Pain that deserves a capital letter when it’s in the middle of a sentence like it’s the proper name of metaphorical being.
This was Pain who had not come for a pleasant visit of chatting over beers and boneless chicken wings dipped into discolored ranch sauce. He had shown up to do his job, clocked in on time, sat down at his desk, and went to work on my gut.
I’ve been in pain before. I’ve had two knee surgeries, an appendectomy and a bowel resection. Each experience was more painful than the previous, each requiring an increasing amount of time and medication to recover.
Looking back, it’s as if Pain had set out a series of milestones, goals in preparation for today.
“I need you to drive me to the hospital,” I gasped out into my cell phone as my wife listened.
“It’s that bad?”
I was in too much pain to respond. The abdominal cramping had started the night before, and none of the usual suspects had done any good in relieving it. I’d managed to get to work, but the cramping had increased, and I’d asked my boss if I could go home. Two hours later I had tried to take some Milk of Magnesia, my last line of defense in these circumstances.
Instead of relieving me, the cramping had suddenly shot up, and I’d found myself bent over the toilet, vomiting.
I hadn’t stopped vomiting.
I vomited the Milk of Magnesia. Then I vomited the water I had drunk. Finally, I had started dry heaving, a bit of bile flecked with blood.
That’s when I knew it was serious.
“I can’t leave right now,” my wife responded. “Can you wait 30 minutes.”
My head, filled with a light sheen of red Pain, started doing the math. Thirty minutes of waiting, doubled over, and gasping for air. Five minutes of struggling to get out of the house and into the car. Fifteen minutes to reach the hospital if there was only light traffic, or thirty minutes if the traffic was heavy and we had to slog through or find a surface street. Five minutes to find a parking place. Five minutes to walk into the hospital.
That meant, at best, one more hour with Pain.
“I’ll drive myself,” I replied.
I don’t remember what was said after that. Pain has gripped my intestinal tract and refused to let go. Even now, my stomach is giving me little echoes of Pain, like the afterimage of an incredibly bright light burned into the cornea of my eye. It gives me pause, makes me conduct a full body check to see if this time it will be like last time, and I need to start reaching for the car keys.
The moment passes, unlike the Pain of that day.
I didn’t hang up on my wife. She said something about trying to get to me as soon as possible, and I grunted out responses while I struggled to move around the house.
I put on loose fitting clothing: sweat pants and a t-shirt. Then I thought better of the t-shirt and threw a Disney-themed hockey jersey over it. Hospitals are always cold, and I’m always cold, which means I freeze. I couldn’t bend over to put on socks or shoes, so I suffered with the knowledge that my feet would be ice as I slipped on my flip-flops.
I found my keys. I found my wallet. I made sure I had my insurance card.
I doubled over with Pain, my left arm wrapped around my middle as if I had been cut open and only my fingers could keep my loose, slippery, bloody intestines inside me. My right hand gripped with painful fingers the back of a kitchen chair, as if I could offset one Pain for the other by squeezing hard enough.
I could not.
You should not drive drunk. You should not drive tired. You should not answer a cell phone or text while driving.
You should not drive with Pain.
He won’t take the wheel from you, steer you gently to the side of the road and apply the brake. He doesn’t pat you on the back, or place a warm washcloth against your forehead. In the car, he sits with you, closer and more intimate than any lover, and he does his work. No position, no shifting, no mindset can free you from his grasp. He holds you and holds you and holds you. You can’t push Pain aside, once he’s paid you a visit. He just continues, doggedly, like a cubicle-lackey pounding away at his keyboard, watching the workday clock that never moves past 9:13.
I drive in the far right lane, the “slow lane” because I don’t trust myself. I know I’m a distracted driver. I know I present a potential danger to myself and everyone around me. I also know Pain. As Jim Morrison sung, I keep my eyes on the road. I keep my hand upon the wheel. I focus on breathing. I scream in sudden, twisted bouts of abdominal cramping. In my head, fists twist my intestines, my guts, and tie them into the Gordian Knot.
Pain is intractable and untenable.
I make my exit and am at once relieved and struggling. I’m in a bad way, and I know it. I can barely sit up, and I still have lights and other cars to navigate through.
I offer a prayer that there will be a close parking stall.
Pain must have intercepted that particular request. He rejects it out of hand.
The furthest stall from the entrance is the only one open. I’ve already spent several minutes in fruitless search. My body is covered in a light sheen of Pain-induced sweat. I assume my skin is ashen, my eyes red-rimmed and haunted. I assume this, but I have no time to look at my reflection.
I start the long, Pain-filled shuffle from my car to the ER entrance.
A security guard on a bicycle sees me, and I think he’s going to ask if I’m ok, if I need help I can’t even wish for him to do something; anything. I’m clutching at my middle, trying to keep my innards from exploding. I’m trying to press Pain back inside my stomach. Trying to keep from screaming as the next bout of twisting, iron-strapped Pain bounds around me and holds on tight.
The guard turns on his bike and cycles away. I struggle through some shrubs where a path wasn’t intended, but has been created by the passage of thousands of feet each day. People like me who were seeking the straightest, most direct line.
The doors to the ER are automatic. They swing open as if pulled by over-eager children, desperate to please. They are noisy and I stagger through.
My hand reaches into my pocket and I pull out my wallet, then I grab onto the counter for support. I try to pull my insurance card out, but the nurse stops me.
“Can you walk inside?” she asks me. She knows Pain. “Don’t bother with that, just come in.”
Even before I start nodding my head in response, a buzzer sounds and move toward it like a metaphor to a life-preserver.
“Can you sit down?” the nurse asks.
“Yes,” I croak.
The nurse is incredibly efficient. She is incredibly kind. She is incredibly sympathetic and empathetic. She asks questions, pounds her keyboard with the speed and diligence of a professional. She was not trained to be a typist or a computer user. She was trained to help people. But to do that, she has also trained to do this, and she does it.
“We don’t have wheelchairs,” she tells me. I have no idea where the conversation has gone, or if there has even been one. Any responses I gave her were automatic. Pain has me fully in his grip and he’s not letting go this time. He’s not giving up. This isn’t some trick of mental prowess. Pain has me completely in his grasp, and this is no longer cramping; this is a single cramp.
“I . . . can . . . walk,” I tell her, but she grabs one of my arms, removing it from my middle where I had been holding myself together, and I nearly collapse against her. I can’t even tell you her hair color or her build. I can’t tell you if she was tall or short or fat or thin. I only had eyes filled by Pain.
She calls to other ER personnel and I’m surrounded. They ask me questions and I know all the answers. They ask if I can take off my shirt. They hand me a gown and ask me to put it on. They ask me to take off my flip-flops. They ask me to lay down.
I relate my medical history, the interesting colorful bits that I know relate directly to Pain. My wife appears and an IV goes into my arm.
“I’m giving you something for the nausea,” a male voice says.
I don’t care.
My wife has my hand, and I’m struggling to stay still, but Pain has filled me completely. I don’t even feel the nausea medication. It might as well be saline or spit for all the good it does. I try to breathe and to contain myself, but my entire world is now Pain, Pain, Pain.
This, then, is zealotry. This is fanaticism. This is obsession.
This is the complete and utter focus on one and only one element of life to the complete exclusion of everything else.
He doesn’t grin at me in victory. That’s not his way. He’s “just doing his job” and there is no glee in it as he sits on my stomach, slowly twisting the crank that has bound me up, and won’t stop.
“It won’t let go,” I scream out, and I pound my feet against the ER bed. “It won’t let go.”
Tears stream down my pinched face, and I slam my clenched fist against too-thin padding. My wife has my other hand, and she tells me I’m hurting her. I let go. She strokes my head. I tell her over and over and over that I’m sorry for this. She responds over and over and over that it’s not my fault.
I keep crying and pounding and apologizing.
My attending nurse asks my wife to move, because she’s on the side with the IV. I won’t note any of this until later, because in a moment, after some words that I can’t hear, the first of many, many, many injections of pain medication are administered.
There is no flood of sudden comfort. No quick release from Pain’s grasp.
I simply pass out.
Over the next two weeks of my four-week stay in the hospital, Pain will be a constant companion. Then, this major project complete, his work done, the clock now reading 4:55, he will start to gather his things. He doesn’t ever leave. No, not my Pain. He stays with me, and like a big brother he will reach out and squeeze every now and then to remind me that we travel this road of life together.
Siddhartha Buddha said, “Life is pain.”
I don’t hate Pain, or loathe him for a job well done. I do fear him. The memory of Pain is like Jason from the Friday the 13th series: a constant, elemental presence who causes fear with even the hint of appearance.
But I live.
I live with Pain.
RobRoy McCandless has been a writer both professionally and personally for nearly two decades. He was born under a wandering star that led him to a degree in Communication and English with a focus on creative writing. He is the author of the many unpublished words (anthropomorphic is a good one) and continues to research and write historical and genre fiction.
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