Month: October 2016

On Living with Brokenness (and laying on of hands)

When I was twenty-one or so, I made a bad decision for my body. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I had to purchase a bag for my books, and I chose a black messenger bag, one that I could toss over my left shoulder. The strap crossed my chest, and the bag—if I arranged it just so—landed on my low back.

I knew that backpack would have been better for my posture, but backpacks reminded me of elementary school, of days when every item I wore was up for deep public scrutiny, and nothing I owned was ever cool. Now that I was twenty-one, I was pretty sure that there was no way to make a backpack cool—unless you were already cool, which I wasn’t. And so I bought a black messenger bag, and sewed a zebra-striped patch of fabric over the brand logo, and carried that bag with me everywhere for years. I carried everything in it: books and notebooks and bottles of water; groceries and snacks and a travel umbrella. Because I didn’t have a car, I carried it up and down hills, from my apartment to the bus stop and back again.

Over time, that bag broke me in a few small ways, but I didn’t really know it. I knew that after a long day, my neck and shoulder were sore, but I didn’t think much of it. I’d rub into the soreness with my fingers and then I’d move on with my day. Now, nearly twenty years later, I think about that bag’s wide strap, and how it pulled against one side of my body, steering my vertebrae ever so slightly off course.

A year or so after I retired that bag, the muscles in my neck would spasm every few months. I’d wake up sore one morning and discover that I could turn my head to the right, but not the left. I saw a chiropractor, who often asked me: “Are you sure you weren’t in a car accident?” She would ask this before cracking my vertebrae back into place and sending me off into the world. After the adjustment, my muscles would let go, and for a few weeks or a few months I would be mostly pain-free. I saw her on and off for years.

Once I had Stump, my second child, I stopped attending to my damaged neck. I didn’t have space in my life for appointments, and so I tried to outsmart my body. Whenever I felt a muscle spasm coming on, I simply opened my bottle of Aleve. If I caught the spasm early enough, it would never take full hold and I could continue to drive and check my rearview mirror, to grade papers, to lift my kids, and to do all the other awkward bodily things that mothers do. For over three years, I thought I was clever. Who needs the chiropractor when you’ve got Aleve?

And then, in June of this year, I began to notice and new sensation: a tingle started at the top of my left shoulder, traveled down my arm, and landed in my fingers. It was distracting, not painful, but it grew more and more insistent. Every hour or so, the sensation recurred. Sometimes it came and went in moments. Other times it lingered long enough that I would try to shake it away.

Aleve didn’t touch it. I would take one and then another, but still the tingle traveled back and forth all day. I waited for my body to heal itself. It didn’t. It took me months to get around to asking my doctor for a referral. I put it off, because I suspected that addressing my haywire nerve might not be a simple endeavor, that it would require more than one or two adjustments, that to adequately heal I would need to commit some time and energy to healing. I was right.

My new chiropractor is not like the old one. He doesn’t crack my neck and send me out the door. Instead, he spent a full hour systematically testing the strength in all my muscles. He ordered x-rays and offered a diagnosis: bone spurs and moderate arthritis in my cervical vertebrae. He scheduled me for three appointments in a single week. The commitment is a drag; it interrupts my life. But the bigger challenge is this: each time I show up, I have to trust him. The exercise of trusting him addresses yet another broken spot.

“How’s this?” he says, as he locates a tense spot in my jaw. “How about this?” he says as he locates the spot at the base of my neck where the nerves pinch and send the tingle down to my fingers. “I’m good at irritating people,” he says. “Just ask my wife.”

In every exchange, my chiropractor manages to be at once gentle and caustic. “What the hell were you thinking?” he asks me, after he discovers my pelvis is torqued. I appreciate his sarcasm. It’s a smokescreen that creates distance between him and his touch. If he were only kind, or only gentle, I might melt. That would not be good for either of us.

Instead, I lie on the table and he places his hands at the base of my skull. “Press your skull into my fingers,” he instructs. I do. He pushes back. As we work with pressure and soft tissue, I wonder how that sentence sounds to him: press your skull into my fingers. Does he understand how personal that sounds, or how much trust he’s asking me to summon? Or does it sound to him the same way Take out your copy of the reading sounds to me?

In those moments I make a choice to let go, to let a near-stranger press his thumbs into the base of my skull, to let him turn my head ever-so-gently this way and then that way. Scenes from bad ninja movies run through my head—you know the ones where one ninja kills another by simply twisting his opponent’s head? That image comes through my mind, and then it leaves. I reassure myself that my chiropractor won’t kill me. (He won’t, right?) “Take a breath,” he says. I know what’s coming. The gesture is swift, but not forceful. He turns my head slightly to the left, and then pulls to the right. I hear the crack he is after, the sound of vertebrae rearranging, making space. I feel that space in my neck as I leave the office, but also in a deeper place in the hollow of my chest. My body has shifted from a tense and fearful thing to something roomier. For the moment at least I’ve become a being who is ready to receive care.

Image Credit: Spine by Katie Cowden (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Close-Up #4: Candy, Our Lord and Savior

I’m standing outside the bank, the door to the van wide open. Stump has his arms crossed and he’s staring me down. “I don’t want to go to the bank,” he says. It’s the hundredth time he’s said it. It’s the end of the day, and he’s a real mess. Moments ago he screamed and pounded on me as I carried him through the corridor of his daycare center. I have no idea why. Normally he runs through the hallway and beats me outside. Normally I have to yell at him to wait up. But today he skipped nap and decided that whatever we’re doing is not the thing he wants to do. “I don’t WANT to go to the bank,” he tells me again. If I could skip it I would, but I can’t. Today is the day we pay the carpenter in cash. The bank closes in fifteen minutes. She’s building walls for us; I don’t want to let her down.

My shirt is riding up and I’m sweating. I release Stump from his car seat, scoop him up, and pray. “Don’t you want a piece of candy?” I ask him. “Okay,” he says, and leans into me. He looks tired and pale, half-dried tears rolling down his cheeks. Maybe we will make it through this errand.

The candy basket sits on the welcome desk. The receptionist nods at us and continues to type. He sifts through the top layer of candies and asks me to name them: butterscotch, strawberry, lemon. He points to a peppermint that he spots through the weave at the bottom of the basket. I dig to retrieve it. I hope it will cure him.

Stump is perched on my hip, sucking away on his peppermint when I approach the teller. I’ve got a number written down on a piece of paper, but when I lay it on the counter, I’m suddenly unsure. “Shoot,” I say. “I’m sorry. I think I need to do the math one more time.”

“Take your time,” she says. I pull my phone out, choose the calculator function, and start typing numbers. I’m still sweating and I know she can tell. She gets that I’m frazzled. She plans to roll with it.

My calculator verifies the original number, and just as she is counting my cash—just as it seems that we are going to leave the bank without incident, I hear a sound. Something hard has hit the floor just below me. I look at Stump. A moment of silence ensues as he and I simultaneously figure out what has happened.

The peppermint has fallen from his mouth.

It has hit the hard tiles and shattered. Stump has already sucked off all of the red stripes, and so now it just looks like broken shards of white glass. Somehow I manage to bend over and scoop them all up in my left hand without letting go of Stump. He’s crying, sobbing, tears and snot streaming down his face. He was loving that peppermint. Like, really, really loving it. I can only imagine how it feels to be three years old and exhausted from a day of following instructions and fighting naps, exhausted from the drama of fighting your mom, weighed down by that sinking-tired feeling, that hungry-but-you-have-trouble-with-hunger-cues-so-it-just-feels-like-pain-feeling, and then you put a peppermint on your tongue. Your mouth surrounds it and you suck with all your might, and for a moment your whole body is focused on nothing but that sweetness. All is well.

Now his cries echo off the tiled floors and vast walls of the bank. The teller produces a bowl of candy. It’s an entirely different selection: Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops, and gummies wrapped in plastic. Stump shakes his head. He cannot be won so easily. He tries to resist at first, but then he notices a small yellow box of Dots. Those will do, he decides. He holds the box in his hands. We watch the teller start over and count all the money. I continue to hold the candy shards in my left hand. I carry Stump back to the van and this time he doesn’t rail against me as I secure him in his car seat. He asks me to open the Dots.

In the front seat, I finally open my left fist to release the candy into an old coffee cup. It sticks to my hand and so I wipe it off with a baby wipe. I check to make sure that I still have the envelope of cash. I do; it’s a miracle; it’s in the front pocket of my bag. I start the ignition. I drive us home. I hear the sounds of vigorous chewing in the backseat.

image credit: Janet Beasley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/janetbeasley/8201584932