It’s summer. Beaches, barbeques, and baseball. And, my mid-thigh length white shorts that reveal the paunchy waist that’s been kept under wraps all winter. The paunch and the colossal ropey scar that runs from two inches above my kneecap to about an inch below. I wish I could say that scar was something I wore like a badge of honor along with my gray hair and wrinkles. Unfortunately, it’s merely the result of the reconstruction surgery on my kneecap following a kitchen slip-and-fall.
That injury, which required a year of physical therapy to regain use of my leg, wouldn’t be particularly story-worthy except it came directly after my daughter’s diagnosis of Osgood-Schlatter disease, a common cause of knee pain in adolescents who are going through growth spurts. My family “jokingly” alleged that I was trying to steal my 10-year-old’s thunder by one-upping her with my shattered patella. There may be a subconscious element of truth to that accusation. Every time my daughter would explain to someone why she’d quit Irish step dancing or couldn’t jump rope, I found myself chiming in about my own knee.
What is that? Why do we feel compelled to pull out our own illnesses and injuries for discussion when we learn about someone else’s woes? I have a theory.
When I was a child, if my mother wasn’t reading me a lively story from the countless fairy tales and children’s books that crowded our living room bookshelves, she would regale me with stories from her adventurous childhood. While I loved hearing about her Airedale Terrier, Tippy, and how she and my father met in college, nothing piqued my interest more than the antics of the Blue-Haired Ladies. These were the socialite friends of her maternal grandmother from New Haven, CT who would gather weekly for tea and a cutthroat game of pinochle. My mother, who spent a month every summer with these grandparents when she was a little girl, told me how she would hang out under the card table, assessing who had the baggiest stockings and chubbiest ankles. In her boredom, she would eventually tune in to the conversation taking place above her.
“My William, we were all day at the doctor’s last week. You know…diabetes.”
Another would pipe up. “Oh yes, diabetes. My father had diabetes. He lost his right leg up to his knee.”
A third could barely wait to contribute. “Well, my sister, Minnie, poor dear. Her diabetes caused kidney failure!”
A chorus of, “Ohhhh,” ended the conversation.
I can remember thinking what a boring bunch of old ladies they must have been, sitting around with their blue-tinted hair and nothing better to talk about than their illnesses and injuries. Did any of them ever read a good book? What about travel to foreign countries? Or, didn’t they have hobbies like making tissue paper flowers or blowing the insides out of eggs and painting the shells? Couldn’t this group of bored, wealthy Blue-Haired Ladies find ANYthing else to talk about?
As I got older, I started to understand that it wasn’t just that select group of elderly women who discussed their health incessantly. I began witnessing it in my grandmother’s generation. The only difference then was the hairdressers had stopped using that bluing agent. Now, I heard nearly identical conversations from the Gray-Haired Ladies.
Gray-Haired Lady #1: “Oh, my sciatica. I’ve never known such pain! I can’t sit. I can’t lie down. And, forget sleeping.”
Gray-Haired Lady #2: “You think that’s bad? Try having a herniated disc in your neck! Talk about pain. I can’t even turn my head! My doctor says I can’t drive until it’s better.”
Gray-Haired Lady #1: “But, the amount of aspirin I have to take. Oy! In the morning…before bed. Too much! It’s too much!”
Gray-Haired Lady #2: “Well, I’ve taken so much aspirin that I’ve developed a stomach ulcer.” This statement would be followed up with the kicker: “Now I’m on Tagamet.”
A collective gasp arose. Then, another eager contribution.
Gray-Haired Lady #3: “Patti’s husband was just diagnosed with…” voice lowered to a whisper, “…cancer.” Pausing briefly, she added with a nod, “Lung.”
At the mention of the C-word, all conversation would halt, and the wagging of gray heads would confirm that no one could top that. That’s when it hit me. This prattling on about illness and medication, injuries and emergency room visits, wasn’t just to fill the silence. It was a competition.
My tiny 4’10” grandmother couldn’t hope to keep up. As she aged, she remained in nearly perfect health while her friends began dropping like flies. By the time she was eighty and diagnosed with osteoporosis, she was the last woman standing. Osteoporosis was an impressive candidate for entrance into the competition, especially when Fosamax was prescribed as treatment, but there was no one left with whom to compete.
Until my mother broke her foot. Then the games began a little closer to home. Grandma was first out of the gate.
Grandma: “You don’t have thinning bones, do you? That wouldn’t have been the cause. You’re too young for osteoporosis, but maybe you should be checked, just to be sure.”
Mom: “No, I tripped and fell down the steps. That’ll do it to anyone.”
Grandma: “Lucky for you. If it had been me, I could have broken a hip!” She takes the lead.
Mom: “Well, I did break my foot in four places.” Whoa, what’s this? Mom pulls ahead.
Grandma: “You know, a broken hip for someone my age is usually the kiss of death. First, it’s the hip, then pneumonia sets in, then…” Neck and neck.
Mom: “They had to put pins and screws in my foot to hold the bones together. You haven’t even broken your hip, so I don’t know why you’re talking about it.” We have a winner! The blue ribbon goes to Mom!
I’d chuckle to myself at the intensity of these Games of Injury and Illness. How silly, I’d think. Spending so much time and energy trying to outdo the other person. Then, I began hearing the competition taking place everywhere I went.
Opening bid: “I just had to find a new cardiologist.”
I’ll see your cardiologist… “I have a cardiologist, too, plus a nephrologist. I spend half my life in doctors’ offices.”
And, the pot goes to… “Well, after having been twice to the emergency room in the past month, I’m having my gallbladder out next week.”
“This is my second funeral this month.”
“This month? This is my second this week!”
I may not be the quickest learner, but I’m pretty good at a game once I know how to play. I was raised on the playbook of the Blue-Haired Ladies. I watched the occasional match of the Gray-Haired Ladies. I had front row seats to the Grandma vs. Mom bouts. I became tuned into the contests that happened all around me. I listened, I watched, and I bided my time on the bench.
And then, it was my turn. I was called up to the Big Show.
I was seven months pregnant with my son when I made the mistake of mentioning to my mother that I had to get up during the night to go to the bathroom. She took that as a challenge. On your mark. Get set.
Mom: “You have no idea. I’ve had three children. Imagine the havoc that’s wreaked on my bladder!” Go!
Me: “Yeah, well, I’m up three or four times a night. That’s a little tough when I’m working full-time. You weren’t working when you were pregnant.” What’s this? Was I gaining ground?
Mom: “I wasn’t working because I had three children under the age of five.” She elbowed me in the gut, and I fell behind.
Me: “Try giving a presentation to a room full of people while a baby is doing a tap dance on your bladder!” I strained to catch up, but she pressed toward the finish line.
Mom: “I was a little busy with my three little children while finishing my master’s degree.” Arms raised in victory as she broke through the tape.
To be fair, she’d had more experience than I by that point. She’d been groomed by pros – her ferocious mother and grandmother – and had years to hone her skills while I was still on deck. I made valiant attempts over the years, but she always walked away with the spoils. Even at the end, she would be victorious.
Me: “I’m so exhausted all the time, I can barely keep my eyes open.” My opening jab.
Mom: “I’m exhausted, too. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed.” A block and counter punch.
Me: “But, I’m forty years old and work out regularly. I shouldn’t have to drink six cups of coffee just to get through the day.” A hard left.
Mom: “I’m going to have to quit my part-time job because even that has become too much.” Uppercut to the jaw. I’m down but not out.
Later that year:
Me: “The doctor thinks my problem is peri-menopause.” A swing and a miss.
Mom: “The doctor says I have Multiple Myeloma.” Knockout. Ding, ding, ding.
Fortunately, I had children to whom I could pass along my competitive skills. My son refused to participate, but my daughter gamely picked up the gauntlet. She hurt her back while playing soccer but, luckily, I managed to herniate not one, but two, discs in my lower back. She developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but I won with the Chronic Lyme Disease that my doctor had initially thought was peri-menopause.
That Lyme Disease got me a lot of play until a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. As I said earlier, that one pretty much always takes the prize. Recently, the doctor told me I also have Hashimoto’s disease, causing a sluggish thyroid, and that I’m pre-diabetic. You can imagine how that made me feel. Yep, I raced home to my computer and logged into Web M.D. to find out how weighty were the new weapons I’d been given to wield in my next competition. Because, I’ve decided that by this stage, I don’t need any more badges of honor. I’m going for Olympic gold.