Sunday, September 22, 2019


My friend is in the unenviable state of medical purgatory.  Many of us have been there; more of us will be, as the years accelerate.  While she anxiously awaits a full diagnosis, she must contend not only with perceived symptoms but with the unperceived.  Then there are the additional pains and discomforts brought on by torturous probing and exploratory protocol, because when you are helpless and punctured, they 'bring it on' irregardless.  All, presumably, in the name of an appropriate treatment-- a cure-- which is several steps more complicated than simply naming the disease.

Despite our compulsive identifying and classifying of things, we do not all fall into a simple solution box.  We sit in hospital waiting rooms with hundreds of bodies and faces that do not much resemble one another.  Besides obvious crutches and bandages, we know little of what ails our neighbors.  Sometimes our neighbors do not even know what ails them.  And behind the physical manifestations there are our emotional labyrinths-- our panics and anxieties, our deep childhood wounds which fester or recede only to assume center-stage when we feel weak.  All of the self-help and proverbs--  even religion-- are suddenly not enough to guide us through a sleepless night of crisis.

When I grew up in the 1950's parents weren't as 'hands-on' as parents of the 21st century are expected to be.  They left strollers outside the supermarket; we walked ourselves to school as small children, and played without supervision in parks.  Things happened-- even relatives spoke and handled us inappropriately, but no one mentioned these things.  We were cared for, but I never had that sense that I could talk intimately with my Mom about things that bothered me... yes, we had our friends, but few of us had that sense of emotional safety.  We grew up and music was like our confidante; many of us used sex and substances for comfort.

I raised my son with attention to a parental safety zone.  I wanted him to be independent, but I also wanted him to feel confident that his needs--emotional and physical-- were being met.  Yes, there were rough patches of infancy-- colic, bad phases-- but he was a relatively easy baby.  He spoke words at 12 months and expressed his needs as best he could.    As a 24/7 single parent this made a difference; I had no help and worked most nights doing gigs, while he was sleeping.  He rarely woke to notice I was absent.  One night a neighbor was sleeping over while I worked... he woke up... she gave him a water bottle and put him back to bed.  But he kept calling-- asking her for a comb.  "Comb.  He needs a comb,' he implored-- using the third person, as he did.  So my neighbor kept taking his little blue baby comb out of the drawer and fixing his hair.  But he would shake his head and repeat.  When I called during break to check in, I could hear him crying.  She put him on the phone --'Mama-- COMB'... he was saying...  At last it occurred to me... we had a bedtime ritual, after I put him in the crib... I would read him some rhyme from a huge old coverless anthology of verse... so I recited on the phone some things I knew from Robert Louis Stevenson-- the Swing poem, the Land of Counterpane...  and immediately he calmed and curled up with his little finger.  Poem, not comb.  It was comical... but also I realized it was his little bedtime 'need'... his comfort.  Fortunately I figured that one out.

My baby girl was born with a fatal heart defect.  Neither the doctors nor I were able to diagnose and repair the hole through which she disappeared.  Her needs, unlike those of her brother, were unreachable.  They haunt me still, because when we love someone, we adopt their pain.  She and I had barely been separated; I grieve daily not only for her angelic soul, but for my failure to provide her comfort.

My son is a man and his needs are a lot more complex.  Tonight we spoke about Antonio Brown and the dissolution of his once-promising career.  I always feel so much empathy for these athletes-- knowing how much they put in day after day-- the sacrifices, the sweat and training.  Then they are thrust into a spotlight, showered with sums of money that are almost beyond their ability to manage, preyed upon by media, women, fame parasites.  And once they taste this kind of celebrity-- well, there is no normal. What are his needs now? He is in the midst of meltdown mode.

Our needs change as we grow older-- they increase, and then in ways they decrease.  As adults, we figure out how to provide our own needs-- not to depend on partners, friends and children. But when we are ill, all bets are off.  A day without pain is a gift; a successful treatment is a reward.  We paddle upstream hopefully toward some version of recovery.  But first, this requires a proper diagnosis-- for someone to really listen to our symptoms and complaints, and devise a medical course.  For this, we are at the mercy of professionals whom we pray are astute and on point. As for emotional symptoms-- I have friends who have been seeing a shrink for decades.  Some have regressed into childhood memories and early trauma to encounter their younger, less damaged self.  Does this help?  At this age, no one is going to rock us to sleep or read us nursery rhymes out loud.  Still, we can try to listen.  Loneliness is easily diagnosable; fear and anger less so, but we can check in and listen and offer not to deliver our signature brownies or cookies, but to see what they need--  a clean stove or some menial errand or maybe to simply hear a caring voice tell them how much they mean to us-- that we are not just who we are, but who we have been-- with our canes and limps and aches and scars.  This life is a package deal and we all get our unraveling at some point.  So share the wealth, whatever that may mean, with someone who needs it today.

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