Pain has a strange entanglement with memory. When you have lived for four decades in a body that un-cooperates, you are, from time to time, visited by eggplant-shaded intrusions on your skin. You are unmoored from gravity, for a fleeting moment, before the shock of thunder and violent return to Earth. You are disabled from living the life that less unusual people enjoy. You are forced to take care.
I recently, in the shower, came upon a delightful abrasion plastered across my thigh. It would have looked like a donut, circular in shape and missing internal coloration, but for a savage and bright red cut that dissected the bruise. I pressed it, testing to gauge its newness. It was tender and raw, and I scoured my mind to remember how it had gotten there.
Nothing came to mind.
As a child, my injuries were shooed away with strict admonition. Stop being so clumsy. Watch where you’re going. You need to look down. You need to look in front of you. How could you not have seen that? The fact that I hadn’t, actually, seen that was immaterial. Where is it that my body ended and my disability began?
I was forty-one when I realized that I have a disability, although I had lived with my impairments since the moment I arrived, the product of birth injury. I would not understand for many years how perilous the journey from womb to bassinet can be, but mine resulted in such mellifluous phrases as arrested hydrocephalus and hypotonia. This on top of the mortality of being. I would forever be susceptible to wounds.
For the aid and care of such things, the Mayo Clinic offers the following advice:
- Wash your hands.
Dial-brand soap and chicken: these scents are inextricably glued to my childhood. I am eight or nine, and baked chicken is one of the few things that my mother cooks for dinner. I have an aversion to certain scents, and the soap that my parents keep in the downstairs bathroom is one of them. I do not articulate this, but I come to the dinner table with unwashed hands anyway, and am often sent back to “try again.” I am otherwise fastidious about hygiene.
The stink of it rides into my nose. The kitchen, which had smelled vaguely of kosher chicken, now is now a playground for the rot of gold, antibacterial liquid as it rises off of my skin. A year or two later, Bath & Body Works will open its first store, and I will, as a teenager, buy bottles of Cherry Blossom scented hand cream. I will carry them in my purse, and I will lather my hands incessantly.
- Stop the bleeding.
The one thing not wrong with me is my development as a young cisgender woman.
Halfway between my thirteenth and fourteenth birthdays, my first period arrives on an otherwise normal Friday evening. It is not the right color – or rather, not the color that I had been prepared to expect by elementary school health class.
I am supposed to go to Andrew’s Bar Mitzvah the next day – Andrew is not a good friend, and thirty years later, I cannot remember a thing about him, other than his perfectly straight teeth and gelatinous spiked hair. For some reason, my appearance at the door of womanhood has not impressed my mother greatly; perhaps because I am a giant pain in the ass, and difficult to control already. I try to force the issue by refusing to attend the service. I invent cramps that haven’t quite settled on my adolescent body. The gambit works to the point where I am allowed to stay home, but nothing about my womanhood is ever celebrated.
- Clean the wound.
I’ve been a runner for thirteen years. The first year, my injuries were self-inflicted: iliotibial band syndrome and shin splints, a stress fracture and plantar fasciitis. All caused damage to two legs that hadn’t been trained to run. Since I course corrected, and learned what my body can endure, my calamities have been haphazard, and far more gruesome: two broken fingers, loose fluid in my knee, and chunks of flesh lost to skids and trips in fields of gravel.
I once raced a half marathon in Washington, D.C. We ran on unfamiliar roads, and at mile 2 of 13.1, my left foot clipped the edge of a pothole, and in a hot second, I was on the ground. My cheeks and nose dripped with blood; my new running tights had ripped at the left knee, and that was oozing, too. Not knowing the city, and wanting to earn my medal, I kept running. I was not so much injured as sore later on, although more than one race photographer begged me to stop running. All they saw was the blood, and it was everywhere.
- Apply an antibiotic or petroleum jelly.
One July in my mid-30s, I contracted a bronchitis that lingered for weeks and weeks. It persisted through several rounds of antibiotics and two rounds of steroids. Every morning, I woke up, and there it was, hiding in a barking cough or blanketing my lungs with thick liquid. As one week became the next, I continued to go to the office and the theatre and museums on the weekends, living as if I were not sick. I lost ten pounds because it pained me to eat.
When the infection finally cleared, the weather in New York had turned crisp. I had missed the enjoyment of summer. My primary care doctor put a note in my file that I was prone to severe infection due to an unknown immune deficiency.
- Cover the wound.
The summer that I was thirteen, my parents surprised me with strabismus surgery.
I was not ignorant of my vision problems. The muscles behind my eyes do not work
as they should, and my strabismus had progressed to the point where I could no longer focus on what was in front of me. I have always walked into walls, but the frequency with which I did so that spring was alarming.
I come from a line of women who withhold medical information. My grandmother, in her nineties, has from time to time disappeared, only to re-emerge, having told no one she was being treated in the hospital for a heart condition. Similarly, her daughter (my mother) once broke her ankle and waited until she was recovering from surgery to let any of her children know. In another instance, she once mentioned to me she had been treated for cancer – a decade prior. And so, it does not shock the adult version of me that my parents waited until the day before my procedure to clue me in. I was an anxious child, and perhaps they saw it as doing me a favor.
Still, the agony of the finding out was akin being slapped. Not only was I going to be put under anesthesia, but my recovery would take several weeks, most of which I would spend in my bed, my eyes firmly shut and then leaking with… something.
- Change the dressing.
I tend not to bandage. I broadcast my cuts and bruises to the world, even when they attach themselves to bare elbows and knees. If my chafing does not match what you consider to be appropriate exposure, be thankful that you didn’t see me fall.
- Get a tetanus shot.
The summer that I was seventeen, I came downstairs one morning to complain about the multitudinous bug bites that covered my body. Point Pleasant Beach, I yelled, exasperated, was a hell hole.
My mother, the nurse, took one look at me, and told me not to scratch.
“Those are chickenpox,” she said, calmly but clearly impressed. There were hundreds of them. But I had already had chickenpox – or so my parents claimed. My earlier, milder case had come roaring back with a second exposure.
As I could not refrain from scratching, my scalp and ears and forehead still bear the scars of my infatuation with immediate satisfaction. I ask now why I didn’t just get the vaccine.
“You’d already had it,” my mom explains, again. “You were supposed to have natural immunity.”
The first round of pox, I think, were probably mosquito bites.
- Watch for signs of infection.
I became obsessed with the idea that I was going to have to go to the hospital on my fortieth birthday. March 24, 2020 was four days into the governor’s mandate that all non-essential businesses be indefinitely closed. My already high paranoia was exacerbated by the fact that we live on an ambulance route, and by the middle of the month, the WEE-OO WEE-OO of sirens was the only semblance of soundtrack we had. My spouse and I checked our temperature a hundred times a day; every morning, I brought the shampoo, conditioner and body soap directly to my nose, making sure I could still smell them. Nevermind that I had already caught a whiff of my toothpaste, my coffee, the cat litter and the Jergens hand cream.
I reasoned that the worst possible thing that could happen to us was not that we’d end up with the virus, but so sick that we’d admit ourselves to wherever those ambulances were headed, a half mile down West End Avenue. The hospitals were seeing thousands of patients a day, and losing hundreds. How poetic and cataclysmic, I worried, it would be to find myself marking my fifth decade on Earth, becoming a statistic.
March 20th became March 21st, and then the 22nd, and the 23rd. Winter became spring. Pisces became Aries. Patrick went to the bodega to buy ingredients for a birthday cake. I fretted. When I woke up the morning of the 24th, I checked my temperature (fine) and my ability to smell (also fine) before throwing on running clothes and jogging to the park. The sun was out, but it was bitterly cold. The pollen that would cause a month-long sore throat (and even higher pitched paranoia) hadn’t yet found me.
I ran south, down West Drive, searching for something that ached, or bled, or itched, or burned. Nothing ached or bled, or itched or burned. Nothing hurt; I flew.