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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The strain of pain

by Philip Martin | February 14, 2021 at 8:22 a.m.

Jackie felt the pain and noticed the hard spot just before Christmas, but she didn't say anything to anybody.

It sounds foolish, but I understand it and maybe you do too. Shame attaches to chronic unhealthiness, and no one wants to hear you complain. And part of you believes that unnamed things never coalesce into fact, that if you ignore the actual it might become notional. Some people call it whistling past the graveyard, some call it the power of positive thinking.

Most of us find a way to live with it. We resign ourselves to dull hums and broken hearts and the stabs of hateful glances we don't understand. We put it off to the side.

Pain is all in your head anyway.

Until it isn't. Until it jerks you awake and empties out your stomach.

Pain finally took her to the doctor in early February. Her general practitioner felt the mass and knew before he ordered the tests what he was dealing with. An oncologist confirmed it was a fast-spreading ovarian cancer, and they scheduled surgery for the coming Thursday, as early as they could book the OR. The weekend was terrible, she couldn't sleep or eat, and when she tried to walk her legs hurt so badly she thought she had broken something.

So Jackie was admitted to the hospital on Monday morning to try to make her a little more comfortable. They drained off fluid that had caused her to bloat. They hooked her up to an IV dripping pain medication.

There were no rooms available at first, so they set her up behind curtains in the emergency room for a couple of days. Her husband Porter didn't like that and complained to the nurses and the doctors and the administration, but there was simply no place to put her until Tuesday afternoon.

She was scheduled to be zipped open at 11 a.m. Thursday, but unless yours is the first surgery of the day you shouldn't count on it going off on time. They got to her just after 2 p.m.

While Porter, the only one allowed in to see her because of pandemic precautions, walked up and down the hallway outside the waiting area, Jackie's mother Bernice and daughter Britni spent most of the day sitting together in a car in the hospital parking lot.

Proximity meant something. Being together meant something.

Bernice and Britni got coffee at a McDonald's.

They took a walk around the neighborhood adjacent to the hospital and the older woman showed her granddaughter the little house she and Jack had rented after they got married in 1957. Bernice was surprised to see it hadn't changed much, though she didn't like how it had been painted a disturbing shade of mold green.

Nevertheless, someone had obviously cared for the house; the metal roof looked fairly new. It was tidy and happy looking; the lawn was trimmed and free of weeds. She felt a little pride in that.

When they had moved in, the yard was packed dirt. So they hosed it down and Jack went around with a pipe and a hammer and made hundreds of pockmarks in the earth. Into each one of these Bernice planted a plug of grass.

It took the newlyweds most of two days, and after they finished they went to the store and got a six-pack of Schlitz and a block of ice cream in a paper container. Jack cut the ice cream in half with a kitchen knife and they each took a half and a beer and sat out on their porch looking at their muddy nascent lawn, wondering if the plugs would take.

The surgery lasted a little more than five hours, so it was evening before Bernice heard from Porter. At first it was just a text saying that Jackie was in recovery, that she'd made it through the surgery. After a while he called to say the doctor believed he'd gotten it all, he'd scraped around and cleaned up as best he could. It hadn't spread to her bowels. He was guardedly optimistic, things had gone about as well as anyone could have expected them to go.

Stage three. Could have been worse.

Heal up and have a round of chemo. Maybe that will be it. We'll see how it goes.

Watch the pain meds--acute post-op pain is of a whole different order than the pre-op pain. It's worse, but at least we know what's causing it. Nerves scream when skin is creased by a scalpel, but these wounds will heal. This pain will stop.

All pain will stop eventually. At least that's most of us want to believe, that we will be delivered to a place of peace. For some of us that means an unimaginable kingdom, gilded and accessorized with mansions or just a simple and pure joy, a sweet by and by.

Unless you end up in the bad place, where the pain is ceaseless. A second death for the wicked, "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched." Though some people think Jesus may have been referring to a valley near Jerusalem that was used as a dump, where rubbish and the bodies of criminals and animals were burned. There's a school of thought that holds that when Jesus was talking about hell he wasn't talking about eternal torment but destruction--the termination, not torture--of unworthy souls.)

Others accept an equally unimaginable absence from the world.

Bernice is taking a week off work when Jackie comes home from the hospital. It's not a hardship for her; she works because she wants to, not because she has to, and helping her daughter will fill the time. Then maybe Jackie will be up to moving around on her own, returning to her routine, helping care for her grandkids.

Maybe someday she'll look back and remember this as her cancer scare.

Bernice has buried two husbands, but none of her children. And by some lights that is lucky. When you think of all the things that can and do go wrong in the world, and how badly human beings bungle things, she doesn't think she has much to complain about.

As a crow flies, it's only about 15 miles from where Bernice lives now to that little house she moved into in 1957. Look at it one way and it doesn't seem like she's gone that far, but that doesn't account for all the comings and goings and all the pain she's managed.

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