If Ever

“Oh, I’m so glad you think it’s getting better.”

I look at my 84-year-old mother in some surprise. I believe that her apparent relief is genuine, but I don’t understand it.

It’s 2006 and we’re sitting at the kitchen table in my parents’ Calgary home: a home now in varying stages of disarray reflecting varying stages of packing-up for a move to a senior’s residence. My mother is showing me her injury from a too-close encounter with the corner of a box. However, the obvious suspects — large moving boxes that clutter every room — are not the villain of this piece. Rather, it was an innocuous banker’s box, a long-term resident of her own office, that sidled into her path and attacked the side of her lower leg a few months back.

The resulting flap of skin, peeled back like tissue paper, has stubbornly refused to heal. “Ulcerated” is the word that came to my mind when she lifted her pant leg to show me the wound a few weeks ago on my last trip here. Over-the-counter and prescription antibiotic and steroidal creams have done nothing, so we visited her doctor again. He had one last suggestion to offer: manuka honey.

“It is important to understand that you cannot go around squeezing
regular store-bought honey on every wound or infection you encounter.”
Advanced Tissue

So Mom started squeezing a special health-store-bought stickiness onto her ulcerated leg and I flew home to Ottawa. Now I’m back, and in the initial catching-up phase ask her how her leg is.

“Oh, not good.”

She pulls up her pant leg to show me. I look at her leg in surprise: The ulcer is half the size I remember and way less angry looking. Deploying a core competence, I blurt out what I’m thinking. Without thinking.

“Oh, that’s way better.”

Now she’s the one who is surprised. She believes that my reaction is genuine, but it’s clear she doesn’t understand it.

“Oh, I’m so glad you think it’s getting better.”

Obviously she doesn’t think it’s gotten any better.

Fast forward 15 years and I am lying on my back doing the Painful Hip Stretch. Well, that’s not its formal name: Trainers and physiotherapists call it the Figure 4 Stretch. I’ve been doing it for two years, I think. Doing it badly, mind you — I don’t get much stretch on either side and it always hurts on the right side — but doing it.

I’ve been assured that it’s muscle pain, not joint pain. I’ve been reassured that I’m not damaging my hip by annoying it several times a week. I’ve been warned that it could be some time before I see any improvement.

“If ever.”

Neither the trainer nor the physiotherapist say that, but I’ve been suspecting that it might be the accurate if demoralizing addendum they have kindly left unsaid.

And then just like that, one day there is less pain. Not a lot less but less is less, and this, while subtle, is still a discernible lessness.

My mother really couldn’t see the day-to-day incremental improvement in her leg that was obvious to me after an absence of several weeks. I really couldn’t see the month-to-month (quarter-to-quarter?) incremental improvement in my stretchiness until the reduction in pain hit some threshold of perception.

Sustained effort in the face of no apparent improvement doesn’t sound like a popular strategy. If I’m going to work at something difficult I want positive feedback pretty speedily, thank you very much, and I don’t think I’m the only one with this preference. I’m just not sure we have any other strategy available.

There are almost no quick fixes. Many of the painful conditions we live with are slow to heal, with improvement so gradual as to be practically invisible to the sufferer. That’s true of personal problems (physical, mental, spiritual) and social ills. But like the special honey and the Painful Hip Stretch, the solutions to these problems might also be within our reach if we just keep at it.

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16 Responses to If Ever

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Your statement “There are almost no quick fixes” rings true with me.
    There several things for which I would like quick fixes – my one knee that seems to be falling victim to arthritis, for example. I will try, I will keep doing the things that help to stave off more stiffening of the joint, but…well…the aging thing. Bring on the quick fix.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – 🙂 Yeah, aging is a problem, for sure. I find it hard to accept that in some matters, the best I can expect is to keep what I have or (worse!) merely to slow the rate of decline.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Tom and I have been working through the grieving thing, with a two-year separation in our time lines. Grief is another reality for which there is no quick fix. And if there is a “quick” way of dealing with it — grabbing at straws, metaphorically — it is almost certainly not a “fix.” Healing takes time.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Yes. I haven’t experienced the loss of a spouse, but healing from the loss of a parent definitely takes time.

  3. Tom Watson says:

    Jim’s comment made me think of the following:

    A month or so ago, I started watching a Netflix show called “This Is Us.”
    It’s now in its fifth season. I have only watched 12 episodes of season one so far.
    It’s a very powerful human drama, with many interwoven stories.

    One character who appears from time to time is an elderly doctor whose wife died a year ago.
    In the episode I watched last night, he visits the graveyard and places a flower on the tombstone.
    Later, he is having supper alone. He stops eating, looks at the chair his wife used to occupy and talks to it.
    His grief is still palpable.

    In thinking about that, I wrote this haiku.
    Words to her empty
    chair: I don’t spend a minute
    without thoughts of you.

    Right, there is no quick fix to grief.

  4. Ian Hepher says:

    Two years ago I tore my hamstring, right where it joins my pelvic bone, taking off an overly snug snow boot. It was excruciatingly painful, and when it did not improve I went to the walk-in clinic, as my regular doctor was away. We talked, he examined me, then sat back and said in his guttural South African accent: “Ian, are you a patient man?”

    I laughed, but I’ve never forgotten the pronouncement or the diagnosis, which proved to be prescient as it took me a long time to heal, and I’ve uttered these same words to myself on a couple of occasions since.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ian – Hahaha. And also ouch. I understand that muscle and tendon tears are slower to heal than broken bones – and maybe that’s even more pronounced with more years on us, too. Keeping at it (persistence) is good, but so is patience, and it’s at least as hard to muster, I’d say.

  5. barbara carlson says:

    Some wag said, “When you get old, you only get sick twice a year… but it lasts for six months.”

  6. Sam Feola says:

    Manuka Honey and Rata Honey are my favorites from my times in New Zealand. Your story reminded me of them.

    Pain is a constant these days. Neural pain is the worst because there is little to be done to make it better. CBD topical balm helps on some muscles and joints. After 76 years of sports, military, accidents, and world travel and living, pain becomes a badge of honor. It beats the alternative!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Sam – I’m sorry about the persistent pain but glad you’ve reframed it. And glad, too, that new pain-control options are being developed and approved.

  7. Wayne Holst says:

    Your insights strike a chord with me as I deal with the slow but progressive signs of improvement from my cataract surgery on both eyes – one last September and the second in December.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Wayne – I’m delighted that your eyesight is improving, even if only slowly. Even imperfect vision is a tremendous gift – one that I would not be happy to have seriously compromised.

  8. My mantra is that muscle pain is fixable, although not always from dealing with the muscle that hurts. (Matching and parallel muscles are often bullies.) Tendon pain has to be nursed and takes more time to heal with every decade. Flesh wounds need to be babied. Of course, this is experiential knowledge, not medical knowledge. There are probably endless examples of different circumstances.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – I was in my early 40s when I first encountered extensive tendon damage – not in myself but in a late-40s colleague who had survived a serious car crash. His doctor told him the tendon damage in his leg would take much longer to heal than a mere break would have taken, and so it proved. I think it might help us all if the medical community gave us the rules of thumb for healing that I think they have – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they aligned at least roughly with your experiential knowledge. Not for every case or every person, of course, but as a way to set reasonable expectations.

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