The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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May 5, 1992
I saw the whole thing in my rearview mirror. In the final seconds before fate in the form of a silver Volvo station wagon collided with me, I was fascinated by the slow unraveling of the inevitable. I was stopped in traffic, a car in front of me, cars to either side of me. I glanced in the mirror, beheld my future, and did the sensible thing: forced the brake down and locked my right leg against the pedal as hard as I could.
The animated doctor who treated me at the emergency room giggled when I told him this. Enjoying himself immensely, he explained that in a chain reaction consisting of three cars and a human body, the human body is the weakest link.
No bones broke — that would have been far too lucky; bones heal relatively quickly. Instead, the ligaments tore in my sacroiliac and groin, and ligaments heal slowly, if at all. I have lost the memory of a life without pain. To this day, nearly three years later, I limp when a cold front comes through. The rest of the time, I’m just bad-tempered.
I have logged hundreds of hours in doctors’ offices. Each new specialist confidently chirps his unique diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, and each new specialist becomes disgruntled when the treatment doesn’t take effect, blaming the patient, blaming me. I have tried it all: cortisone spit into me through nightmarishly long needles; dextrose injections that made me grit my teeth and left me stiff for weeks; medication that made me logy all day long; massage (pleasant but useless); resonant kinesiology, which I still don’t understand; acupuncture, whose tap-tap, ache-ache has left me with a marked distaste for needles, however thin. I have even pulled out the diagnostic big guns — bone scans, MRIs, CAT scans — but to no avail. (Thank God for health insurance.) I have come to see medicine for what it is: a very limited grab bag of hit-or-miss treatments. And God help you if you have the bad luck to fall outside of certain narrowly defined parameters.
God hasn’t helped me. I have attempted, as the pain therapist suggests, to make the cold, dull ache “my friend,” but it is not the congenial sort. I try to “acknowledge the pain’s validity and get through it to the other side” — only I have no choice but to acknowledge the pain, and the other side is booked up. Doctors will not give me painkillers anymore, and they chastise me about my “abuse” of ibuprofen, which tears up my stomach until I vomit blood. They say I must handle the pain without any medication from now on. They are jerks.
Let me be clear: I am not a whiner. I’ve borne postsurgery pain without dismay, and jubilantly gave birth to three babies without anesthesia. But this sneering, draining pain — this constant, pointless suffering — has aged and weakened me. If I could cry, I would cry all day, but I can’t. I have never dealt with anything so invasive, pervasive, and soul crushing as this dark, bastard pain. Its primary weapon is its ubiquity. It starts in my back and spreads like a remorseless, pulsing slime: down my right leg to my toes; up through my ribs to my right shoulder and down to the fingertips of my right hand; and on up to nerve central, my throbbing, sodden head. The pain obliterates all thought, crushing any desire other than simply to make it stop, make it stop, make it stop. But it never does. It saps every speck of strength, every spark of energy, every inclination to humor or goodwill. I find myself looking for reasons to yell at my children, to yell at anything, just to yell.
It is inconceivable to me that there are people for whom shopping, cooking, child care, and the myriad other daily chores are manageable — even enjoyable. For me, each bend of my spine, each lift of my leg, each stretch of my right arm is a check written on a very paltry bank account of stamina and endurance, and by ten in the morning I am often severely overdrawn. As my insurance company is fond of pointing out, I am not physically incapable of performing such tasks. (In the world of insurance, as long as you possess limbs that move, it doesn’t matter how slowly or painfully they function.) The company argues about “percentage impairment” while I fantasize about a single, painless night’s sleep. In my dreams I dance; in waking moments, I would settle for sweeping my kitchen floor.
I understand that pain is a part of life. I have seen my father lose a leg to diabetes, my mother become twisted by arthritis, a friend slowly succumb to cancer. I tell myself I am lucky to have largely escaped pain for my first thirty years. I tell myself I will cope with this and get on with my life. I tell myself I will triumphantly surmount this obstacle. In other words, I lie.
July 3, 1992
When you are unwell for a long period of time, you eventually become plugged into an incredibly efficient network of fellow sufferers. New treatments are thoroughly and rigorously ferreted out, researched, discussed, and tested (although the final judgments are somewhat less than objective). The names of promising new practitioners who pass muster are communicated faster than by e-mail, and the names of the unsympathetic or incompetent travel even more quickly. We Westerners suffer more than other cultures when it comes to disease and disability; our culture actively dislikes the persistently unwell. We prefer the acutely ill or, even better, the fantastically injured, who present opportunities for dramatic, high-tech medical resurrections. The acute patient either gracefully gets better or sensibly dies, whereas the chronic sufferer hangs on like a guest who doesn’t know it’s time to leave, a bore and embarrassment to physician and friend alike. I know: I have consulted eleven different doctors, all of whom have given up on me. Although they don’t say it in so many words, it’s quite clear they do not want to see me again. I understand. They cannot help me, and neither their medical nor their social education has prepared them for this eventuality.
So when I hear of Vincent Vinccini, yet another practitioner, I have no intention of trying him out. I am tired of undressing for men in clinical situations. After three years, I no longer believe recovery is possible. I spend what little energy I have scheming ways to get new prescription painkillers (fake a toothache? a migraine?), and I consider the possibility of an intentional overdose less idly than before. This is not how I plan to spend my golden years.
September 29, 1992
This Vinccini’s name crops up too often to ignore. I hear it mentioned at the grocery store, the swimming pool, the elementary school. The college chaplain has a weekly appointment. The dean of faculty schedules a session after each monthly faculty meeting. Both report astounding results. (Of course, they continue to see him periodically for minor adjustments.) Malingerers, mostly, I consider Vinccini’s followers. My friend Melanie tells me that he fixed her headaches. (I can’t believe she actually uses the word fixed, as if she were an automobile and he a mechanic.)
“What is it, exactly, that this Vinccini does to you?” I ask Melanie.
“Structural massage, mainly.”
“Oh, you know: rib rotation, manipulation of cranial plates, the occasional manual lymph drainage.”
“No past-life therapy? Crystal counseling?”
Melanie is not amused.
I know her type — people too unaware to realize that what they needed most, and finally got from this man, was complete acceptance of their side of the story: no insisting on weight loss and exercise, no dismissal of far-fetched connections, no denial of a bizarre symptom’s significance. Just quiet, sympathetic nodding and validation:
“When I eat toast for breakfast, the pain seems less.”
Quiet nod. “No doubt there is some connection with the digestive strain.”
“The doctors say this exercise should help, but it hurts.”
Sympathetic, knowing look. “Of course it does; here’s why. . . .”
It’s the perfect placebo for these whining hypochondriacs unable to accept that their pain is in their head, or their diet, or their fat and lazy bodies. I, for one, will not let my money cross this new-age con artist’s palm.
November 19, 1992
I have an appointment to see Vinccini. Gretchen has changed my mind. She is my eldest, the one most confused by Mommy’s problem, the only one of my babies who still remembers a time when Mommy crawled around on the floor, gave piggyback rides, even laughed. She cannot reconcile her memories with the witchy woman she knows today. My children wince visibly when they come to me with questions or requests, knowing that, likely as not, I will shriek at them. Although sometimes, just to guarantee that they will grow up truly schizophrenic, my martyr complex kicks in, and I smile benignly, though wanly, and respond as a mother should. Anyway, when Gretchen came to ask me if she could have a friend sleep over, I noticed the straightening of her tiny spine, the imperceptible intake of breath, her careful assuming of an emotionless mask as she braced herself for my shrewish reply — such a stoic, my precious firstborn. I do not, however, intend forbearance to be my sole legacy to her. So, once again, desperation has overcome skepticism, and I will haul my sorry carcass off to yet another healing venue, however dubious.
I made the appointment after several rounds of telephone tag between Vinccini’s sophisticated-sounding answering machine and mine. When I actually got his live voice on the phone, it was too smooth and breathy for my taste, and I resolved not to keep the appointment I was making. But when he told me that the earliest he could see me was in three weeks, the curious snob in me leapt for the early morning slot; even the neurologist usually squeezed me in within two weeks.
December 9, 1992
For all the talk about Vinccini, no one has provided visual details, so I am unprepared for what I will find when I climb the ramp to his office, behind a tanning salon. Just as well.
His name is painted on the door — just his name. No initials following it, no titles. Inside, the walls, trim, doors, and ceiling are all painted white, and two orange plastic chairs are mercifully vacant; I couldn’t bear being seen here, having been so vocal in my doubts. The bulletin board is completely covered with business cards and flyers advertising all manner of new-age mumbo-jumbo: Reiki, channeling, polarity therapy, breathwork, secrets of the universe, and (my personal favorite) bliss training. A single door leads to the inner sanctum. I have just about decided that, since no one is here, I can slip out and make good my escape, when the pale door silently opens.
“I am Vincent.”
I am not impressed. He is too short, and he squints. (Surely, a gifted healer can at least fix a simple squint.) And he wears a goatee. Really, if this isn’t central casting at work, at least the costume crew had a hand. He smiles at me slightly, and gestures for me to come in.
The examining room is slightly more promising: a single oak massage table (though even at a distance I can see that the sheets on it are onionskin thin); a beautiful oak legal bookcase; and atop the bookcase an amethyst crystal so large it belongs in the Smithsonian. Important-looking certificates and anatomical charts line the wall, and a number of disconcerting burgundy velvet pillows with gold fringe lie slatternly in a corner. There are no windows, and the floor is covered with a thick, plush carpet of some vaguely Eastern pattern. It is a little bizarre, this clinical brothel, but I face Vincent squarely.
“What can I do for you?” he asks.
“I don’t know that you can do anything for me.”
My response surprises me, but he nods.
“Where do you hurt?”
“Here,” I say, “and here, and here. And sometimes here.”
“Put on this gown, please.”
He steps away and pulls a white plastic shower curtain with gold squiggles on it between us. I think briefly of the film Psycho, but I obediently exchange my clothes for a blue gown covered with gold moons and stars. To fill the air I chatter nervously, telling him about the accident, my pains, my inexplicable inability to heal. I climb on the oak table and tell him about every pompous, useless doctor I have seen, the hundreds of pilgrimages I have made seeking relief. I tell him how I once believed that if I just tried hard enough I would get better, and about the painkillers I have lied to obtain. I even tell him about Gretchen. Finally, I lapse into silence, for once nearly bored with my own complaints. He has listened to it all without interruption or show of impatience. That has never happened before.
“There is more?” he says.
I shake my head.
He nods, and I read much into the gesture.
After a pause, I say, “I drink a bit more than I should. Just once in a while.”
I have never said this to anyone, nor has anyone ever voiced concern to me about my drinking, though I have seen the thought cross my husband’s face when he thinks I’m not looking, when the third drink has made my usual crisp, Midwestern accent drift a little to the south. Vincent nods again, and I say, a little more loudly, “I drink too much.”
Vincent gestures for me to lie on my stomach. I do and he moves to one end of the table, pulls my feet straight, then walks around and pulls my head toward him. I hear my neck crack. He probes each vertebra, then bends each knee, pushing my feet up to my buttocks as far as they will go.
“Sit up,” he says.
“Hold your arm out and try to resist my pressure on it.”
I do, but he pushes my arm down easily.
“Now cross your right arm in front of you. Take a deep breath. Good. Now let it out.”
He pushes something in my back. Again. Again.
“Now hold your arm out.”
I do and find that I can now resist his attempt to push it down. “What does that mean ?” I ask.
Interesting, maybe, but I’m not sure how this relates to my problem. I press on.
“I have muscle spasms, too.”
“Ah. Lie on your back. Show me where the spasms are.”
I do, and Vincent glues on little black dots the size and shape of lentils.
“Magnets,” he explains. “Leave them on until next time. They will sedate the muscle by reversing the polarity. You will need vitamin supplements initially: calcium, B-complex, some ginseng.”
I dress and pay him fifty dollars, cash. He mentions a cancellation next week, which I take. I have let my guard down with him; I don’t know why.
“Do you think you can . . . fix me?” I ask.
He smiles. “Fix? I am not an auto mechanic. I may be able to help with some issues.”
“How long will this take?”
He shrugs. “Nature and your body do the healing. I am only the vehicle.” He suggests appointments twice a week, and I make three weeks’ worth, quite unsure whether I intend to keep them. Scuttling out, I find both orange chairs occupied — by strangers, thankfully. I still hurt, and now I feel foolish, taken. I go home and have a drink.
December 13, 1992
I do go back to see Vincent. I might as well; I have no other takers. Today, talking to him, I am aware of the whine in my voice. Ever sympathetic, Vincent murmurs, does some adjustments, presses on my skull to move the plates, attaches the odd magnet or two.
“You must start to get some exercise,” he says. “Nothing aggressive — short walks to begin with is fine.”
Externally, I nod; internally, I sneer.
December 15, 1992
I wake to find deep, fluffy snow on the ground, the gray-brown trees magically dipped in thick white paste, and I am once again a kid growing up in the Midwest, where great and violent snowstorms knocked out power and canceled school. With nothing on the plains to stop the wind, the snow would drift ten or twelve feet high. My brothers and I would sled until our pants were frozen so stiff we could no longer sit down. Then we would come inside and drink real hot chocolate — not the fake, dusty powder you get these days. I have never adjusted to life on the East Coast; I wonder now if I have ever adjusted to anything, period.
This morning I go outside and walk across my neighbor’s meadow to the base of the ridge, farther than I have walked in years. When I return, my hip and back hurt much worse, but I accept this as fair payment for my brief visit to another place and time. Gretchen crawls into my lap, and instead of probing for an underlying motive, I simply hold her and let her unbelievable warmth seep into me. For a moment or two, I hear our hearts beat in unison, and so, I think, does she.
January 30, 1993
I have been seeing Vincent several times a week for nearly two months now. I still hurt, but the pain seems to have localized in my hip, and I find this focused discomfort easier to bear than the far-reaching pain of old. The pain is quite strong at times, but I am occasionally able to separate it from the rest of my life. I have actually stopped myself in midshriek, because another part of me heard what I sounded like. It is not the baby you’re angry with, this other me points out, but a silver Volvo station wagon. I walk a little each day, instead of having that second drink. I am not cured, but I am coping, and there is something in Vincent’s quiet attention that soothes the beast in me.
February 15, 1993
I am miserable. Everything gained has been lost in some unexplained and vicious backlash. My entire right side is pulsing in agony, and I have only enough stamina to search out the bottle of tequila I remember hiding away for emergencies, and crawl back to bed. I work my way through half the bottle before my husband finds me and takes it away. I scream at him, then dissolve in a torrent of tears. He stares at me the way he stares at the car when it won’t start and he doesn’t know why. Then he half carries me downstairs and places me in the passenger seat. I have nearly controlled my sobbing by the time he delivers me to Vincent’s office. My husband stays in the waiting room while I pass through the white door. I recover my composure enough to lash out at Vincent:
“I don’t know what you’re doing! If you don’t know what’s wrong or how to help, just say so and save me the money! Life is hard enough without having to drag myself here twice a week for no discernible benefit.”
I continue in this vein for some time. Vincent simply sits, doesn’t interrupt me once, makes no effort to stop the stream of harsh words I am spewing at him. It is a little like slugging whipped cream. Finally, I stop, because if I continue I will begin to cry again. He lets the silence settle in a moment before speaking:
“Sometimes, just before a body turns itself around, there is what is called a healing crisis, as the body makes a vigorous attempt to rid itself of its ills. Perhaps this is what you’re experiencing. We must wait and see. But for now, let’s see if I can make you more comfortable.”
I say nothing. I am pouting, I admit. He massages, adjusts, tweaks my worn body, and I relent a little, but not much.
“If you don’t want to,” he says, “don’t come back.”
It is spoken not defensively, but helpfully, and I hate him for it. In silence, he kneads, makes a couple of notes, pulls on my legs, pushes my skull plates around. Still I say nothing, so he speaks again.
“You are tired, discouraged. That’s OK. Why don’t you go home, take a hot shower, and curl up with a book? Do something nice for yourself.”
I am determined not to feel better, and I groan as I get up, leaning on the cane more than I have in months.
He eyes me for a moment, reviews his notes, then says, “There is a belief among some cultures — not ours, but some — that various pains attacking one side of the body, and one side only, occur when there is difficulty in the relationship with a parent.”
I stare at him in total disbelief. What a sucker I have been. He was a con man all along. I knew it from the beginning, yet refused to listen to the remaining shred of sense I had.
Vincent smiles, a little apologetically. “It is just a belief among some cultures. Are your parents living?”
“How do you get along with them?”
“I get along great with my mother. My father is a jerk.” I hand Vincent a check, but do not meet his eyes.
“The right side is considered to be the realm of the father.”
My eyes widen against my will, and I am suddenly rather nauseated.
“You are fortunate,” he says. “It is easier to make peace with someone when he’s still alive.”
“Peace isn’t what comes to mind when I think of my father.”
“Oh, it often isn’t even necessary to involve the other party. The peace must come from you.”
I laugh at this, and the bitterness of my laugh takes me aback. Vincent reaches out and gently pats my shoulder. It is the only time he has ever touched my body away from the oak table. I leave knowing I will not return.
I hardly ever think of my father; I consider it a waste of time. He is a bitter, cantankerous old man, and always has been — except for when he was a bitter, cantankerous young man. He orders my mother around as if she were a slave in his private empire. And I guess she is, by mutual consent, for he has decided that he cannot travel, and she refuses to leave him in the hands of outside help, even to see her children and grandchildren. For this, he repays her with temper tantrums and myriad demands for her to do things he can and should do for himself: “Get me a glass of water, take off my socks, go buy me some orange juice, not this orange juice, I want the other orange juice, now.” He thinks of no one but himself, and is rude when we visit. I do not speak of him to my children, but refer only to Grandma: Grandma’s house, presents from Grandma, Grandma’s car. I speak to him only when necessary — primarily when asking him to put my mother on the phone.
He is not, I suppose, a bad man. He worked hard to be what he thought a husband and father should be, and I am left with an overriding impression of him as someone who worked too hard. He has no fun, no hobbies — never did. He worries incessantly about trivial things, and loves to work himself into a useless fuss, leaving my mother to do the real work of coping.
My father worked at the same job all his life, bitching about it — I swear — every single day. He hated the job and the people he worked with. Maybe he loved hating them; I’m not sure. I understood quite early on that it wouldn’t matter which job he had, with which people; he would find a way to hate them all. And I grew up hating his hate. The irony of this finally hits me, making me laugh, a sharp, blurting ha! My body is surprised by the unfamiliar sensation.
These days, my father wallows in self-pity. Everything bad in his life is someone else’s fault, right down to his diabetes. He sneaks chocolate bars on the side, as if, so long as my mother doesn’t know, it won’t hurt him. I don’t respect him; I think he’s pathetic, and I have already decided I will cry no tears when he dies.
February 16, 1993
I have canceled all my appointments with Vincent. I am that angry with him. But canceling the appointments doesn’t keep me from thinking about my father. I think of what an embarrassment he was, with his bigoted jokes and general incompetence at fatherly tasks. He would tip poorly or not at all when we went out to eat, so I would bring my allowance along to dinner and surreptitiously leave it on the table for the cheated waitress. But I also remember being fifteen and home from school with the flu — except that it wasn’t the flu, and I couldn’t stop throwing up. I developed an incredible pain in my belly and writhed on the floor in front of my amazed and frightened mother. She called the ambulance, but my father arrived before it, home unexpectedly from his hated job. As they loaded me into the back seat, I was drifting, sinking away from them. Typically, my father went into a panicked frenzy and drove way over the speed limit, cursing when he had to brake for traffic. My last thought, as inertia threw me against the back of the front seat, was Why can’t he just calm down?
My appendix had ruptured and spilled poison into my system. When I woke after the operation, my father was holding my hand, peering into my face with a look of complete fear. I saw my mother in the background calmly reading a magazine. Irritated, I closed my eyes and feigned sleep. My father’s look was, I know now, the same look I wore as I watched my premature baby boy struggle to breathe with a collapsed lung. I would have traded my life for his in a minute, no questions asked, and I know my father would have done the same for me when I was fifteen; he would do so now.
I can’t think of anything in his life that he did well, and as unhappy as this makes me, it must make my father unhappier still. I am stronger than my father, I realize, and the strong must be the caretakers, not the critics, of the weak. I may not cry when he dies, but I am crying now.
February 19, 1993
I have calmed down sufficiently to want to reschedule my appointments, but I get only Vincent’s answering machine.
February 20, 1993
Vincent has not returned my call, and I am a little panicked: I have come to rely upon our twice-a-week visits more than I care to admit. I call his office every hour, like a lover. Then, like a lover, I become angry with him.
February 21, 1993
I call today and don’t even get the machine. I am so furious I don’t realize until after lunch that I feel great. Not just OK, but great. I’d forgotten what it’s like not to hurt.
February 24, 1993
“Gone!” they say. Not so much as a lentil magnet left. “Charlatan!” I hear. “Quack!” Some suspicious soul checked out the names of the institutes on the certificates — probably some pricey specialist concerned about his nearly empty waiting room, where only the most obstreperous and difficult patients remained. No credentials at all, just some new-age psychospeak and some secondhand textbooks in an expensive bookcase. The certificates? Easily cranked out on any laser printer these days. Seems he was a gardener the next state over a while back. A gardener! Half the frigging town got naked for a goddamn gardener! Now the doctors are happy (appointments are up), the pharmacies are pleased (prescriptions have nearly tripled), and the patients are back to being grumpy. All those checks I wrote — not a penny covered by insurance. But cheap at twice the price.
May 1, 1995
Whenever I’m out of town I leaf through the hotel phone book, looking first in the white pages for his name, then in the yellow pages under Massage, or Alternative Medicine. At first, I waited for the cold burn deep in my pelvis to come back and flood the entire right side of my body. I bid it to return, since it had been ousted by a phony, and therefore ought to take up its rightful place again. I probed the once-tender spots, daring the pain to attack, now that the placebo had been exposed. But it’s been two years now, and the tissue is completely quiet and still.
My father died last fall, releasing those of us who loved him, but primarily releasing himself. I find that I miss what he could have been, but not who he was. Which is OK. I was fortunate to discover before he died the one, small thing he did well: he loved me.
I do not believe in miracles, but there are secrets in the universe, and I have been let in on a little one. I like to think of Vincent as the punch line to a gentle cosmic joke. I wonder why I, the ultimate cynic, was chosen to have this grace bestowed upon me, and it is this wonder that is Vincent’s true gift to me. If your path crosses his someday, tell him I am well.