It occurred to me one day I needed to see my spine specialist. When you deal with chronic pain, you learn to ignore it most of the time. Unless you want to wind up addicted to pain killers, it’s the only option. It’s not bravery. It’s a practical decision. Do I want to keep participating in life? Then I have to deal with what I have to deal with. That’s the way it goes.
Long time ago, I was doing my mother’s hair. I liked fixing her hair. It was easy to style, thick, silver and just a bit wavy. I asked her to turn her head to the right, and she did. When I asked her to turn the other way, she said “I can’t.”
“You can’t? Why not?”
“Because my head won’t turn that way.”
That seemed a curious answer. “What do you mean by that?”
“My neck is stiff.”
“Um, mom? How long has it been like this?”
She thought for a while. “Fifteen years? Something like that.”
That stopped me. Fifteen years? “Have you seen anyone about it?”
“No,” she said. “I figured I was just getting old.”
At the time, I thought her statement was bizarre. It turned out she had treatable but advanced tendonitis and it got better. She hated doctors.
Time marched on. I’m older than my mother was then. I totally relate to her response. When I called the doctor for an appointment, I discovered the last time I saw him was more than six years ago. To be fair, I’ve had a few medical crises since then and I got distracted. Besides, I know what’s wrong with my back. It isn’t going to kill me. I’ve lived with it most of my life. I’m used to it and do my best to ignore it.
Recently, though I’m having trouble walking, even on flat surfaces and going up and down stairs is especially difficult. It crossed my mind there might be something he could do — some medical magic — to improve me without major surgery. I already know surgery isn’t an option.
My doctor is wonderful. The best. The only doctor who can look at my spine, not gasp with horror and immediately decide I need to be rebuilt with screws, pins, and bolts. He’s a minimalist, medically speaking. I like that.
I made an appointment and got lucky because there was a cancellation. It usually takes five or six months to get to see him, but I only had to wait a few weeks. He’s the king of spines in Boston, maybe in the country. I would have willingly waited six months if I had to. Of course, as soon as I made the appointment, I had to make another appointment because I need new films of my spine. I also haven’t had a CT scan or MRI in six years and he isn’t going to be able to do much without new films.
I wondered how come I hadn’t processed the fact I can’t walk normally? I suppose I wasn’t paying attention. I was busy ignoring pain.
I was being my mother. She taught me to be a soldier. She didn’t use Novocaine when she got her teeth worked on. I asked her why. She said “Pain is good for your character.”
She meant it. I grew up believing giving in to pain was a weakness. To a degree it serves me well, but sometimes it’s dangerous. If you ignore the wrong stuff, it can kill you. One needs to find balance, but it isn’t so easy.
Watching a documentary on Ethel Kennedy reminded me of my mother, minus all the money. Mom was an athlete. I’m sure she wondered how she wound up with such a klutzy daughter. She had been a good tennis player. She rode horses, she played ice hockey. She went bob sledding. She painted, sculpted, designed and made her own clothing. She also never got past seventh grade, so she made up for it by reading everything. She had a truly voracious appetite for life and knowledge.
After a radical mastectomy, she couldn’t play tennis anymore, so she played a ferocious game of ping-pong. She played savagely. She served so hard it was more like a bullet than a ping-pong ball. As a family, we vacationed in dinky little resorts in the Catskills where there was no entertainment. The one thing they always had was a ping-pong table. So I played against my mother.
She didn’t believe in any of that “let the kid win” stuff. She was a competitor. You won or lost. Trying hard was irrelevant because she expected nothing less. She slaughtered me. As I got older, I played better but she always beat me. She told me she was giving me an advantage by playing with her left hand. I knew she wrote with her right hand, so I assumed she was a rightie. Until the day my aunt told me she had always played tennis with her left hand. My mother was psyching me out. Her own daughter.
I never beat her, but I beat everyone else.
She passed me her determination to never give up, to do everything I could as well as I could. Later in life, I realized I didn’t always have to be the best. Playing a game for fun is worth something too. Another lesson learned a bit late.
The older I get, the more I remind me of my mother.
So I went to my doctor and he told me there was nothing he could do except reduce the pain. Temporarily. No fix. No drug. It is what it is. Progressive. Irreversible. I sighed and accepted it. I had hoped there was something he could do. Not to be.
We all miss stuff. Some of it intentionally, more accidentally. Sometimes, I miss important something because I’m busy ignoring something else.
I am an apple. Mom was my tree. I fell, but not far.