Thursday, June 17, 2010


In Which It Goes Away...

My Dad was a packrat of pithy sayings, an aphid for aphorisms, collected from his own experience and from those of his forebears.

"Do the thing you’re scared of, and you’ll get the courage afterward" is probably the one I repeat most often these days, and it’s usually directed at Thomas, who requires a lot of psyching up to try new and/or scary things.

"God loves to make a man break his promises" is one I recall hearing a lot as a kid, since I was forever promising to perform certain tasks and then forgetting about them.

"It’s a poor man who cheats himself" is also one I heard often, since I had--still have--a tendency to go for quick fixes and short-term solutions when it comes to home improvements and other projects, which of course just creates more work for me in the long run.

But the one I heard most growing up was "It’s only pain, it goes away."

With an accident-prone son like me, and himself being no slouch in the self-injury department, Dad had ample opportunity to utter this one, usually while fashioning a makeshift splint for whatever limb I happened to twist or mutilate, although he just as often offered it up as a form of reassurance, usually muttered as he emerged from a cloud of dust and debris, often while clamping down hard on a spurting artery in his arm or neck.

I probably remember this one most of all, not because I heard it as much as I did, but because it’s a maxim I’ve often felt was not entirely true, and just as often been proven wrong. After I blew out a lumbar disk in my back, during the ensuing six months of sciatic agony, I remember at one point snapping at the old man, in a somewhat accusatory tone, “When is THIS pain going away?” It was a question I asked myself some years later, standing in an Indiana salvage yard, staring at the crumpled wreck in which my parents died. But nine years on, my back twinges no more than one should expect at the age of 42, and three years on, though I still miss my parents terribly, whatever pain I felt has since morphed into a wistful nostalgia.

Still, it’s a gem of wisdom that, for some reason, I’m hesitant to offer to my kids. I said it once to Thomas, after he ran barefooted into a memorably unyielding table and broke his big toe. The poor little guy lay gasping on the floor, eyes wide and teeth clenched. And I helpfully said, “It’s only pain, it goes away” only to have my son fix those wide eyes on me, and part his clenched teeth long enough to shout “That is such bullshit, Daddy!” And in the moment, he was right. I suppose if I asked him now to describe the pain of that broken toe, he’d be hard-pressed to articulate exactly what the pain felt like. But I haven’t asked.

I also didn’t share this maxim with the Brownie, who recently had to deal with two painful events, almost back to back. First, she had to have a plantar wart dug out of her big toe. Then, two days later, she had to go get two cavities filled.

My elder daughter is pretty stoic, but after using up all of her stoical reserves to deal with the removal of the wart, she was somewhat nervous about the dental work. I had refused to take her to the dentist for this--based on the time I had to take Thomas to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, I didn’t think I was the best person for the job. That didn’t stop the Brownie from asking me questions beforehand, mostly revolving around the central theme of How Much Will It Hurt?

“I can’t say that I actually remember,” I told her. She didn’t believe this for a minute, assuming that I was trying to spare her needless worry. But it’s true. For me, pain of the past is almost impossible for me to describe, and maybe that’s just a failure of my skill as a storyteller. Although I’m usually pretty good at describing the circumstances surrounding the injury, especially the ones that hurt (I think) the most. For example (and in descending order):

The Foul Ball, Our Trailer, around 11th grade:
I could always count on my Big Brother to inflict bodily harm on me, but this one night, in our summer trailer in the woods of New Hampshire, he surpassed himself. We were arguing about his portable typewriter, which I used every night, banging out whatever story I was writing. He had a late-night job in a kitchen, and by the time he got home, he was tired and surly and wanted nothing but to sleep. This particular night, he asked me with his usual grace, to knock of the clacking before he strangled me with the typewriter ribbon. I ignored him—it was one of the things I did best—and kept typing. Mom was staying overnight in Boston with her sister and Dad was off working at a construction site in Oregon, so I knew no responsible grown-up was going to force me to comply. Then BB got up and laid hands on the typewriter, crumpling the page I was working on. In retaliation, I swiftly turned the roller, catching BB’s fingers in the inner workings of the machine. Then I stood up, grabbed the hardbound dictionary sitting next to me and thwacked BB good and hard across the face. His glasses went flying, but at such close range, that did nothing to impair his aim. He shoved me back just a few inches, then kicked out at me as hard as he could, stuffing the entirety of his size-14 foot into my crotch.

If I had been a football, BB would have made a 90-yard field goal. Instead, the only ball that got punted was my left one, which shot from its usual dangling position up, up, up into my pelvis. I suddenly became aware of a small and theretofore unknown cavity somewhere in my lower abdomen, a cavity now occupied by that precious little orb. I fell to the floor and almost passed out from the pain of it. Everything at the point of impact swelled up--not in a pleasurable way--and it was three days before my wayward boy descended to its proper place. During that time, I was virtually unable to walk, practically delirious with the visceral discomfort that can only come from having a vital portion of your reproductive equipment relocated to an internal space somewhere in the neighborhood of your liver. But beyond that, I can’t really describe the pain now, except to say, wow, that really hurt. It outmatched even the satisfaction I got later, when I snapped a mousetrap onto BB’s earlobe while he was sleeping.

The Cluster Bomb, Shop Class, 7th grade:
I had shop class once a week with Mr. Simms, who was not the most visibly reassuring of shop teachers. He was a squat, wiry mass of scar tissue, interestingly ripped clothing, and digits unaccounted for. Under his supervision, and, well, me being me, you’d think I’d have many stories of sawing off the tips of my fingers, or gouging my own eyes out with a runaway jigsaw. But the worst pain I felt to that date came not from a power tool, but from my classmate, Morris. He was a portly boy that I had an on-again, off-again friendship with. This particular spring, it was off, way off. We were sitting at a table, gluing birdhouses together when, for reasons I can’t recall, he turned and punched me hard in the stomach, midrange between my belly button and my sternum.

I was completely unprepared for the blow, and so was the nerve cluster that rested there in my torso. He knocked the wind out of me, and as I fell to the sawdust-covered floor, I felt a whole network of pain receptors light up, filling my chest, my head. I thought my eyeballs would explode from the pain of it. I was in such agony, I couldn’t even crawl out the way of Mr. Simms, who, in the excitement of the moment, came running over to check on me without bothering to let go of--or turn off--the screaming circular saw he was holding (thankfully, the saw had a short power cord, which was pulled out of the wall before he got to me). But beyond those details, I can’t really describe the pain now, except to say, wow, that really hurt.

The Bad Tooth, Social Studies, 6th grade:
At lunch that day, I had felt a little tremor of discomfort in an upper molar while eating, but hadn’t given it much thought. An hour later, that tooth was all I could think about. With no warning whatsoever, that molar suddenly sent a pulsewave of pain through every nerve-ending in my body. This was no tremor, it was an earthquake of agony clean off the Richter scale. Before I could catch my breath, another one hit. I dropped my book and cried out in the middle of class. My teacher, the famously unsympathetic Mr. F, spoke sharply to me, but I was beyond hearing. Another wave hit and I began smacking my forehead on the desk. Then another wave. And another.

I’m pretty sure I passed out from the pain, because the next thing I remember, I was on the sofa in the teacher’s lounge, a cold cloth on my neck. I was drenched with sweat and tense as a drawn bow, waiting for the next wave of pain to hit. It didn’t, at least not before my Mom showed up. She drove me straight to the dentist, who determined that the molar had cracked and some kind of infection had seeped in, causing swelling that pushed on the tender nerves deep (but not deep enough!) in my gums. Rather than pulling the tooth--which I would have cheerfully welcomed at that point--the dentist decided to pack some kind of medicated filling in and around the crack, an imperfect procedure that he had to perform three or four times in the space of the next two weeks. Finally, when the infection had subsided, he refilled the tooth, and I spent the next several years chewing on the other side of my mouth (it was still very sensitive). Eventually, another dentist put a gold-and-enamel crown in, but the damage had been done. That incident eclipses all other moments of dental horror in my life (including the time I had to have a bone spur in my jaw sanded down).

That tooth still sends minor tremors of pain whenever I bite down really hard on a nut or a piece of candy. And in the treatment of it, I was injected with so much novocaine that to this day I am largely resistant to any dose of local anesthetic that isn’t sufficient to drop a horse. But beyond that, I still can’t really describe the pain now, except to say, wow, that really hurt.

Still, I didn't, as you can imagine, share this anecdote with the Brownie. I did, however, share the other two on the morning of her dentist appointment.

“So, yeah,” I concluded, “It might be a little uncomfortable, but I can guarantee you it won’t hurt anywhere near as much as getting the wind knocked out of you. Or having your left testicle fired up into your lower intestines.”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” the Brownie said primly, but the stories cheered her to no end. She paused then, thinking. “You did this when I cracked my head open, didn’t you?”

It was almost half my daughter’s life ago when she fell and got stitches in the back of her head. “You remember that?” I asked. The Brownie has an excellent memory.

She nodded. “You told funny stories about getting a nail in your head. Or a hammer. I forget which.” (In fact, it was both.)

“And do you remember how much your head hurt when you hit it back then?”

She shook that head now. “No,” she said, mildly astonished to realize this. “It’s like Papa always said: It’s only pain, it goes away.”

Now I was surprised. After all, this was a nugget of wisdom I had never shared with her. “How do you know that?”

She shrugged. “He told me one time, when he was at our house, nailing a board. Except he nailed his hand to the board too. There was blood everywhere and I got all scared. But he just pulled the nail out and wiggled his hand and told me that.” And off she went to the dentist.

It’s been a few days since the double filling, and at first the Brownie was a little teary when the novocaine wore off. But she kept repeating her little mantra--it’s only pain, it goes away. And by the next day, it had.

She doesn’t remember the pain. But she remembers what my Dad told her.

And so do I.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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