My sister and I have different memories of our mother’s pain. Camille recalls Mother going into her bedroom—directly off the dining room—and crying.
I recall Mother going into her bedroom and lying down after lunch. I knew not to disturb her. She’d been on her feet since before dawn and I figured she deserved the rest. I didn’t connect this daily quiet time as a way to manage pain.
Much later, I realized how much our mother suffered in silence. She didn’t complain. She didn’t blame. She didn’t make her pain ours. But pain isolates us. It can make us bitter. It can shrink the world to our small sphere and put us at its center to the exclusion of everything else.
Mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her 30s. It came as no surprise. Her mother had had arthritis, which eventually turned her hands into bent fists. Mother’s arthritis wasn’t just in her hands. Her shoulders, arms, and back ached. As the bones in her feet crumbled, walking became painful. The largely manual labor that constitutes managing a house and 3 children took its toll.
Despite this evidence—heredity and Mother’s hard-to-ignore swollen joints and crippled fingers—I had decided I wasn’t going to suffer. I gardened relentlessly. I carried things much heavier than I should have. I denied a chronic disease that had been in the female DNA of my family for generations. Arthritis was something other people had. Something old people had. Even when my brother, beginning in his 40s, mentioned the stiffness in his neck as arthritis, I refused to see what his pain had to do with me.
One thing my siblings and I agree on, now that we recognize arthritis in our own bodies, is that Mother suffered. When I was in grade school she underwent an experimental treatment. Desperate for relief, she had liquid gold injected into her bloodstream. The gold had been shown to reduce the inflammation that brought on pain.
Instead of the improvement she’d hoped for, she discovered she was allergic to gold. Open sores covered her entire body. Doctors doing their daily rounds gave her more attention than she liked. When she came home from the hospital, she lay wrapped in a white sheet on a lawn chair in our den. She didn’t want to stain the furniture.
After that, Mother returned to the typical oral meds, graduating to methotrexate, a chemo drug that also counters the symptoms of arthritis. The stronger the meds, the harder it was for her sensitive stomach to tolerate. In her last years, she wore a fentanyl patch. It didn’t take away the pain but eased it considerably.
Unused to having much discomfort, I was blindsided this past weekend by lower back pain, neck pain, and swelling in my thumb joints, where my arthritis mostly lives. My hands were on fire.
Pain does something to a person. Pain is something we often suffer alone, in silence. It pulls us into ourselves. Suddenly that seemed too much. I couldn’t hold all the pain myself. I called my daughter and blurted, “I’m scared.” What if this pain persisted? What if I suddenly couldn’t bathe or get dressed or lift a pan off the stove? What if I couldn’t drive? What if the life I had taken for granted was no longer possible?
That’s the degree to which I’d been in denial. I believed that I would fare better than most. I couldn’t accept the full weight of what being human, what aging, entails. My blind faith that I could prove myself again and again ignored one simple fact: my fate is the same as yours.
I trace my back and neck pain back to overdoing it at the gym, but the flare-up in my hands remains a mystery. After a day of much rest and ice packs, I am better.
The person coming out of pain is humbled. I felt myself again, joyfully, not just a dark knot of cells raging inside. How quickly pain caused me to forget, just as quickly as its absence restored me.
As I scrolled through e-mails early this morning, I learned that a friend’s husband, still in his 40s, had died. He’d had brain cancer for 4 years. In the loving arms of his family, he took his last breath. He had had numerous surgeries, many rounds of chemo and radiation, cautious times when he seemed to be winning.
Through it all—the pain, the setbacks, and his brave openness—he loved life and all the people in it. He admitted his fear. In doing so, he didn’t let it defeat him.
My one bad day pales to others’ chronic pain and ultimate loss. But it was the reminder I needed.