site of The Great Siege, home of the thousand-year-old Knights of St. John, the nomadic Christian healers who were granted refuge on the island by the Emperor of Spain in 1530 for the rent of two Maltese Falcons a year, and where hundreds of these noble Knights’ brass & marble tombs checkerboard the cathedral floor where Mom fell and broke her shoulder in two places and cracked her kneecap across the middle.

Okay, so what happened was . . .

We’d gotten off the ship late, about 1:30 in the afternoon, having slept through our morning shore excursion, and we were just taking it easy on our final island day before disembarkation in Rome.  We took a cab from the ship for $11 American dollars, the Unofficial European Currency, and rode past the old walls with cannonball and mortar wounds spanning 5 centuries of wars, past the wide moat now a pasture and garden, to the head of Republic Street, the spine of the Valletta hump.

We walked along the sporadic sidewalk having a celebratory time, reflecting on the trip in a comfortable flowing last day groove.  It was so obvious we were having a good time together we were even talking about how good a time we were having together talking.

The old predominantly-pedestrian streets were uneven and Mom kept stumbling a little, having to watch either the ground or the stores, but sadly never both.  We stopped by a friendly bank and looked in a phone book for my old superintendent who returned to Malta and I found about 30 Paul Grima’s in town. The tour continued.

We walked into the beautiful side rooms that stretch off the nave and each is a complete work of art unto itself with sculpted ceilings, statues, plaques and design.  We reached the last one, the furthest point toward the altar we could, and climbed up the final two stairs to listen to the Cathedral’s heart, and I smile and whisper, “We should take a picture.”

Mom says, “Okay.  Let me take one of you,” as she usually does.  I pulled our disposable and by now only camera out of my black sidebag and hand it to her.  She looks at it, holds it up like generally framing a shot, and I go, “Maybe take it from back there,” pointing to the wider perspective.  Mom says, “Okay,” and starts to walk there forgetting we’ve gone up the two shallow church-style steps and suddenly tumbles forward, her white sun-protecting suit timbering straight down like a tree, her left knee cracking the cold marble first, then she bounces toward the other side, her right shoulder pounding hard into the slab, her hands splay, the camera slides and her head crashes into the stiff wide brim of her Tilley hat, sunglasses go flying and she’s crying a winded “Ouuuuuu.”

As soon as she comes to a stop, she rolls from her right side to her front, then over on her left.  I’m still on the top step watching in split-second shock, running quickly through, “This isn’t happening,”  “She’ll be okay,” “Am I seeing this?” “Noooo.”

“Oh Brian, I think I broke my shoulder,” she says, and I run down beside her.

“You didn’t break your shoulder.  I didn’t hear anything.  You kind of rolled into it.”  But she wasn’t looking so good holding her right arm and all.  “I’ll go get an ambulance. You stay still.  I’ll be right back,” and I ran off, jogging through the peaceful, somber church, trying not to alarm either praying parishioners or swiveling sightseers.  I ran to a guy at the desk of the pay-for-a-Caravaggio museum wing.  I tell him mom’s just fallen and we need an ambulance and this sort of throws him for a good Malta Minute but he says he’ll call.  When I run back to Mom it seems a whole bunch more people have suddenly entered the church, probably on a bus tour from our cruise I figure as I cut across the floor as invisible as a streaker, then right in front of me a woman with a panicked look comes running out of the room where Mom is.  I tell her its okay, I’m her son, an ambulance is coming, and keep running past her.

A few people are now gathered:  a blond Dutch girl steps forward saying she’s an officer from the Rotterdam and helps in the comforting.  We roll her on her back onto the oh-so-solid marble floor.  A middle-aged man in a blue work shirt rushes in with the guy I told to call the ambulance and he cocks his head sideways and looks at Mom slowly.  “Is an ambulance coming?” I ask.

“Yes, yes.  I am in charge of the church,” the super-looking man says.

“Well?” I ask, and they both rush out to either call or to check on it.

We keep Mom stable, gathering in her stuff.  People come in, see this woman on the floor and some just go right on with their touring, examining the walls and statues quite leisurely, then stealing glances at their fellow traveler wounded on another tour of duty, felled in the crevasses while following in the paths of the ancient masters, reaching for the holy chalice, the source, the peace, the memory, the answer to take home and live by – or to die as we try by.

Fortunately we were up near the heart hearth in the furthest little side room of the church or we’d be obliged to set up a ticket booth to control the crowds. It became the St. John’s pilgrimage of the day to see Mom.  Then in the distance we finally heard the cavalry’s bugle (or “ambulance siren”) cutting across clip-cloppitty Malta, breaking like a beacon of daybreak over our nightingale’s knightbed.

An orange jumpsuited ambulance guy comes in and is very nice but says he can only take her to the Malta Hospital, in fact also letting slip in his broken English that that’s the only way he can get paid.  All along Mom’s been saying her shoulder’s broken and her knee really hurts — but she wants to go back to the ship and no where else, and is determinedly sticking to this despite her pain, horizontal countenance, and the insistence of the uniformed ambulance corps.

So finally the little orange Maltian handwrites a note that I sign saying we refuse to go to the hospital, and then he and the super and everybody in the room gets swept up in the spirit of this lady in white on the middle of the marble floor and we all begin working to get her back to the ship.

The Maltian wheels in his stretcher past the newly assembled two-bus throng, and after great anticipation it’s Mom and I who emerge from around the granite column curtain, get wheeled through the crowd, then out into the white-light square where the ambulance’s warning lights have been spinning on this sunny and peaceful May afternoon.

They wheel Mom to the curbside cab I caught, and she hops into the left front seat beside the driver in this English-style car and country.  The extra-nice driver reminded me of the poet Andy Clausen as he joyfully drove us out of the square and down the hill to the Rotterdam.  After we lowered a grimacing Mom into a slippery wheelchair she leaned over and asked me in a whisper if I gave the driver a nice tip.

Then this prick of a white-suited Security asshole from the ship said he wouldn’t help lift her up the few stairs because he was afraid of being sued or something, so, ignoring him, I quickly grabbed the cab driver, a T-shirt vender, one of the Indonesian crew, and myself and we lifted the chair up the few stairs to the gangway, and we were finally back on Mom’s ship.

The Indonesian crewmate pushed her to the Infirmary where Linda the nurse I’d talked to as we pulled into Gibraltar and after Barcelona was on duty.  After Mom found out we had spoken, she always wanted to get a tour of the ship’s Infirmary – only not this way.

It turned out the ship’s doctor was from Brockville, Ontario, the insurance company was from Waterloo, and the patient was from Oakville!  After the X-rayed perspective, the doctor came in with the old “I have good news and bad news.”

“Tell me the bad news first,” Mom said, without the slightest hesitation.

“Your right humerus has two fractures up near the shoulder, and your left patella (kneecap) has a one-sixteenth inch crack through the middle,” he says, with a pause.  “The good news is both can be repaired.”  But Mom never even heard good news part.

They stabilized her onboard and she traveled the rest of the way in a bed of pillows in our cabin.  As soon as we get to port, they said, they’re sending an ambulance along with a local port guide expert translator to take us to an English speaking hospital in Rome.  All is well if we can just “hold ‘er steady,” as we mariners say.

That night was the ship’s formal Farewell Dinner in the dining room, so we had it delivered, and the next day was a full day at sea before disembarking in Rome on Sunday morning.  (Cruiselines often schedule the final day of long cruises as an “at sea” day so everyone can pack their formalwear, pull their voyage-ravaged selves together, and get rid of the last of their money onboard before the early morning disembarkation.)

I made my final rounds around the ship during Mom’s painkiller downtime, and as part of my closing night ceremonies I laid me down on the off-limits front bow beneath the scattershot stars until after several soaring flights of peace they eventually sent someone with a flashlight to fetch me – and Lo it was the same Dutch officer from the fallindown cathedral!  So we had a warm final twinkle like the stars, and my final evening of “The Mediterranean Mellow” cruising peace sailed off into the distance.

It was all to end in more ways than one as soon as we rolled down the gangway and were placed in the back of the first ambulance.  Linda the nurse stuck her head in the open side door like we were trapped on a helicopter landing pad at a M*A*S*H unit.  With the chaos of disembarkation raging all around us, she squeezed my arm goodbye and wished us luck and I got choked up trying to say “Thank you” and she knew how close to the edge I was all along.

There was some momentary delay in us pulling away and just before the side door slid closed for good I hopped out and asked the closest red blazer holding a clipboard, “If I need any help with this while I’m here, where should I call?” sort of surprised he hadn’t offered, and damn glad I wrote the number down correctly.

Things were mostly tolerable until the moment the ambulance doors closed and we pulled away from the ship.  Then it turned out there were no actual shock absorbers on the ambulance, so it was like riding on steel wheels over cobblestones in a Middle Aged carriage.  I kept reassuring Mom a smooth street was ahead but one never came.

I had been looking forward to seeing Italians again ever since my great hit in Florence, and sure enough, the attendant was a stunning 19-year-old Cindy Crawford, and the driver was jet black-haired Alec Baldwin.  Except they spoke maybe 7 words of English between them, but then who really cares?  Cindy’s chewing gum about a foot from my face and starring at me like I’m a pet in a cage. She leans over and says something to Alec with bad-day-at-the-office enthusiasm, and he echoes in downtrodden kind.

Something seemed askew but everything was new so I didn’t have a clue.

We get to the hospital, and within seconds realize no one in the emergency room can speak a word of English despite their earnest efforts to learn English by immediately lighting cigarettes and starring into our medical report from different angles.  In less than a minute I’d whispered to Mom, “Don’t worry, we won’t be staying here,” and went off to find a telephone.

I put 500 lire in the lobby box, but of course the number the redcoat gave me was out of order.  Okay  ….  Glad I got it down right.  I head into the Admissi Officio or whatever where the only girl in the entire place with as much as fragmented English is chain smoking behind bulletproof glass.  Between drags we reach some port supervisor who assures me that the Holland America ship we just got off is not in this port.  “You know, that ten-story ocean liner with 2,000 people that just disembarked?”

“Aaaaaa, let’s see …  hmmm … nope.  Not here.”

So finally I spelled it real slow, he found it, and we got connected to a Holland America Port Agent who made it perfectly clear they weren’t supposed to deal with passengers and left us hanging for hours under the exposed ceiling wires and broken lights dangling above us in this hellspital. While we were waiting for nothing to happen, we watched stray vulture-dogs prowl around the entrance, and I went to the only bathroom, which had no soap, paper towels, or toilet seat.

We were left waiting at first in what Mom finally realized was the Operating Room.  There was a light overhead and the basic operating equipment of a Third World country in the 1940’s – cotton curtains, a ceiling fan with dust caked on the side that spins, paper towels for “scrubbing”, and cigarette butts on the floor.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, while Mom was up being X-rayed, someone in the Emergency Room unzipped her purse and stole her wallet with all our Canadian money and God knows what else.

For the last two hours we were there, they left her on this stainless-steel gurney, which after a while we managed to turn into a seat by propping two of the big suitcases behind her so she had something to sit against.

About three hours later an ambulance arrived, immediately demanding $1,200 U.S. up front to take Mom to the Rome-American Hospital.  When we finally fight it all out and we’re ready to get out of hell, the “doctor” in the ambulance tells us its illegal to take luggage in an ambulance (a lie) and demands we either take it out or he’s driving away (with the $1,200).  Another fight ensues – there’s Mom on the stretcher in the back, three Italian assholes out front, with some stressed-out department store mannequin wannabe “port agent” strutting like a pigeon on a cellphone who said in her broken English as soon as she arrived, “We don’t care about you,” and later when I mentioned that no one in the thousand dollar ambulance could speak English while transporting an English patient to an English hospital, she said, “What do you expect?  You’re in Italy.  Learn Italian or go home.”

So, it was super so far.  We called a cab in the form of a van and had to pay it $130 (U.S.) up front to take our luggage and me the 45 minutes to Rome.

Mom was stabilized on the painkillers the ship had given us.  There was now some teenage boy who hopped in the ambulance as translator and I get in the cab with the luggage and off we go from Hell to Rome, which may not be that far a trip, depending on your view of Rome.  10 minutes in, the cellphone in the van-cab goes off and it turns out the ambulance doesn’t know where the Rome-American Hospital is….

So the ambulidiot tells the luggage van to drive in front of him, then puts on his siren full blast expecting the van driver to part Italian traffic until we’re kamikaze-pinballing along rural Roman roadways past sheep and abandoned 19th century homes and I begin wondering how we would ever have gotten there if we didn’t have our illegal luggage.

About 3 PM we finally arrive at the Rome-American Hospital and the Admissions woman smiles and asks in nearly perfect English if we’d like a room with a couch-bed so the patient and I could stay together!  Mmmmmmmm-

Mom completed her hat trick of X-rays, but this time finds herself in a state-of-the-art photo facility.  I find her lying on a stretcher with a big smile on between two friendly Italian male nurses, Luigi and Marco. The first of several excellent orthopedic doctors comes by, confirms the two chips off the old humerus and the sidesplitting kneecap, and for the first time Mom’s talking about having the operation here instead of getting home as fast as we can.

Later that night the Chief Orthopedic Surgeon walks in and Mom immediately starts choking on her dinner.  “I didn’t think I was that ugly,” he smiles, sticking out his hand.  “I’m Dr. Falez.”  ( “Our Savior,” in Canadian.)  He’s just finished two years at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and Mom has an immediate good hit off him.  He’s a nice friendly bilingual bicultural intelligent speedy and happening kind of guy.  We like him.

Then in comes the big-smiling globetrotting Danish sleep doctor (or “anesthesiologist”) which is exactly what Mom used to do at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.  They discussed methods, drugs, pioneers, and he explained how nowadays there isn’t the long and drowsy recovery period since they give patients shots to wake them up again immediately afterward.

Mom has confidence, I drink the wine they bring us with dinner, and surgery is set for 7 PM tomorrow – our first full day on dry land in weeks.

On “Operation Monday,” Mom couldn’t eat because she was going under a general anesthetic due to the dual operations – both hemispheres, both halves.  A) she had 3 broken bones floating around inside;  B) she’d been on painkillers non-stop for 4 days;  and C) now they were now starving her all day!  It turned out she got to have a “trip” in Rome after all.  “Look! There’s a spider coming down on a web,” she said pointing, and I’m squinting at thin air.

“Look, there’s a pair of them sliding on ice.  I’ve been watching them for a while.”

“Oh, I’m not even going to point these ones out.  These are my private ones,” she says smiling into the corner.

It was so cute.  She was seeing all sorts of movies on this flight, and seemed to be enjoying a window seat.

Around 6:15 the white team came in and wheeled her off.  I kissed her goodbye, wished her luck, and she said, “I’ll see you when you get back.”  🙂

While she was gone I repacked our luggage until 9:30 when I heard a paradiddle of many men’s shoes in the tiled hall and the doctor and his team came bursting in the big hospital door with beaming smiles and hands outstretched saying the operation went well and that I can go down to Intensive Care and see her.  They explained the procedures – two screws here, a wire wrap there – and they were out the door again in a minute.

I went down to see her but poor old Mom was scared ‘cause she was really trippin’ now.  “I feel like I’ve eaten a whole bunch of ice cream, and I just couldn’t eat anymore,” she said.  “Where am I?”

We hung for a while in The Zone, I held her hand, we smiled and she felt better.  After a while I pointed out how, “All the other patients were sleeping quietly and maybe you could be a good girl and do that too.”

“Noooo.  No, Brian.  I’m so full.”

She slept the night, and I went back to the hotel room, I mean hospital room, feet up on our private balcony listening to Aretha strokin’ the spirit while sipping colorful tequila sunrises over banquets of spring flowers, scripting melodious flights of Italian impressions in the lines of a leaf-green notebook.

When morning had broken the recovery began.  With the patient stabilized, I bolted in and did the old Rome-In-A-Day routine, spending two hours in the Sistine Chapel, catching the most amazing building in town – St. Peter’s Basilica – went roamin’ the Roman Forum, combing the Coliseum, contemplating on some columns crumbling in a park, drinking Heineken overlooking plazas of tourists and dregs dressed in Roman soldier’s garb posing for pictures.  At the Spanish Steps, the locals cheered an amazing amazon model in a spandex leopard-skin bra and ultra mini-skirt, shoulder tattoo and spiked heels stalking up and down the Steps.  Then I meditated in a park on a hill overlooking the city, and finished up at the old Washington Square Park-like Trevi Fountain of youth.

The next day Mom was okay to go so we flew up the Italian coast, over the Alps, and back to Toronto in four palatial Business Class seats.

Everything seems stable for the moment, and Mom seems to be in great spirits.

Jest keepin’ ya toasted.




= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

For more Adventure Tales, you might enjoy . . .

The Jumping Out Of A Car While Being Robbed, Kidnapped or Killed Story.

or … Setting A Driving Record on First Avenue in New York.

or … the wild physical confrontation both Al Franken and I got caught up in at a Howard Dean rally in New Hampshire.

or … the time I jumped on the Pittsburgh Penguins team bus during the playoffs.

or … that whole Long Island mansions Adventure with Steve Winwood, Sheryl Crow, Tom Cruise, Spielberg, Tim & Sarandon.

or … scammed my way into the “On The Road” premiere in London in the courtyard of a palace.

or … snuck backstage at the world premiere of the new “On The Road” in Toronto and met up with Walter Salles.

or … our whole Adventure together at the New York premiere.

or … there was the greatest single night in New York’s history — when Obama first got elected.

or … the worst single night — when John Lennon was murdered.

or … there was the time The Grateful Dead came to town and played my 30th birthday party.

or … the night I went out in the Village with Jack Kerouac’s old friend Henri Cru on his 70th birthday,

or … went running with the Olympic torch when Canada was hosting in 2010.

or … the time I snuck in to Dr. John and ended up hangin with his whole band.

or … the time I found that cat while out waterfalling on the Niagara Escarpment.

or … of course one of the great multi-day Adventures of all time — Obama’s first inauguration.


by Brian Hassett


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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dunc Lennox // Mar 31, 2012 at 10:58 PM

    What an insane crazy adventure. #2406

  • 2 Walli Pagniello // Apr 2, 2012 at 12:54 AM

    What a beautiful story about your mother and you. You two had a special relationship — and know that she will always be there with you.
    Much love,

  • 3 Will Hodgson // Apr 2, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    I remember when you told me about this. But this is a much better version. Enid hallucinating! That I’d pay to see!

  • 4 Deborah Reul // Apr 5, 2012 at 10:12 PM

    I love the chain smoking in the hospitals!! You can tell this didn’t happen last year — even in Italy.
    Whenever it happened it’s a smokin’ story! haha

  • 5 Mitch Potter // Apr 6, 2012 at 11:23 PM

    You two were always on some kind of an adventure. You come by it honestly, my friend. I never saw a parent–child friendship like you two had. Blessings.

  • 6 Ben Kleiman // Apr 8, 2012 at 9:58 AM

    That first hospital sounds crazy!! How can a place like that exist in a first world country?! And what a contrast to the Rome–America Hospital. Thank god you had the chutzpa to get up and leave. But then, that’s you. 😉

  • 7 John Cassady // Apr 15, 2012 at 7:57 PM

    The king and queen of adventure at it again! You have to write a book about all the crazy stories you two lived through.

  • 8 Elizabeth Sutherland // May 5, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    Unbelievable! On top of everything else, they steal your mom’s wallet?!?! And people complain about the hospitals here! Were you in Afghanistan or what? Remind me not to get sick in Italy!
    Glad you both made it out okay.

  • 9 Sarah Cattell // Apr 11, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    “My Summer Abroad” … what a hoot! You told it really funny even though it was kinda tragic. I love the way you tell stories!!

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