When I think of pain, I think of Billie Holiday.
To be fair, what I really imagine is Diana Ross’s performance of “Good Morning Heartache” in the sad, sweet, tragic movie, “Lady Sings The Blues”. I think of pain as a constant presence, lurking in a bad suit from the 1950s, slumped in a boudoir chair in the corner of a messy, fragrant, frilly bedroom, with me sitting at the dressing table casting a baleful eye in its direction.
I came to the world “in the usual way”, arriving on time after an easy delivery, on Labor Day in 1955. My first year and a half passed without fanfare, but at eighteen months, I sat down on my little bottom and refused to take another step. The diagnosis for the swelling in my knees came from a doctor at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis: “Sceptic arthritis”. I didn’t hear the word “viral encaphilitis” until the 1980s, when the virus, unknown to modern science when it first attacked my brain, awakened and began another round of gleeful havoc.
The aftermath of the virus’s two runs in my brain causes neurological pain, spasticity, and asthma. That virus, HHV6, might well be the cause of my heart problems and my sleep issues. Ah, well.
In between and after all that muck, I’ve suffered the normal number of ailments. At eighteen, an Oldsmobile parked itself on my right hip (to be fair, the door of the Gremlin in which I was a passenger shielded and trapped me). I broke the arch of my right foot dancing the Chicken Dance at my first wedding. An elbow fractured when I slid in gravel pushing my second husband in his manual wheelchair at the Minnesota State Fair. When my knee replacement fought with my spasticity, a well-intentioned ortho guy prescribed Baclefen; in the resultant wobble, the little finger of my right hand splintered on the asphalt of our driveway. Right ankle broken twice; left wrist once; left ring-finger (wedding ring saved) once; and I’m told several disintegrating discs in my back remain intact only due to their entwinement with a Tarlov cyst, which might otherwise be a candidate for surgical removal.
Okay, so — maybe a few more than the normal number of ailments. When emergency room nurses ask me to assess my pain on a scale of 0 to 10, all I can think of is, “Not as bad as my mother must have felt dying a long, slow death of metastatic uterine cancer that hit her bones, lungs and brain before she died, but worse than when my knee shattered against the windshield of a VW driven by an uninsured Iranian”. Everybody loves a wise guy.
And why, you find yourself thinking, have I detailed all of this pathetic history? My purpose hovers between the lines: To tell you how blessed I am, and how deeply I understand that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I stand, one person in a line of millions, looking backward at every person staggering forward in the queue behind me; and forward, to those whose struggles have preceded mine. All I can think is this: Thank my lucky stars that I’ve been able to overcome the adversities with only a few bruised egos.
Because there are days when the pain does, indeed, make me cranky. I snap at my secretary and the server at Starbucks. I shrink away from a smiling stranger and her outstretched hand. I slam doors, and shove chairs out of the way, and demand to know who left these things here don’t you know I can trip over damn near anything???? I turn away from the hurt in eyes that have gazed on me with love and devotion. I’ve never kicked the dog but I’ve been tempted.
One doctor called me “One tough cookie; too stubborn not to live”. Another advises me every year to use a wheelchair. I thank him and decline. Lately, though, I’ve wondered at the cost to others of my dedication to answering my mother’s call. She told me, decades ago, “Walk every day of your life, and you will walk every day of your life.” In other words: Don’t sit down. But the cost of my continued quest to keep on walking might be the ruination of an otherwise tolerable disposition.
Unless, of course, I can securely harness my proclivity to complain about the pain.
That, methinks, will be the most magnificent collateral benefit of this quest of mine. Stay tuned!