As of January 1, 2017, I will no longer describe my latest ailment to anyone who will listen. It will be a difficult resolution to keep; I enjoy clucking away about my physical difficulties to those who don’t retreat when I lean close and confide, “You know, I have this rash…”.
I’m not alone in thinking others want to hear about my bunions, sore elbow and arthritic thumb. In my late fifties, I participated in an animated discussion with friends about our physical woes: dry eyes, insomnia, tinnitus and leg cramps. We described symptoms, “It’s like my head is filled with buzzing bees,” suggested remedies, “”Pull your toes back as far as you can for as long as you can,“ and shared our expertise or lack thereof, “You mean there’s a difference between floaters and flashers?”
Later, we couldn’t believe we spent an evening talking about our maladies rather than our jobs, families, movies and sports. Physical problems had plagued all of us our entire lives, but never before had we felt the urge to share them with all the fishes in the sea.
Like most people, my friends and I grew up in a maze of childhood sicknesses, wandering cluelessly from colds to mumps to measles to chickenpox. We suffered earaches, stomach-aches, sore throats, pink eye and the flu. We worried about tonsillitis, which could lead to a dreaded tonsillectomy, and lived with the threat of polio, which lurked in the background of every day, an uninvited and dreaded guest.
We were quarantined to our rooms and confined to our beds. We whined, complained of boredom and dreaded the agony of vomiting. We sweated under mustard plasters, soaked in Epsom salts and scratched our red spots when our mothers weren’t looking.
At one point, to cure my chronic sinus congestions, the doctor told Mom I had to forego sugary treats and, when it was cold, wear a stocking cap to bed. For weeks, I blew my nose and ate a banana while my siblings enjoyed cherry pie and made fun of the raggedy knit hat I wore to bed.
Yet I never inflicted a detailed description of my malfunctioning sinuses on my young friends; nor did I introduce my hangnail-infected big toe into a late night conversation with my college roommates. My impacted wisdom teeth and stress-related headaches were never discussed in a faculty lounge.
Now, however, Joel and I consider a day poorly spent if we don’t devote several minutes of conversation to the quality of our sleep and the status of our chronic issues. At family reunions, my siblings and I provide health updates to a sympathetic chorus of sighs and advice: “You can’t wish your sciatica away. You need physical therapy.” And my friends and I compare symptoms at length: “My mouth gets so dry my husband says I have a speech impediment.”
I admire my sister-in-law, a successful professional woman and involved grandmother, who has wit, intelligence and complex health issues, problems that would allow her to dominate any discussion. But she never mentions them. Ever. When directly asked by those of us who love her, she responds simply and briefly and then gracefully changes the topic to grandchildren, pets or politics.
So, in 2017, I’m going to follow her example and stop pouring a detailed description of my latest symptoms into every available ear.
But I don’t promise to quit writing about them.