Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
The year 1990 was more than the beginning of a new decade for me. I had just survived three years of traumatic losses, hits to my primal weakness, abandonment. My cousin had committed suicide in 1987. My best friend committed suicide in 1988. In 1989, both my parents were diagnosed with cancers. My mom survived hers, but my dad died. My husband ran for public office and won after having lost an election 4 years earlier. All the walking door to door ultimately took out his back. After writhing in pain for weeks, with me sleeping on the floor because he couldn’t get comfortable in bed, he had surgery. Everyone was in a physical mess but me. I was working, helping my parents, helping Michael and taking care of my kids who were seven and two and a half. What a mad time that year was. I just ran from place to place, tending to people and trying to keep up with the daily demands of life. I knew I was changing inside but I couldn’t tell how those changes would manifest themselves. I was 38 years old.
When 1990 began, I decided to try fixing what I could. I planned a trip with my mom and kids, wanting to meet a long held dream of hers to visit Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. My dad wasn’t a big traveler. I thought that I could give her a dream and also get a few goodies for my tired brain. I’d spent years studying the Civil War and figured that I could pack in a few sights of my own that were near enough to be reasonable add-on destinations. What an ill-conceived plan. My mom never got a driver’s license, so I took off as the only driver on a 12 and a half hour trip with her and my two kids in the back seat. We managed a stop at Jefferson’s Monticello and then spent a few days walking the cobbled streets of Williamsburg. My mom had a bad knee. She’d stubbornly refused surgery and was favoring it a lot as we roamed around. I was excitedly getting ready to head for Richmond to check out the history and hit a few battlegrounds before we turned for home.
Our first stop was Jefferson Davis’ White House of the Confederacy. We drove down Monument Avenue, the site of many enormous statues which have since ignited controversy about celebrating the heroes of a slave-owning culture.( A story for a different blogpost.) When we arrived at our destination, I was immediately anxious as the house had multiple stories and no elevator. I tried to talk my mother into staying on the first floor but she insisted on seeing everything, stairs or not. Up we went and down we came. By the time we reached the first floor again, she could barely walk. We made our way to our hotel where the kindly matriarch of a family reunion there, dispatched some young men to help me get my dependent menagerie to our room. In those pre-cell phone days, I went down to the lobby to call Michael and both furiously and tearfully told him I was bringing everyone home the next day. I was angry and despondent. This was supposed to be the corner-turning time for me. Instead, it just felt like a continuation of the previous years.
We made it back home with me driving through some white-knuckle rainstorms in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. We dropped mom off at her place and arrived at our house, the kids still miraculously alive. When we got there, Michael told me that the day before the return home, our dog Sydney had run out into the street to chase an animal and had been hit by a car. She was alive with a new thousand dollar leg. I felt battered in almost every way. But there was nothing to do but move on. During catastrophic 1989, I hadn’t any extra time to work on my burgeoning garden. Too many sick people.
We’d been in our home for almost 12 years. For the first eight or nine, we’d been reclaiming our old house from its life as a three apartment rental building. In 1930, at the height of the Depression, such a large home was too expensive to maintain. We were slowly converting it back into a single family residence. The yard was mostly barren except for some overgrown shrubs along the front sidewalk which were filled with huge weeds and volunteer trees. Over time, we reclaimed that space. We fenced the back yard and Michael started thinking vegetables while I gingerly began making my way through the world of flowers, shrubs and ornamental trees. I started with petunias and marigolds. Then the ball began rolling.
I decided to attack the ground. My dear friend Joanne heard what I was doing and showed up one day carrying a big flat of perennial plants that had been sold on the cheap after a flood wiped out a lot full of flowers. Perennials. I knew enough to realize that you couldn’t just slap those any old where, and after reading what they were and what they needed, I decided to de-sod a large section of my south front yard to give them a proper home. Every evening after work and on the weekends, I became a human rototiller, digging 6-8” deep until I was in the dark rich soil for which this part of the world is famous. I heaved all the grass and roots into a wheelbarrow which I carted away every day. I planted all 36 of my new plants and then added more. Water and hope came next.
In the meantime, I’d crippled myself. My right side ached from hip to foot. I went to the doctor who prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxers which didn’t do much but make me groggy and feel as if my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. While chatting with a friend, I found out about a unique Norwegian massage therapist who practiced the art of reflexology. I wasn’t sure what it was but was game for anything to relieve the pain. And in those days, I had health insurance that covered the treatment. I remember my first appointment. You would lie on your back on a table with otherworldly spacey music playing softly and Bjorg would gently begin elongating your body. Her motions were smooth, gentle and slow. I had the sense of being heated taffy, pulled into a shape other than the one I’d brought to her. The pace of each soft tissue pull was glacially slow and I found myself relaxing into it. As she went along, Bjorg asked me questions about my activities, basing those on what she was feeling in my body. On the first day, she told me that both my hip area and my heels were crunched up into balls that didn’t much resemble the normal feel of long muscles, tendons or ligaments. I wasn’t exactly sure how she knew all that but after she worked on one side of me, I could tell that it definitely felt longer than the other. I decided to make a series of successive appointments. After four of them, the initial pain which had driven me to her was gone.
That was terrific but even more interesting were the discoveries that she helped me make along the way. She would stop at a place like my thumb muscle and ask why I thought it was unusually large. I started remembering all the things I’d done with my hands. I remembered angrily squeezing a baseball bat while in elementary school when getting teased about my softball prowess and thinking angrily about how I was going to hit a ball far over the head of anyone trying to catch it. I could feel myself lifting my Danish cast-iron casserole and pots that I stupidly chose when I got married, never thinking about how heavy they’d feel after years went by. They never broke so I didn’t replace them – I just got more tired of lifting them. Why didn’t someone tell me about lightweight stainless steel? Bjorg told me that my neck felt like I was someone who hurled myself headlong against life. That sounded right to me. While working on my soft tissue in my thigh, she stopped and asked, what happened here? After thinking a minute, I remembered a ligament tear I got in that spot one summer when I was thirteen. My appointments with her began to evoke all kinds of memories which we’d discuss as she worked out my knots.
One day, I was talking with her about how surprised I was to be delving into so many things that had happened long ago. She made one particular statement that I’ve always thought about over the years – the body remembers its pain. I believe that and more. I’m not sure what magical powers Bjorg possessed. I always thought she might be some kind of shaman or witch doctor. But she resonated with me and said things about the human body and ultimately who we people are in our entirety that make a lot of sense to me. The body remembers its pain. We can all look at scars that we’ve acquired over the years. I dropped a glass jar when I was a kid, trying to use it to save newborn guppies from their cannibalistic parents who gobbled them up right after their births. While scrambling to save the babies, I gashed my leg, creating part of my body’s story. The vestiges of that day are visible on my right knee.
When I broke my nose when I was eight, it healed with a deviated septum. In cold weather, both my cut leg and my nose ache, the way you feel when you eat something that gives you brain freeze. I’ve taken some bad spills in my time, a few memorable ones from horseback. The images of my spine show the signs of those falls from my teen years through my early 30’s. As I age, they will exact a price from me as have the other physical choices I’ve made throughout my life. The body remembers its pain.
But what about our minds, housed in our brains, the memory areas stimulating the study of the hippocampus, the amygdala and other regions which are responsible for everything from motor skills to memory? The brain remembers its pain?
I suspect this is correct. But the accumulation of experiences over time make those memories difficult to access. Is this papering over of memories accomplished by personal cognitive necessity, by time or by a combination of both? Is preverbal learning and experience difficult to remember because the language tool is necessary for unearthing them? I don’t know the answer to these questions but my instincts tell me that even the smallest babies are recording and processing experiences that, barring physical injury to the brain, remain parts of them for the rest of their lives. The emotional and psychological wounds that affect us are as durable as any physical injury but are harder to see. The same is probably true for the good things that happen to us. What gets complicated is when we have reactions to situations that seem inappropriate to what’s actually happening and can’t feel or find the reason for those responses. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. My husband was raised by parents who should probably never had children. After they left him, very sick with pneumonia, alone in a hospital at age 2, he’d gotten up and wandered out of his room. He was then restrained to his bed. That was his first cognitive memory. When I met him, he was twenty-two. At the first sign of what he perceived as an emotional threat, he withdrew into what I called his rabbit hole, a safe alone place where he could protect himself. He’d clearly developed that place as a defense mechanism for when he felt isolated and threatened. Happily, I was just the person for diving into rabbit holes, trying to discover why they existed. I, who was well loved by my parents, was encouraged to be outgoing and rewarded for that behavior. We made a perfect pair with our very different origins. His psychological wounds were always operating in the background. And of course, in time, the ones I collected were lurking around as well. I think that’s probably how it is for most of us. Some people have no idea how they came to be who they are and are utterly uninterested in figuring it out. They choose to be shut off from those painful times. Others, like me, go poking around all the time, looking for reasons for everything. From my personal vantage point, I find that looking for and through those painful times ultimately disarms them from their power to resurge and take over my behavior. They are from the long ago. I guess we all have to find what works for us. I still can’t help wishing I could convince everyone to try things my way. Michael wished I would intermittently “take a hike,” and stop tromping around in his scar-filled interior landscape. Oh well….
Some time ago, I was walking down a sidewalk and a woman was walking toward me, pushing her baby in a stroller. The baby made eye contact with me which held as we got closer and closer to each other. I made a concerted effort to smile brightly and warmly at this child although I knew it was unlikely we’d ever see each other again. The way I see it is this – I’d rather make a positive, happy, even if unremembered, memory than scowl and put a durable wound into a little head. Maybe that’s simplistic but I’m well-intentioned.