Grandfluencers living large
(No. 80) Plus, when pain becomes something else entirely, by Stephen P. Williams
The best invention of the week that doesn’t actually exist:
It’s like a smart phone, but it’s kind of dumb and sits on a little table in the front hall, tethered to the wall with a cord. The three-dimensional push buttons are backlit and easy to use. No apps. No pictures. No texts. You can only dial one number. A friendly voice greets you by name on the other end, and offers to find the answers to any questions you have, and schedule any deliveries of food, goods or transportation. No password needed.
An essay from the department of suffering and enlightenment
My new relationship
by Patricia Hampl
Until three weeks ago, pain was somebody’s else’s problem. This isn’t about the ouch! that comes and goes throughout life, or even the misery of illness. That’s been manageable. It came, it went. OK, it might come back, but it was off before long, bugging someone else. Once the pain left, I always returned to what I thought of as “myself.”
MRI showing spinal stenosis at L4/5, similar to what the author is experiencing.
This is different. Not only relentless. This is pain revealed for what pain really is: the insane stalker of bodily sensations. It’s crazy for you though you never noticed it before. Day after day, and especially night after night. It knows all about you, girlfriend. Been watching you for years. Your life now is an alley you traverse solo in the dark, knowing even in a rare blissful moment of release, the stalker-vise will snap out of the shadow. It will get you again. You’re all it cares about.
I’m talking, as people my age (over 70) often do, about back pain. Lower back, specifically the L 4-5 lumbar disc (cue MRI image) which threw in the towel—or twisted it—the morning of February 26 for no good reason. No, doctor, I didn’t do anything. I just woke up. And I was in agony. The medical establishment prefers the term “discomfort,” but I insist on “agony,” and if I feel I’m not being taken seriously, I ratchet it up to “excruciating agony.” There is nothing modern about this. It is medieval, the rack and the breaking wheel of life. The only thing new about it is it’s happening to me.
My most intense relationship now is with this Thing. I tend it, I attempt to placate it, the way prisoners are said to cater to their jailers, hoping for small favors. What do you want from me? Cold pack, hot pack, cold pack? I take the “muscle relaxant” pills (so tiny—what can they do?), I “push fluids” (aka water). I try to outwit the thing with the stretches I’m told to do.
Nothing works. Or more cruelly, something works for an hour, a half hour, and then it’s back, the vicious imp, this abusive relationship.
But enough trying to describe it. You either know it because you’ve been there or you’re already bored with a bloated description that I could sustain for many more baroque pages, how it stabs, then slithers and jags down the leg, numbs the sole of the foot, tingles and seizes and squeezes. Mainly, it’s a pain in the butt.
The inability to sleep is the worst of it.
But then in the dark night of the lumbar 4-5 soul (around 2:30 am), when it was clear that there would be no more sleep this night as there had not been the night before, or the night before that, I was vouchsafed a vision (as saints once said of their suffering). You don’t need to be afraid of death. This Thing can’t follow you there.
It’s hard to describe, even to myself, the oddly liberating and reassuring sensation of that moment. It wasn’t remotely suicidal. The opposite. It was an awareness of this pain being not simply “a part of life.” It was—is—Life itself. No pain, no gain, as the old Jane Fonda exercise workouts called out.
In that dark night, my eyes sprung open with awareness, it was clear what I wanted almost as much as the cessation of pain was the reason for it. Well, there is no reason. This is the body aging, busting and breaking down here and there, as it will, eventually, collapse altogether. But in that moment of odd reassurance—You don’t need to be afraid…This Thing can’t follow you—maybe I quit fighting what cannot be fought. For a while anyway. No promises, but the photoflash of that moment has not entirely faded.
I joined up. With life, but more to the point with the human race. My fellow sufferers. A reassuring intimacy of connection. I think it’s what is meant by empathy.
I mustn’t claim too much. But it would be inaccurate to claim nothing of this moment. To my surprise (and some odd pleasure) I’ve begun to notice other people, specifically other people in pain. How they walk, shagging along, favoring a hip, hunching a shoulder, in-takes of breath, a pause, a series of bodily acceptances of debility, of pain. Its message if not its meaning is clear—you will wither, wither like the spring flower whose sweet scent you once bent so easily to take in.
The writer Patricia Hampl is known for memoirs that illuminate the world, through the author’s soul, including The Florist’s Daughter and A Romantic Education. The recipient of many awards, including the MacArthur, Guggenheim, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Ok, you’ve heard of hype house, and now there’s retirement house. This collective of hilarious 70-years-plus social media influencers is popping on Instagram and TikTok. This is a retirement community I might gladly join.
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