It occurred to me one day I really needed to see the spine doctor. When you have chronic pain, you learn to ignore it most of the time. Unless you want to wind up a pill addict, it’s the only option. It’s not being brave. It’s an entirely practical decision. Do I want to keep living? Walking? Participating? Then I have to deal with what I have to deal with. That’s the way it goes. Oh well.
Sometime, when I was in my mid-twenties, 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 this was totally bizarre. It turned out, she had entirely treatable (but advanced) tendonitis and it got better. She hated doctors.
Time has marched on and 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 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 get better or go away. It isn’t going to kill me either. I’ve lived with it most of my life. I’m used to it and generally ignore it. Recently, though I’m having trouble walking, even on flat surfaces and going up and down stairs is hard. My legs don’t seem to want to support me. It crossed my mind that there might be something that could be done to improve it without major reconstruction.
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 and I like that.
So I made an appointment and I got lucky, because there was a cancellation in December. It usually takes five or six months to get in to see him. He’s the king of spines in Boston, maybe in the entire country. I would have willingly waited the 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 properly? I suppose I wasn’t paying attention. Too busy ignoring the pain. I don’t always know I’m doing it, but I was being my mother.
She taught me to be stalwart, a Spartan. She told me she didn’t use Novocaine when she got her teeth worked on. I asked her why not and she said “Pain is good for your character.” She meant it. I grew up believing showing pain or giving in to it was a sign of weakness. To a degree it serves me well, but sometimes it’s dangerous. If you ignore the wrong stuff, they can kill you. One needs a sense of balance, but it isn’t so easy to find.
Watching the documentary on Ethel Kennedy last night reminded me of my mother. Mom was an athlete and I’m sure she always wondered how she have 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 you lost. Trying hard was irrelevant because she expected nothing less. She slaughtered me. As I got older, I played better and 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 that she was a rightie. Until the day my father told me she had always played tennis with her left hand. My mother was psyching me out. Her own daughter.
I still never beat her, but I beat everyone else.
From her, I got a gritty determination to never give up, to do everything as well as it could be done, or at least as well as I could do it. It turns out winning isn’t everything, but I didn’t learn that until I’d already missed a lot. Late in life, I realized I don’t have to be the best. Playing the game because you enjoy it is worth something too. Another lesson learned a bit too late.
The older I get, the more I remind me of my mother.
We all miss so many things. Some intentionally, others accidentally. Sometimes, I miss things accidentally because I’m avoiding other things intentionally. One thing leads to the other.
I wonder what else I’m missing? I know, on this Mother’s day, that I’m definitely missing Mom. I have so much to tell her.