47: My Grandmother’s Legacy

47: My Grandmother’s Legacy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

My Grandmother’s Legacy

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

~M. Kathleen Casey

I was twelve when my grandmother died, her fingers so misshapen by rheumatoid arthritis they resembled claws. The same fingers that years earlier had kneaded bread, transformed flour and eggs into light, flaky pastry, and caressed my forehead when I was sick now lay useless and gnarled against the white sheets of her hospital bed.

Six years later, my own battle with arthritis began with a tingling, then numbness in my hands. I willed the pins and needles to stop, only to find the lack of sensation was worse. I rubbed my hands compulsively, trying to massage feeling back into them.

As I gazed down at my hands, they transformed from my own smooth, unlined fingers into claws—a legacy from my grandmother.

For years, the tingling and numbness came and went, following its own schedule. Worse during the fall and spring, better during winter and summer. Not enough to disturb my daily activities, but enough to remind me of my inheritance. I joked I would make a good weather forecaster. I could gauge the proximity and intensity of a storm by how much my hands ached.

Behind the joke lay fear—the vision of claws lurked in the back of my mind.

In my mid-twenties, I played squash. Quick twists and turns, constant pounding on the feet, and collisions were not uncommon. After a few years, I paid the price. Pain shot from my hip to my knee and I’d limp for a few hours. I traded in my squash racket for a TV remote and got my sports fix from watching games rather than playing them.

Once again, visions of claws danced in my head.

By my mid-thirties, my whole body ached. Getting up in the morning hardly seemed worth the effort since I’d be back in bed within hours. I slept a lot but never felt rested. My world shrank. I wasn’t working, and it was hard to care about anything when all I wanted to do was sleep away the constant aches.

I tried one doctor and then another. The first doctor dismissed my complaints, too eager to hand out platitudes and anti-depressants. I was depressed, therefore I had a psychological rather than a physical problem.

The second doctor listened and acknowledged the depression as a side effect, not a cause. His diagnosis? Osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and scoliosis.

Along with arthritis, my grandmother had passed down a second legacy—a skeletal deformity in which bones in my lower right back were fused together. The result is reduced mobility and flexibility in my back, one leg shorter than the other, and lower back pain. The fibromyalgia, with its muscle aches and fatigue, I picked up on my own.

This doctor prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), though not without warning me of possible liver damage. I had to weigh improving my current life against damaging my future one. I chose the drugs.

I’d like to say I was “cured” immediately but that doesn’t happen. However, getting up in the morning became less of a chore, the aches faded to a dull roar, and I could get through the day without an afternoon nap.

My world expanded. I read, took an interest in the news, and started teaching. Some days my hands ached from writing on the blackboard and my back hurt from bending over to help students, but it was manageable. The medication gave both my body and spirit a chance to rest and revitalize.

Visions of claws began to recede from my mind.

My mid-forties heralded a period of blossoming. I still taught, but added writing to my career path. Unfortunately, my career wasn’t the only thing that blossomed. My arthritis progressed from mild to moderate, and pain spread from my hips and knees to my big toes, back, and neck.

I contemplated returning to bed, to let the arthritis win. Instead, I declared war.

I joined a gym and started a regimen of weight training and stretching. I worked with a personal trainer who modified exercises to meet my body’s limitations while slowly pushing those limitations further and further. Over a period of months, I lost weight, gained muscle, and increased my flexibility. Since then I’ve added chiropractic sessions to help with the knot of pain in my lower back.

I still have mornings when I wake up and want to go back to sleep. Or days when my body creaks and groans. But most days I head to the gym and lose myself in the discipline of exercise. I’ve learned that sweat is a natural antidote to depression. Because of the stretching and strengthening exercises, I’ve cut my medication in half.

Right now my hands hurt because I’ve been typing too long and it’s raining. But when I look down at them, I still see smooth, unlined hands, with a few “wisdom” spots that have appeared with age and experience.

This wisdom has taught me two things. One, arthritis is always going to be my constant companion; it doesn’t have to be my master. And two, my grandmother’s real legacy to me was not her arthritic hands or her fused bones—her legacy was her love.

~Harriet Cooper

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