Thursday, April 02, 2015

pills and aching joints

I never got to know my grandmother all that well, but the pain is making me think of her.

My dad was in the Air Force, and although I was born in America, my first memories are of Germany, where we lived until I was seven. My grandmother only came over to visit once, and she was not a good traveler. She was exactly the kind of person who would complain that the food wasn't the same as back home, that they didn't put ice in the get the idea. When we moved to South Carolina, we spent a few weeks down in Florida at her house. I know this would've been a good time to try and know her better, but I was a shy kid and was still a bit shaken up by the move to do much of anything.

When my dad retired, we moved down to live in her old house, actually. She was close by, but I still never really got to know her that well. My parents tell me it was because she wasn't easy to know, but I suspect the truth is more that I was still a shy and painfully awkward kid...and becoming a teenager didn't help at all. Still, I did try, but I suspect there was some basic incompatibility at work. 

What I do remember most vividly is staying over at her house and watching her in the morning. After she got me cereal (which, after I put some sugar on my corn flakes, she made me stir it into the milk for some reason), she started to massage her swollen knuckles for a minute before taking some pills from her industrial-size bottle of Tylenol. When I asked her about it, she told me that arthritis was just something that happened to us when we got older. But I was in my teens, and the entire concept of getting older seemed somewhere between remote and implausable.

A few years ago, after one of my old band's first shows, my shoulder started hurting. I told my singer it was because I carried her heavy amplifier, but I suspected that wasn't the truth...and she even refused to accept the guilt trip. The shoulder pain persisted, though, and after a few runs to the doctor and through physical therapy, I had a diagnosis: a compressed spinal disk along with arthritis in my shoulder.

This wasn't all that much of a shock to me. I went to the college in the "sling your backpack only over one shoulder" era, and I had played music for (I was shocked to realize) decades at that wear and tear was only to be expected. It was only when getting a suit for a wedding when this was really driven home, when the seamstress informed me that one of my shoulders (the aching one in question) was actually measurably taller than the other. One of my first thoughts was that if I found any more physical deformities, I could change careers and enter a circus freak show...but another early thought was of my grandmother's swollen knuckles.

I soon found I could crack my shoulder joint at will when the arthritis was (to use my grandmother's phrase) flaring up. In some ways, I could look on this as a war wound, a physical manifestation of my suffering for my art and my scholarship. When I told this to my parents, they informed me that being a martyr was also something I probably got from my grandmother. But then one day a few years ago, I started to feel the same twang in one of my fingers. Pretty soon, I could pop it on command. Not every day hurts, but enough days hurt to make me have my own industrial size bottle of pills in my own medicine cabinet, which, with every pain and prescription, starts to resemble that of my grandmother even more.

The last few days, I've started to feel that pain in one of my thumbs...which is undoubtedly proof the arthritis's sphere of influence is surely expanding. The pain usually is pretty ignorable, though. On its most intense days, it's simply annoying yet usually easily treatable. Compared to my recent kidney stone pain, it's quite laughable.Yet it's still troubling. So far, it has stayed out of the hand which fingers notes on my guitars. But I'm beginning to realize that it will eventually grow, spread, start to disrupt, and maybe even take away my music...which is sobering and more than a little scary.

This morning, on the drive to work, the pain started to flair. After pulling into the lot, I sat in my parked car and broke into my car's emergency supply of pain pills. After swallowing, I rubbed my sore hand for a minute. It was only then when I realized that I now am beginning to know my grandmother a bit better.

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