My sister called to say she’d wanted to ask me a question about our childhood but then forgot. When she called back in the morning it was to tell me she’d remembered and had written the memory down, call her when I could.
The memory turned out to be a recurring dream she has, usually after she encounters a person on the street who resembles our father. Our father who died when I was thirteen.
In her dream it’s as if he’s alive again; that whole death thing, it was actually just a cover. He’s off somewhere in a new life. The most recent story she’d told herself: he’s picking grapes in Napa.
I tell her I have a similar thought, every once in a while. Because I think, to a certain extent, it’s easier to deal with grief when that grief has the possibility of temporality. If I could only see him again, then I’d be able to say my last words and be done with it.
The trouble with grief (read: pain), I think, is that so often what’s aching on the inside manifests itself on the outside. This can be a problem, when you’re just trying to deal with it, and it can make for some awkward transitions in conversation. So…how’s it feel to have one dead parent? (True story there.)
But the trouble with grief is also what draws me to it. When I read works about pain, I relate them to my own. And I’m reminded that if religion and politics are topics we are trained from youth to avoid with others, talking about our pain with company has become second nature. What ails you? How do you suffer in this life? If you are able to get to the heart of the matter, will you know why you are in pain?
I am thinking of my grandparents this summer. Of their aging and, with the years, their increased levels of pain. They suffer, each in their unique way, which only they can explain: the story is theirs to tell, no one else has the right to it. I, and the rest of my family, are held still in their telling. We sit around the campfire, nod our heads, and think of our own discomfort during that moment: the way our sit bones have dug their way into the tree log underneath us, the stiffness in our necks and backs, the itchy, burning heat from the fire against our bare shins.
When my friend Ari’s grandfather died, she wrote an essay on how the body physically heals from a wound. How the layers of skin and muscle and fiber stitch themselves back together. But how that togetherness comes with a caveat: a scar in the healing’s wake. Throughout the essay, Ari takes us into the body’s layers. Through the collagen microfibril helices that weave the skin into place. And in the same breath, she points out that as we age, the collagen that has, up until that point, kept our skin soft and elastic, begins to disappear, leaving us hard, brittle, and yes, fragile: more susceptible to pain.
Physical cuts, lacerations, “may be clean and linear if they are caused by a knife, glass shard, or other sharp object. They may be caused by slicing at an angle, separating an entire flap of skin like a peninsula. Crushing injuries, caused by a direct blow or impact, may cause a stellate laceration, irregular in its course. If deep enough, a laceration may reveal underlying tissues: fat, muscle, tendon, or bone.”
Different kinds of wounds require a different kind of attention. The pattern/tracing of one’s pain creates a varying threshold of meaning, a different narrative for how one might begin to think about the healing process.
Which takes us to Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel’s “Cannulated Screw,” where we find a different story of pain, a different approach to what gets left behind in the wake of trauma. In the opening lines we read that the author’s in bed; she’s having two screws removed from her foot. The screws, the nurse tells her, “might break. They could crack and split, cleaving shrapnel to bone. Pieces could get left behind.”
In the stories of pain I’ve read, it is precisely this crack and split that draws me in: I am interested, after having to pick up my own pieces, to learn how others try to rebuild their narrative. (Or seek out a new one entirely.) I’m interested, not so much in the cause of pain itself, but how others choose to live with it or beyond it.
Back to Ari’s essay, and fracture: “Deep wounds sometimes accompany underlying bone fracture; it’s even possible for the broken bone to cause the laceration to the skin, sharp, splintered ends jutting through what was intact.”
Because the rub is, there’s no getting around the physical splintering into the non-physical. Through what was intact, and no longer is: that’s where the narratives begin to overlap.
And Kisha: “To remove [the screws], the osteopath cut along the scar of the old suture, made by a careless doctor who cut out a painful tailors bunion and broke the bone of the pinkie toe to straighten its crooked deformity, screwing the healing in place.”
What our stories of pain amount to is a one big ball of collective hurt. But this individual narrative of pain begins to speak with others’. While our stories of pain are our own, they grant space for this common narrative. They provide an entry point for our day-to-day dealings with others. I’ve been thinking a lot about these points of entry lately, and it seems to me that if nothing else, pain opens us up, in the very physical sense of the word, but pain also gives us a chance to be open on other levels as well.
In Ari’s case, she opens up to a world of hurt all around her, flashes of familial scenes mixed in with those she’s experienced in the field as an EMT. In Kisha’s essay, the time of healing (“screwing the healing in place”) becomes a mathematical equation parallel to the emotional healing of her father dying when she was a child.
Whatever our narrative, be it recurring dreams of isolation, empathy of aging parents/grandparents, real-life loss, our narrative allows us some clarity, a space in which to fight against the compassion fatigue which occurs within such a fragmented world. (To paraphrase Ari’s words.)
Today marks the second week of advent. If we were to consider—which I will—the point of the biblical story in which we now find ourselves, the wise men have left the court of King Herod. Herod, having received word of the mysterious child’s birth, has ordered an infanticide of male children throughout the land. There is pain everywhere. There are swords passing through women’s bellies. And Herod’s whole body is wrecked with pain—and fear. That is the common story shared throughout the kingdom. Mothers-to-be are talking in low voices: Did you hear, did you hear what is happening? How I suffer. How we all suffer. And so on, until the narrative swirls and mixes with our own, today: Syria, New York, Libya, North Korea, Nogales, the world over. How we all suffer. Perhaps the hope is in how we are all driven together because of that pain. We notice, and by noticing, we begin to heal.
Julie Lauterbach-Colby lives and gardens and rides her bicycle in Tucson and works for the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Some of her recent work appears here, here, and here.