A Short History of Pain
My husband, and I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing pain, but there’s one short conversation we had on the topic that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I have no idea what we were doing, or where we were, but Steve happened to mention a procedure he underwent when he had a tube inserted–a more innocuous, but perhaps less accurate word than “shoved”–into his chest to either drain fluid or facilitate some other form of vital plumbing around the time of one of his heart surgeries. I don’t recall the reason that he couldn’t have anesthesia. I’m sure, knowing Steve’s doctors, that it wasn’t about saving money or hyper callousness, but still, he was wide awake for it.
Steve told me that it was excruciating. He had to have it done at least twice. He had a lot of scars on his chest, one looping around under an arm, the badge of his membership in what he called “the zipper club” down his sternum and a couple of utterly smooth narrow, oval patches, whitened with age on each side of his torso–entry and exit, for the tubes, I guess. The image that stays with me most is the expression on his face as he talked about it with me. His eyes were wide, his feathery eyebrows faintly up. Steve always looked younger than he was but at that moment it was something more. He was the boy, the young man in his teens who had suffered this procedure, yet another in what must have seemed an unending line. He was also in complete earnest as he said to me “but it’s always harder on a patient’s family. It was always a harder thing for Ma than it ever was for me.” He meant every word.
Some people say that sort of thing because it’s expected, or at least I think they do. I think they do because if I had been in that situation, I might have said something similar out of duty. Some people would say it as a front to gain more sympathy for themselves. Steve said it because he loved his mother and because for him, it was true.
It’s possible that I attach more weight to this than I should, but that moment has always stood out for me as the greatest demonstration of my husband’s strength. Steve was quiet, in his daily life and in his rare anger. He was tall and so thin that he had to bore extra holes in his belt and had almost no discernible muscle. I outweighed him by at least twenty pounds for the entire time that I knew him. Physically, he was still strong; he was a steel bridge cable and once someone checked in to his death grip, they rarely checked out. I could out-wrestle him but only if I used my legs.
Strength takes many forms. So does courage. Steve was the bravest person I have ever known. I actually have to stop after writing that and stare at the sentence–do I mean that? Really? Am I sure I’m not sliding further down the slippery slope of exaggeration and the usual conventions of the surviving bereaved?
He wasn’t perfect: that’s not what I’m claiming here. He could settle into a pattern that became a rut, and it was hard for him to break out of those. He was the Lord High Celestial Grand Poo-baa Royal Emperor of Procrastination (and considering that I have the permanent Tiara for Ms. Procrastination USA, or would if I ever got around to picking it up, that is saying something). We fought about who should haul trash and do dishes.
So no, he wasn’t perfect. And perhaps he was also not the single bravest person in the world, but I do think he was forever in their ranks. He earned his place among the bravest of people in a very unobtrusive way, but I belive one of the only ones possible, which has nothing to do with career choice, gender or faith. He took great pain and looked through it with love and empathy at the people he cared for the most. He did this without deliberation, and with honest sincerity and compassion.
I wish I had a sweeping conclusion to draw up, nicely framing that truth. More to the point, I wish that I, I and the world still had him. Most of the people who share that gift of strength with Steve do not make the nightly news, write inspirational life guides, discover and broadcast “the secret” or become famous. One of the greatest aspects of their power is that they go on using it in all its wondrous simplicity, regardless.