If you want someone to build you a barn from scratch or teach you to fight or take you up the road to get a six-pack or a 12-pack or a keg, you should ask a member of my large hard-drinking, hard-working Midwestern farm family.
Do not, however, ask for anything that requires them to use words to convey feelings. It's like watching someone try to learn to ballroom dance without first having removed their scuba diving gear. Awkward. Someone is going to get their feet stepped on.
You know how some folks are all talk and no action? My family is all action and no talk.
Some of this is lack of vocabulary. My grandmother once was describing why her friend hadn't been coming to church.
"She has that disease...that disease very you feel so very all alone?"
I scratched my head for a minute. "Depression, Grandma?" That's what she meant.
My parents struggled and because of this lived in fear that if they sent out their kids into the world without a thick layer of armor, we would be crushed by meanness and cruelty. They became geniuses at making every life event into a toughness lesson.
My brother said that if you got your hand caught in some farm equipment and came in hollering, "Mom, the thresher cut off my thumb and it's out there in the yard," she'd respond, "You march out there and you pick up that thumb. You know we don't leave things lying around like that."
That was hyperbole, but not by much.
I was born into the family boot camp a very unintentional youngest of seven. Into this family composed of bootstraps and bravado, I somehow emerged from the womb a sensitive tender-hearted queer.
I wanted to be a vegetarian, I wanted to save the whales. Once I asked my mom every few minutes for a day what we were doing to save the harp seals.
Finally she answered through gritted teeth, "We are doing plenty to save the harp seals. No one in this family will ever own a fur coat."
Later that same year my first grade teacher gave us an art project that undid me completely. She put her 45 record of Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" on repeat and told us to draw the story. As I attempted to crayon the capsized boat with the sailors spilling into the water, the words, "and all that remains is the faces and names of the wives and the sons and the daughters," caused me to break into protracted sobs so intense that the teacher scheduled a conference with my mom.
My mom left the conference looking so concerned I thought that she might start crying.
Worried about and probably somewhat annoyed by behavior he found explicable, my dad's refrain became, "Oh, is the little baby gonna cry now?" The answer to that question was almost always yes, which does make me wonder why he never reconsidered the effectiveness of his behavior modification technique. I tried hard to be harder. No kid wants to make their parents' lives any more difficult and even at a very young age (thanks tender heart) I could see that they were struggling.
Although I was failing mightily on the emotional toughness front, I was naturally a physical resilient kid. At six I fell off the back of the tractor, landed on a rock, gouged my knee open and didn't cry. I can still see my dad's face, reacting in surprise and delight. In second grade, when I didn't complain about an infected mosquito bite that left my entire upper arm reddened and oozing pus, my dad told me he was impressed by my high pain tolerance.
It now occurs to me that's not a particularly healthy thing to compliment a seven-year-old about.
I was encouraged by the positive affirmation for toughening up the only way that seemed possible for me. My growing ability to ignore pain was certainly handy and it felt great, as the youngest, to have bragging rights as the toughest kid in the room. But it was one thing to be the consistent winner of the "who can stand barefoot on the hot pavement longest" contest with my siblings and it was another to have no idea if I was actually injured. When I was 12, I was hit by a car and walked around for five hours with what turned out to be a broken bone in my knee and my hip. My knee injury was partially treated but my hip injury was not caught until many years later.
I still struggle with it at times, but over the years I have made some limited peace with my emotional sensitivity. Although it seems like I spent my entire childhood holding back tears, I have come to realize that if I just cry when I need to, I don't need to cry all the time. I still get a little weepy when I hear "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." But since I no longer feel embarrassed by who I am, I can enjoy the flip side of my sensitivity; I notice if a friend is having a bad day, I can see the struggles rather than just the annoying behavior of a neurotic co-worker, I can listen with an open-heart to a very long story about a deceased hamster told to me by a stranger on the F Train.
My body has not fared so well. Pain is, well, a pain, but it's also meant to tell us something. Last year I found out I needed a knee replacement because I'd ignored the pain of my inadequately treated knee injury for more than two decades. It's not that I didn't know it hurt. I was aware, it just seemed like irrelevant information because pain was something other people reacted to, not me. It took a rather pointed intervention from friends before I got an evaluation and scheduled the surgery.
The initial replacement went perfectly, I worked hard in physical therapy (thanks, physical toughness) and by post-op week five I was sending friends videos of me tapdancing.
Seven weeks post-op I developed excruciating pain, couldn't move and definitely couldn't tapdance. I visited my surgeon's physician's assistant in their office, who said it was just a local reaction and not to worry. When it got worse the next day, I called the answering service and because I didn't have a fever, they said it was just a local reaction and not to worry. When it got worse the next day I called the office and they again reassured me since I didn't have a fever, I shouldn't worry.
But I was worried. Finally, on that Monday morning, I decided "I don't care what they say, something is wrong with me, I know there is," and I called my huge queer posse of friends and they took me into the emergency room.
It was a holiday and so I got a very low ranking orthopedic surgeon resident. So many orthopedic surgeons look like bro-dude frat types, but this guy looked like the the orthopedic surgeon all the other orthopedic surgeons beat up on the playground. He very nervously stuck a needle into my knee joint and pulled out copious amounts of frothy brown fluid.
His eyes got big with undisguised surprise and his lip curled with just the tiniest bit of disgust. I asked him what was up.
"I don't know," said Dr Not-A-Dude-Bro, "but that fluid is supposed to yellow and clear."
As it turns out it I was not having a local reaction. In fact, I had a "raging" (that's the clinical term they used) infection and my white cells were triple what they were supposed to be. If I had not gone in that day, it's possible I could have died.
They re-opened my 12 inch incision and did an emergency wash out surgery, trying to mechanically clear as much infection as possible. I was told I would need to be on IV antibiotics through a central line for three months and oral antibiotics for almost a year.
Post-surgery I was in the hospital for more than two weeks, and I was exceedingly crabby and very miserable and tubes stuck out from numerous points around my knee. Despite this, and despite the excruciating pain, I had fantasies of jumping out of bed to run screaming into the streets, "I read my body's cues! I got one right! I read my body's motherfrickin' cues! I knew I was dying and I did something about it! I deserve a medal!"
It was a day long in coming and it was imperfect (I wish I had insisted on getting care earlier in the weekend) but you take your victories where you can get them. I learned not just that I can trust my body; I learned that I can act in a trustworthy way towards my body.
There are moments -- many moments -- when I miss those feelings of indestructibility. My physical self seems so whiny these days, always complaining about something "Ooooh I need water, I need food, I need sleep." It all seems a little precious and high maintenance to me.
But even though the needs of my body are a real pain in the ass -- and the hip and the knee --s ometimes, it's helpful for us to be on speaking terms again. While I feel supremely annoyed that I can't always win the "who can stand barefoot on the hot pavement longest" contest, I feel lucky, delighted and proud that I'm still alive to play.