Monthly Archives: May 2013

Ice, Ice, Baby

This is the co-culprit in my back injury. The other culprit is myself.

This is the co-culprit in my back injury. The other culprit is myself.

There’s a quote I’ve posted the wall above my writing desk: “Even Thoreau stopped staring at the pond long enough to write a book.” It’s from Stephen King’s On Writing.

This past month I’ve had to adopt a paraphrase quote of my own: Even Stephen King stopped writing long enough to heal. Then he went back to work.”

As I remember King’s version of events in that same book, when he was hit by a van and badly injured he had to stop writing until he was pain-free enough to sit and type at a computer. Then, before he was even well enough to climb stairs, his wife set up a temporary writing desk downstairs and he took up his writing again as soon as he could.

At the end of April, I had a mishap while walking downstairs with my rambunctious dog and landed smack on the base of my spine. With other medical issues already compromising my back health, the pain was immediate and intense: I could feel muscles pulling and pulsating from the middle of my back to my butt, and a sharp, piercing pain at the base of my spine made the walk back to my apartment — with the dog in tow — slow and painful. I called a friend who arranged my ride to the emergency room.

I was told in the ER that I had suffered a fracture of the first lumbar vertebrae, but this turned out to be erroneous: I learned later from my primary physician that the radiologist had noticed what appeared to be a chronic, older fracture of that vertebrae. A subsequent visit to my Scoliosis specialist yielded a third opinion: there was no fracture, merely a “change” due to the slow “stable” progression of my Scoliosis. He pointed out that the locus of my pain was at the bottom of my spine, while the affected vertebrae was in the middle of my back.

What these opinions meant to me emotionally was the resurrection of an old resentment I have against the medical community: if they can’t see something they can fix immediately, whatever pain you’re in is “chronic.” From my point of view, if the pain is directly connected to an injurious accident and you can’t go more than a few hours without narcotics, you have acute pain. Muscle and nerve injuries don’t show up on x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans. But they’re there, and they’re real. The clinical evidence, unfortunately, is limited to the amount of pain you’re in.

Yet there’s a sound reason for a doctor’s reluctance to label pain by itself as an acute injury: the only therapeutic treatment they can offer is physical activity. At the same time, to keep the cycle of pain from interfering with activity, an acutely injured patient has to rest for the first few days. After 9 years in a back brace and three back injuries as an adult, I know that managing pain is more of an art than a science: you apply ice and heat and if those have limited or no effect you rest and/or take a pain pill. The idea is to prevent the onset of pain from triggering an inflammatory cycle that causes more pain and inflammation.

As I came to accept that I was in for yet another slow recovery from chronic pain, I set goals for getting back to my writing. If I could get through 8 hours of work, I would ice up and write for half an hour in the evening. Didn’t happen.

I told my writing coach I’d better write my half-hour in the morning before the daily grind set in to cause minor aches and pains throughout the day.

That didn’t happen either.

I failed my first physical therapy goal: mild stretching every day between the first and second appointments. Even though stretching made me feel better, it just didn’t happen. Slipped right through my fingers without much conscious thought on my part. Just like my writing was slipping through my fingers. I was demoralized and near tears after a painful PT session in which I discovered I could only bike 1.5 minutes before fatigue set in.

My PT pointedly told me that if I’d followed my stretching program, and then still felt fatigued, she would be concerned. But her diagnosis was sharp and direct: I was too inactive.

So I set out, half-subconsciously, to “prove” there was an acute injury by meeting her expectations and doing the stretching. Lo and behold, within two days, I was able to take the wedge pillows to raise my head and knees off the bed. I was able to climb out of bed in the morning and walk to the kitchen without pain in my hips and that lurching feeling in my lower back. After four days of stretching, I obtained a free trial pass to a gym and put in six minutes on a recumbent bike.

The empowerment of being able to affect my physical recovery led to some emotional recovery: I had to let go of my resentment of the medical system if I was going to get back to my writing. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and let go of my passive “acceptance” of my disabilities. Coming from the inside track of mobility issues, I don’t entirely agree with the analogy that you have to “fight” physical pain; I happen to notice that people who champion this attitude are usually those who aren’t starting out with a mobility deficit.

What I do believe is that working through pain requires being emotionally and spiritually present, and letting go of resentments and fears that prevent you from safely and gently pushing limitations so that you can rebuild yourself.

Lo and behold, mere hours after coming to this realization in the middle of the night, I’ve put in 45 minutes and actually finished a piece of writing.

This injury may have torn me down physically, but it helped to rebuild and gain new strength spiritually and emotionally.


My Dog Won’t Shut Up


This post was first published on January 11, 2011.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my dog. He’s a beauty, a tri-color-headed-white Sheltie. Much to tall and barrel-chested to be a purebred, but we were told by the shelter he is a purebred nonetheless.

He’s very affectionate, curling up with us on the couch, giving kisses, and jumping up to be petted. He does tend to do these things to excess, but considering Shelties are supposedly not very affectionate it’s a blessing that we were very enthusiastic about when we got him.

Over time, he’s learned the commands heel, down, come, and sit. Then there is the one command he has learned only selectively: “Quiet.” Specifically, he barks continually whenever I walk him. He barks on his way down the stairs. He barks as soon as he gets outside, perhaps to announce his presence to the world.

If the world doesn’t detect his presence on the first bark, there is a loooong 20-minute interval in which the world will find it out. Put simply, he barks and barks and barks. After ten months as his owner, there is a certain amount of shame in not being able to control his barking. True, he was an adult when we got him and it is harder to change the behaviors of an adult dog.

But he’s changed some of his barking behavior when he’s with Brendan. He will walk calmly down the stairs and remain calm if they don’t run into anybody.

Nobody can stop him if he sees another person, dog, cat, car, or butterfly. There’s some solace for me in the fact that barking is very much part of his nature.

Still . . . my dog won’t shut up.

Twelve Days Without A Mother


This post was first published on March 23, 2011.

In the twelve days since my mother died, I have learned that my mother was greater than just the sum of her parts. She wasn’t simply a mother of eight children; she was a mother eight times over, playing a unique role in the lives of each of us whom she gave birth to.

This revelation began to dawn on me when my father asked me to write a memorial booklet for the funeral, containing memories from each of the eight siblings. It grew to include most of the grandchildren, and all of the husbands, wives and partners. I learned many things I hadn’t known. She made Easter outfits and other clothing for the older children. Like me, she loved Janis Joplin. Yet she died without either of us knowing we both admired the same artist. She gave my sister her first set of oil paints.

The revelations continued as we all gathered to hear her final wishes. First, there was The Secret. We all knew there was something in my mother’s family past that she did not want to talk about. I began to get an inkling about it years ago when a family friend with a penchant for genealogy “discovered” that my mother’s father had been married before and had children from that first marriage. I knew just from the look on my mother’s face when he told her that this wasn’t new information to her. I also knew without asking that she was not going to talk about it.

So over the years I played a game with myself: what was The Secret? Had her mother and father had an affair? Had her father gone back to his first wife, or had he really died when she was ten? Finally, my father felt we could all handle the truth: her father had never divorced his first wife, and her parents had never been married but had lived happily for ten short years before her father killed himself during the Great Depression.

After this revelation it was time to decide, as a group, how to dispense with all the possessions my mother had brought into the marriage and many others she’d acquired along the way. I learned as much about my father as my mother in this process, because it soon became clear that there is a stark difference between what my mother is willing to save and what my father is willing to keep around in what is now his home.

Ironically I have become the keeper of my mother’s sewing machine, sewing baskets, and all the sewing notions. I say ironic because I don’t exactly sew myself. I mend things. Sometimes I mend the same garment four or five times before finally releasing it from my misery. So I can never acquire too much thread, needles, and buttons. I have a book called Sewing For Dummies that I have consulted more than once to find just the right stitch for a new mending job.

If my brother hadn’t told me my mother used to make clothes for the children I would have completely misunderstood the wealth of sewing equipment I inherited. While I was growing up, my mother earned a college degree at the age of 49; worked as a substitute teacher, an Avon salesperson, and a secretary. She took us to plays and concerts and the beaches on Cape Cod. She did not sew, although she did teach me how to use a sewing machine. I now know that her lack of sewing activity was due only to the amount of time devoted to doing everything else. By the time she retired, arthritis was gripping her hands. It was only when I started sorting through her sewing basket that I understood that she was giving something up by not sewing.

At least 25 pairs of knitting needles. Lace basting fabric in pastel hues, jewel tones, and earth tones. A wooden tool for pressing creases. A metal board with magnetic tape stuck to it. Boxes and bags of  buttons. The button collection I can understand; you have to buy a set of 20 randomly-matched buttons just to find one that you can use. You don’t part with buttons without a fight.

It took me a couple of hours to go through each item in the three-tiered, double-sided sewing basket. During that time, I thought about how my sister had told me that she serviced the sewing machine six years earlier at my mother’s request. My father joked at the time that my mother would never use the machine, and when I heard the story I thought my mother was like me. Prone to starting things without finishing them. I think now that there was more to it than that. As I sorted through the sewing collection, I thought of a woman who made suits for her children, collected seam-basting fabrics, and acquired exotic wooden implements for making creases. I think my mother had the sewing machine serviced with every intention of going back to her projects, but her arthritis had other ideas.

I think about this seamstress-mother as I twirl a silver ring with rhinestone “diamonds” around and around on my finger. I think about the woman who collected so much jewelry that her three daughters grew bleary-eyed trying to sort through it all on one too-short afternoon. I think about what different people my parents are and were. My mother saving everything from sewing notions down to a Red Cross certification card my brother earned when he was twelve. My father urging us to take everything away, from that Red Cross card to framed pictures of ourselves.

My parents argued a lot over things. I used to think it was just marriage-fatigue, but in some ways it was the essence of their differences. My father wasn’t just griping about clutter; he really, really doesn’t like clutter. My mother wasn’t just carping about discarded bits and bobs out of routine; she really, really, needed to know the things she valued were somewhere safe even if it was hard for others to see the value.

During the last twelve days, I have thought a lot about my mother’s love of color, her loud and hearty laugh, and the deep sense of shame that seemed to simmer beneath the surface in every interaction. Now that I have learned the likely source of that shame — her unmarried parents — I am both saddened and awed by the burden she kept to herself in an age where most people probably wouldn’t give two hoots who her parents were or what they did or didn’t do.

As the days turn into months and years, I know I will have many more insights about my mother and her relationship to her. It seems like there could never have been enough time to truly know my mother in the way she deserved to be known. But perhaps it is not too late to learn a few things about myself.