“A Congenital Life” is a fictional story from the collection called Holidays: Stories by Darcy Rhyno
Pain is a part of life which can and should be treated.
The moment she came up with this plodding platitude at breakfast one morning as a possible opener for her guest speech at the AGM of the local chapter of the Chronic Pain Society coming up in exactly two weeks, Judith wondered for the first time if she should leave her husband. Though there was little danger Richard would take it personally, she decided to test the platitude on him because the hurting between them had stopped. Emily was gone. Richard-the-civil-servant wasn’t the kind of man to take offense at something as pitiable as a personal affront. His parents had jumped on the French immersion bandwagon early, raised him for success – he’d taken to it like a duck to orange sauce and reached Division Manager by 35, Deputy Minister in a minor department by 39 – and taught him to rebel against the suburban life they were in self-denial about living; he’d learned on his own to dress impeccably and to pamper his women with baubles while refusing them the right of imperfection.
She knew he’d see it immediately, her error in usage, and reprimand her with a demeaning chuckle for such sloppy syntax; her platitude had life, not pain, needing treatment. She could do better. Or as Richard might say, a child could do better. This in him above all, this drive to perfection fed her and had, in its most loyal incarnation, nauseated her with its richness as if she’d drunk a quart of cream. At its most insistent, it had nearly suffocated her and alienated their child. It drove her to set impossible goals in her professional life, striving toward the eradication of human suffering, reaching beyond hope for the perfection of human compassion when all she wanted at times was to come to a complete rest. Or to take care of her own instead of everyone else’s for a change. If not for Richard, she’d be on the phone to Emily or on a plane that would take her back to that dungeon apartment her daughter shared with Ted or Fred or Red or whatever the hell his name was rather than inventing banalities and dissecting this cantaloupe with this silverware, cold in its near surgical, sanitary perfection with the breakfast nook sun glinting off the knife and catching her acutely in the retina.
No, the limb might be severed, the nerves dead, but the pain was not gone.
Doctor Judith Jessica Henry, MD, PhD, Lecturer at her university’s School of Medicine, Associate Editor of The Journal of Childhood Pain, author of numerous studies, articles and pamphlets on pain, past President of the National Chronic Pain Society, wife to Richard and mother to Emily, currently in that order, gulped a third, scalding hot coffee—black and bitter—and left for work while her husband was still in the shower. Of course pain is part of life. What could be more obvious? Of course it should be treated. There was no advantage to letting anyone suffer. The Christian belief that pain is punishment for sin she’d dismissed as superstition when she was still a child. The neural pathways in her brain had worn into ruts, she’d spoken and written the words so many times as the author of the plain language booklet for parents called “Managing Your Child’s Pain.” Judith knew about pain, the physiological causes, the roles played by receptors, the spinal cord and the brain. The psycho-social and the emotional factors. Her papers on the recognition and prevention of pain in children, especially in infants, led the way when most doctors believed babies weren’t capable of feeling pain, and the rest could only guess at psychological methods of minor alleviation like giving toddlers more say during procedures such as injections and blood tests. Like asking children to give their pain a name as if it was a pet they could order around. She knew all this. And so did everyone else. After twenty years in the business, her fascination with the theory was fading because medical science had nailed it. Treatment: that’s where the questions remained, where the research dollars flowed. And after twenty years in the business, treatment is what she’d settled on as the answer. Yes, pain was part of life, the raw material for a moral code—Thou shalt not cause pain to others or to thyself—but if she could, she’d rid every patient who entered her office of the capacity to experience it.
She reached her office without an opening line for her guest talk, and, to dodge the requisite chitchat that invariably led to the upcoming Dominican holiday, fired three orders at Pat, her pretty receptionist. In passing, Judith noted the new collection jar for South East Asian tsunami relief on Pat’s desk and was silently critical of her receptionist for planning her next tropical island holiday at a time like this—a quarter million people dead by drowning, the survivors traumatized to madness. Entire villages wiped out but for the one young man on the TV spared as if to tell their story. Judith had sent cheques too, but what was to be done, really? At times of crises, Judith couldn’t help but see pleasure of any kind as anything but obscene, an affront to the dead.
In the examination room, she prepared for the day—perched on her wheeled stool that dug into the back of her thighs just above her knees (she’d ask Pat to find a replacement) booted the computer so it whirred and beeped to life, rolled the chair over the bits of grit that ground between the wheels and the Plexiglas floor cover, unlocked the filing cabinet, checked her email—nothing from Emily—stood and pulled a lab coat over her clothes, slung a cold stethoscope around her neck, ordered lunch (a tuna sandwich and a skim milk) and leafed to the current date in her appointment book. The first of the morning was a new patient, Carson Taylor—his mother, Joy, would accompany him—but the single word in front of her gave away nothing of the purpose for his visit; “distress” is all it said. She made a note to talk to Pat about making better notes.
The door opened.
“Good. Morning. Doctor!”
Pat-with-the-exciting-life smiled in, scolding by emphasizing each word in her greeting. In a set of short fantasies she regretted immediately afterward, Judith suspected Pat of moonlighting in some shady profession because how else could she afford the kinds of long weekend vacations in exotic locales she was always jetting off to, at least since her second engagement had failed … Jamaica last month from which she’d returned tanned and practically panting about her beach montel to which Judith responded that she hoped Pat carried condoms to which Pat countered, by the dozen.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Good morning, Pat.”
“Your first patient is here, Doctor.”
“Carson’s here? Oh, good, I’ve been looking forward to meeting Carson.” She said this loud enough for him to hear through the open door. “Please show him in. Oh, and ask him to bring his mother along with him.” Judith wheeled her stool over to the big, comfy chair in the corner and stood beside it.
Carson would be a welcome exception because Judith saw more girls than boys. As the research verifies, girls report more recurrent pains and more pain types in more areas of the body than boys—well, if only because girls experience pain in a more supportive environment. What father wants a mommy’s boy? Fathers still want their sons to be as strong and tough as guerrilla soldiers. They want their daughters to obey and to grow up and find careers, yes, but more than that—even in this post-feminist culture—they want them to marry successful men who will take care of them and give them children and please them in the various ways men please women. For Carson to catch as he entered, Judith offered a professional smile—moderate contraction of the zygomaticus major muscles that pulled at her closed lips so they gathered at the corners, bunched in her cheeks and pushed the skin beneath her eyes into a double wrinkle and at the corners into crow’s feet.
In walked Joy Taylor and her thirteen-going-on-ten-year-old son, pale and uncommonly tidy, hair brushed neatly off his forehead like a toddler’s. In his crisp white shirt, pale blue shorts and black shoes, he looked like an old photograph come alive of a boy on his way to Sunday school. Except the blue pools of his eyes took Judith by surprise, knocking her off her game, swallowing her up and blocking out the world beyond their surface. She registered nothing about his mother who held his hand and led him to the big comfy chair upholstered in soft leather where he perched without making an indentation, his legs straight as crutches, the insides of both thighs turbulent with burn scars. Judith could not name the neural processes that generated such a response in her, though later she noted it shared a number of things with the broad set of emotional and physical sensations known as romantic love. It took significant mental effort to look away from the boy and extend a hand to the mother who sat stiffly in a hardback plastic chair. Judith took up her position on her stool.
Full dentures, scars along her jaw suggestive of corrective surgery. A car accident?
“Please call me Joy.”
Joy leaned forward with a smile and took Judith by the hand as if to shake it, but did no more than support it for five seconds. The distal phalange of each finger was missing, the lack of fingernails creating the illusion of an empty, fingerless glove.
“And this is Carson,” Joy added.
“What is it I can do for you and Carson today?” Another light contraction of the zygomaticus major muscles.
“I don’t know.”
When Judith realized Joy didn’t intend to add anything more, she started a question she couldn’t finish.
Joy smiled, all affability.
Inside that nether field of peripheral vision that is as much dreamscape as outlined reality, Carson hovered.
“You don’t know.”
“No. I thought you could tell us.”
“Tell you what?”
“That’s why we’re here.”
Joy smiled again as if Judith should know exactly what she was talking about, but Judith registered only a vague sense of professional guilt at allowing her concentration to lapse. She recovered, glanced at Carson and noted blisters on his bottom lip. The boy still hadn’t so much as blinked. How had she missed the blisters?
“We told your receptionist about the distress.”
“You mean Carson is experiencing pain? You’re here for diagnosis and treatment?”
“Carson is in no pain.” Joy smiled.
Judith’s eyes focused on the wall behind the mother. A chart of a splayed human figure mapped in thin, electric blues, reds, yellows and greens hung there – a city from the air at night.
There was something wrong…
The routes of Carson’s blood up his neck and across his face showed bruised-blue through the translucent shroud of his skin. His forehead shone, but not with scrubbing.
“He’s never in pain.”
… or something extraordinary.
~ End part 2 of 5 ~
Eye by Darcy Rhyno
“A Congenital Life” is a story in the collection called Holidays: Stories by Darcy Rhyno
To purchase the collection, visit darcyrhyno.com