Unremitting physical pain has been my constant companion for the last 30 years. Being 53 years old, that’s a fair chunk of my life given over to something I’d really prefer to do without.
My particular type of pain didn’t arrive by accident. Sure, I’ve had my leg broken when a car knocked me off my motorbike Christmas Eve 1979, and as I skidded down the road into the oncoming traffic, a car ran over my leg. That hurt. And with the botch-job closed reduction left leg in full-length plaster for 10 months, ongoing nerve and tendon damage, not to mention a frozen left ankle, that pain kept me company in some form or other for the next 20 years.
No, my real pain started from late adolescence. I’m a big bastard, 6′ 3″ in the old language, and I was that height when I arrived at teenagehood, about 15, or 16. Ideally, I could have done something athletic with that stature. But in the way of things, a bout of pneumonia when I was 6 months old pretty much buggered me for sport and general fitness. Sure, I played Rugby (Union) at high school. But I wasn’t picked for the team for my athletic prowess. I had grunt, and I had enough puff to survive lurching around the rugby field for two 45 minute halves. I was never, ever athletic.
Being big from an early age, without the developed musculature to carry it, the die was cast. And it was cast in my lower back. You know, that tower of building blocks with data cable running up the middle, so integral to physical health. I didn’t know it at the time, but the spaces between the vertebra in my lumbar spine were slowly and irrevocably being ground away.
So by the time I took up nursing in the early ’80s, pain became my new best friend. No lift policy? You’re joking. Orderlies to help with lifting were only available where they were ‘really’ needed; the spinal unit, and sometimes orthopedics. But not the medical wards where I spent a lot of time. It was a human resource strategy that the male nurse students worked mostly where really hard yakka was needed.
I’d broken my leg 10 months before commencing nurse training – yes, I’m a dinosaur from the era of hospital-trained student nursing – so 3 years of frequent heavy lifting, on a back buggered from adolescence, now out of alignment, because the full-length leg plaster worn for 10 months was the wrong length, throwing my hips out of sway, meant by the time I graduated as a RN in late 1983, daily pain was my mate.
10 more years of physical nursing in aged care, before taking up mental health nursing because I couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and there you have it. No operations to fix my back. Bouts of physio, Pilates, gym-work, and an established daily pattern of nearly constant movement, so my back doesn’t freeze up, and here I am.
Every morning of my life, after waking, I’m in the semi-dark, before the rest of the house is up and about, on my back in the lounge, knees drawn up, admiring the pattern on the ceiling, going through a series of excruciating stretches that realigns the muscles in my torso and back. I simply can’t not do it. Pain defines me. It occasionally makes relationships fraught, because I’m a grumpy bastard, even though I try really hard not to be. Relationships with my kids are where it’s most tense because of the pain, particularly between Max (6 and three quarters), and I.
Doing my stretches on a cold and frosty morning last week, Max came over and sat next to me on the floor, wanting to find out more about this weird routine Daddy does most mornings. After I’d done my best to put it to him in plain language, he got it. With a sad look on his face, he leaned over and patted me on the shoulder. Sweet. That’s Max. Gentle soul. And he’s going to be a big bastard too, like his Dad.
Max might be only 6 and three quarters, but at his full height he’s level with my chest, when we stand together. Remember I’m 6′ 3″, so you get the picture. And like I was at the same age, he’s not really active enough. Yes he’s solid, but he isn’t obese. He has an aversion to sport, and just generally running around. We monitor his diet carefully. He’s known in his cohort at primary school as a gentle friend to everyone he has anything to do with. Parents of the kids in his class, particularly his regular playmates, love him. So gentle, they say, so caring. And he is. He isn’t perfect. He isn’t The Golden Boy. He can explode with impassioned outrage when angry or upset. Demonstrative. Yes, histrionic. But those behaviours don’t define him. They’re a passing aberration.
That is our ordinary life together, as a young family.
Just yesterday, my normal Monday routine was in full swing soon after 9am. Meditative stretches in the dark about 6.00 in the morning, and then it was making school lunch, coffee for my partner and myself, supervising Max getting ready for school, dressing Gracie (our 4 year old), farewelling my partner for the day as she dropped Max at his 8.00am piano lesson, walking round there with Gracie a half hour later to pick him up from the piano lesson, walking him to school, chatting about the week ahead as we go – morning Lollipop Lady – bye Max-Man have a good day, bye Dad, you too, then off to our neighbourhood cafe with Gracie-Girl, for a kid’s hot chocolate for her, and a skinny latte for me. Then my mobile rang. I didn’t know the number, so I didn’t answer. It’s an old habit. I only answer my phone to identified calls. Check the message afterwards, and it’s one of his occasional playmate Mums leaving a message, and it went something like: Hi, it’s Sarah here, it’s about Max, umm, he’s hurt his neck, we’re not sure what happened, but he’s in a bit of pain, one of the Mums is sitting with him, and she’ll give you a call if it doesn’t get better soon, bye.
Right. Off we go, back to school. Up the stairs to his class area, and there he is at the back of the room, curled up in the corner of a couch, half lying on his side, tears trickling over his nose running down to the tip, mixing with snot, whimpering. Frozen in pain. One hand up, and embracing the side of his neck where it hurt the most. Whimpering that he can’t move. There is genuine fear on his face. And the fear is about what is this pain? where did it come from? can’t you just do something about it?
Fast forward to 3.00am this morning, and he was awake with the pain, calling out to us in the dark of the night. I can’t move quickly enough to stiffly roll out of bed, and go to him in his room. Half awake, my partner recognises my slowed movements, and she’s off to him. The distant clatter of medicine cabinets and the snick of the kid’s Panadol bottle being opened, the whistle of the electric kettle as a hot water bottle is prepared, and Max comes to our bed for soothing, and comfort.
He lies between us, a wrapped hot water bottle under the back of his neck, and his right shoulder. He draws in his breath, and grunts softly, as he tries to find comfort. My partner and I either cuddle him, or hold his hand. The verbal, inaudible, wincing pain slowly subsides and he’s asleep again.
Three hours later, it’s 6.00am, and groggy with broken sleep I’m on my back, on the floor of the lounge, staring at the ceiling, as I do again my pain unlocking stretches and exercises. Max lies asleep in our bed, almost at 24 hours of pain.
Hullo pain, you bastard, welcome to the day. I don’t want you to become Max’s friend. Please leave him alone.