A Familiar, Univited Guest: Pain
Pain. Pain is something that comes and goes with age. As young children living relatively healthy lifestyles, getting a lot of outdoor exercise, running races, riding bikes, climbing the jungle gym, jumping over hydrants … no, we didn’t have P.E. classes then, but we really didn’t need them. Our muscles were consistently in use, as were our creative imaginations. But occasionally, someone would break something, and feel real pain.
As teenagers growing up in the city, we were aware of territorial rights and the physical pain that might be inflicted should one cross barriers at the wrong time. There were fist fights, and there was running. Running was actually good exercise, as long as it wasn’t a sudden burst of unusual energy. Most of us ran as often for fun as for safety, and unless we fell or turned an ankle on a curbstone, pain wasn’t a factor in our teen years. Cuts and scrapes on asphalt roads and cement sidewalks did hurt more than a tumble on a dirt road might … we were pretty familiar with Mercurochrome, preferable to the dreaded iodine. Soap and water could also sting. Most of us avoided that by not telling our parents that we’d been on the run from a different neighborhood group. As a result, we had what is almost unheard of today: pus. Raised, yellowed scabs that festered on knees and elbows and then fell off, leaving new pink skin beneath exposed to the sun and dirt of the city. ‘No skin off my nose’ is a phrase we learned to respect.
As adults, we used some of our muscles less consistently, but continued to believe that they would be responsive when we called on them now and then. And we learned the truth in another phrase: ‘use it or lose it.’ In time the pain of childbirth, or of headaches caused by long hours of study or reading without eyeglasses, or the numbing pain of near-frostbite when we first went to ski or ice skate without the right socks or gloves would remind us that we were mortal, and subject to whatever risks we dared entertain. Some who joined gym programs enthusiastically heard the phrase ‘No pain, no gain,’ and learned to judge their own progress by the lessening of pain as well as the strengthening of muscles.
And then we age. And everything we had taken for granted in those younger years is now remembered nostalgically. When a group of young adults would whirl past me in a school corridor I would find myself shrinking back against the walls, seeking stability. I would marvel at the weight of their backpacks, and the ease with which they would sling them over one shoulder and run down the stairs without tripping or stumbling. I would remember then how swiftly I’d run through the neighborhoods and the subway stations, feeling as though I could fly down those wooden escalators to catch an incoming train, and how easily I would squish myself into the crowded train before the doors would close.
Today I caused a pain to return. It’s a pain I’ve had before, and I’ve become accustomed to its presence. I know what its triggers are, and I most often avoid them. I’ve had a few trips to the emergency room on weekends when primary care doctors aren’t on call. Sometimes I’ve been brought there by an ambulance, and other times as a passenger in our truck. Neither rides are comfortable when a lower back pain has taken up residence, but the treatment available at the end of the ride is worth the discomfort en route. Of course, avoiding the triggers is better.
What triggered today? As many times as Rick has told me to call him upstairs if I’m going to bring laundry down, and he will bring it down for me, today was one of those days when I forgot about that trigger, and assumed that a single basket of clothes would not be much of an effort. But half-way down the staircase, I felt it approach. By the bottom of the staircase, I felt the need to put the basket down and call Rick. But did I do that? No, I didn’t have much farther to walk to the washing machine. Of course, when I got there and opened the door, I bent down to pull out the load that had finished washing last night, and Pain reared its ugly head and kept me in that ‘bent over like a number 7’ position. I straightened up slowly, carefully, paying my dues for having ignored a trigger. And I thought of another phrase that I’ve ruefully come to understand: ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’
Of course, today is Saturday, and the primary care doctors are not on call. I won’t have to go to the emergency room today, for the pain is beginning to ease. I’ve put on the ‘corset’ brace that the orthopedic doctor prescribed when he saw me in the hospital last visit. It does work well to hold me up straight whether standing or sitting, easing the pressure on my lower back, and banishing, eventually, Pain to its sultry hideaway. It will lurk there, waiting for my next event of poor judgement and forgotten triggers. It will return then, and remind me, nostalgically: there are better days ahead.