Read my pain, she begs me, I want someone to understand.
And I understand, with anguish, that longing of hers for someone – if only one, ever – to understand.
If I dwell on it, I say, I will be incapacitated, unable to help you. She tells me that I am afraid. I wonder how she can so misunderstand.
Pain, she explains, creates compassion, and that creates love. She wants one of her friends, at last, to care for her as she does for all of us: someone to know her depth and magnitude of love.
Do you think I have not known pain? I ask. Do you think I have no love for you, no compassion? She laughs, and says she knows I have. But not enough yet, nowhere near enough. Please read it, she begs again. I promise.
I always ask, she adds, that it be for the greater good. She REALLY wants me to know that. I try to tell her I do know that about her (for I do) but I'm not sure she hears.
Scared I ain't, I tell her. Good, she says, then do it, please.
I imagine myself destroyed by pain, huddling, unable to move. Soon, I say, but not now – not when I have to go out and drive my car.
Have a lovely afternoon, she says.
What pain does she want me to read, I wonder later, the physical or emotional? Or all of it? I tell myself she doesn't know anything about what I've done or who I've been in the decades before we met.
I know she has constant physical pain, and often can't even move. I have never had pain for such long periods at a time, and can only guess how debilitating – but I have had times of constant, long-lasting pain and times of extreme pain, and sometimes both together.
The persistent migraines when I was a child, so severe that doctors one time thought I had meningitis. Lying in a darkened room with a hot compress on my forehead while the agony pierced my brow and throbbed throughout my skull and I couldn't think, didn't know my name, focused on not screaming, on keeping still. That took all my effort.
The various broken limbs – pain so acute I knew each time that the bone was broken, instantly, before anyone confirmed it. The broken rib, when I collapsed on the floor as my breath cut off, and couldn't even whisper let alone yell, and my family watching television three feet away didn't notice because I made no sound. The broken rib for which there was little treatment possible, so for weeks I avoided hugs. Even a light, friendly, pat on the shoulder caused me to gasp as the pain stabbed through me.
The gall bladder attacks when, uncontrollably, I writhed and shrieked. Oh, and the birth of my children, particularly the first – twelve hours of yelling and swearing to cope with the pain; and that last huge contraction when I thought I would split from crotch to throat.
Now it is only arthritis, and when I take my medication that's not severe. The twinges in the fingers are occasionally sharp, but usually brief. No, there is not only arthritis; peripheral neuropathy sometimes twists my feet in painful spasms. But it's mild as far as peripheral neuropathy goes; and the spasms, though scary, are over soon. (I know the tricks of breathing deep, rubbing, adjusting my position.)
My Dad had ongoing pain, from an injury to his leg when he was ten. It never healed. He was in bed for months after it happened, my grandmother said. Twice a day, for the rest of his life, the white exposed bone and surrounding suppurating flesh were dressed with deep pink mercurochrome, and re-bandaged. It stopped him running, jumping, climbing trees, swimming, going out on boats.... But one good thing, it also stopped him being sent to war. He walked with a limp. When the pain was bad, which was often, he leaned heavily on a stick. When it was at its worst, he stayed in a chair all day. I lived with this until I was 17 and left home. I know chronic pain very well at second-hand.
My husband, Andrew, in his last seven years of life, had peripheral neuropathy in both legs. It was much more acute than what I experience. Like my Dad, he was brave and uncomplaining. But his legs felt as though they were burning all the time, and it was hard for him to walk – though he did, as much as he could bear, fighting the pain. In the end he had a wheely-walker; it was the only way. There was no cure and little relief. Capsicum ointment eased it somewhat, an external sting to set against the underlying fire. When he was dying, and lost mobility below the waist, I was glad that at least, at last, he must be free of that constant burning – years of constant burning. Oh yes, I am intimately acquainted at second-hand with severe, ongoing pain.
Is it emotional pain she thinks I have not felt enough? There is so much about my life before we met that she doesn't know. She doesn't know about the stress of a troubled home life, that made me scratch my scalp continually, compulsively, when I was eight, making bald spots. (Alopecia areata, it's called.) She doesn't know about my parents' divorce, the shock of that, and of being taken interstate, away from all my friends because my father got custody in school term and my Mum, thinking he would look after us, didn't fight it. (We'll have lovely holidays, she thought, and that much was true.)
The stepmother who was alcoholic, sadistic, crazy. The adored, trusted father who turned out to be too weak to protect 15-year-old me and my 11-year-old brother; instead blamed us, openly and vocally, when his second marriage rapidly became a nightmare. My deep sense of betrayal. (And it WAS a betrayal.)
My pathological shyness in my teens. My conviction that I was ugly.
Later, my own two divorces, one after three years of disastrous marriage to an alcoholic, bipolar, compulsive gambler; the other after 27 years with the father of my children. Each traumatic in its own very different way, and the occasion of many tears. The full-scale nervous breakdown as my first marriage disintegrated, leading to six years of psychotherapy. That was a good thing, but the trigger was painful; and much more pain needed to be uncovered and worked through in those six years.
The time I worked as a writing tutor in an institution full of sad and traumatised individuals, and fell in love with one. Entirely reciprocated, and completely against the rules. Always in public, no chance of even a kiss. We did manage to exchange a few furtive words of love, that's all. And we exchanged letters and wrote each other poems. (The letters were not openly romantic and the poems were ostensibly not written to each other, but....)
We both knew that our minds were somehow, improbably, perfectly attuned. I don't subscribe to the theory of one true soul-mate, but if I did he would have to be a candidate. But it wasn't going anywhere. I was married with young children; he was in no position to enter into a normal relationship anyway. And the secrecy was more and more stressful. I ended it by leaving the job and breaking off our communication.
That was sad. I was also desperately concerned for his wellbeing, as he was in a potentially life-threatening situation. But I tried to put it all behind me. Then, one Saturday morning, I sat down with a cup of coffee, opened the newspaper and saw a headline. He had committed suicide. It was not only the greatest grief I had ever experienced, it was combined with shock.
I found out later from people who knew him that it was not because of the ending of our friendship – which, to be honest, I never thought, because it wasn't in character. He would not have put that guilt on me. It was because of the prognosis of what his life would be from that time on, which he decided to avoid.
Nevertheless I went through all the stages of grief for many months, and I went through them largely alone and unsupported. It was a relationship and a loss that was private, unknown to most people, and it was one of the biggest events of my life. I have never cried so much or so long about anything. Then for many months I was numb, dead inside. For about twenty years there was not a day I didn't think of him. Eventually it became every other day ... every few days…. Still, 34 years later, he is often in my mind.
There were of course other romances, when I was young, which ended. Some of them were very important too (one came close to marriage) and the endings hurt. I love deeply and long.
I thought of the man who suicided as the greatest love of my life. Then, late in life, I married for the third time. Andrew and I were together twenty years, in much love, compatibility and happiness. For the last few years he became increasingly frail, more and more incapacitated. He had had diabetes and cardio-vascular disease for many years, well-controlled. Now both conditions deteriorated, and he also had a series of very small strokes causing falls.
He developed Alzheimer's Disease. Fortunately it was fairly mild, but even that was increasingly difficult in all sorts of ways. I was his carer for those last years. It was arduous and distressing for us both, though it was also the time when we entered fully into our unconditional love. There were sweet and treasured moments. Was this, then, a case of pain leading to compassion, leading to greater love? I don't know. It may be so. I think it had a lot to do with the increased intimacy of that level of caring.
A final fall sent him to hospital, then to a nursing home. He died fairly soon, before the deterioration became extreme: a blessing. We suited each other beautifully, loved each other dearly, and four years later I still miss him very much. My journey of grief and widowhood is ongoing, though it does ease with time. Since then, in quick succession, I also lost both the cats we had raised from kittens, whom we referred to fondly as 'the children.'
I have lost both my parents, all my husbands and many old friends, several in circumstances tragic and shocking. My first deaths, of course, were those of my grandparents. The hardest to cope with was my beloved Nana, when I was four. And I have lost various beloved dogs and cats.
My brother loves me, but because of the trauma of that long ago time with the Wicked Stepmother, he cannot bear to have much to do with me. It brings back far too much pain for him. I understand this. I am the one person in the world who understands perfectly, because I was there. I am not hurt by his sparse communication, but it still hurts that I could not protect him better at the time. I don't blame myself now – I was only 15 – but I carry emotional scars.
And then there is my youngest child. An enchanting little fellow he was, long ago, As a man, he became such a nightmare that, after many years of tears – to rival the quantity I shed for the man who killed himself – I am permanently estranged from that son. People imagine this must have been his doing, his decision. Oh yes, often and often – until the time I didn't accept the kiss-and-make-up overtures yet again, but said, 'Enough'.
That is a pain there is no working through, no resolving. I have learned to shut it away instead. Everything you can imagine I might have thought or felt about that, I have, and a great deal more. I won't say any more than that. It is a thing I don't talk about, even as much as this, as a rule – or else, get me started, I can't stop until I tell every horrible detail whether the listener wants them or not. His older brother's reaction is like mine only more so. We have stopped mentioning him even to each other, the hurt goes so deep. We both know it's there. We both know there is nothing to be done about it, but to go on living our otherwise happy lives.
There were the girls at school who bullied me. I was ‘different'. I was bookish, non-sporty, and I shone at lessons. And because no-one realised for years how badly I needed glasses, I got the reputation of being ‘stuck up’. I couldn't recognise anyone I knew, to greet them, until they were right up close. It looked as if I was snubbing people. That was punished.
There were the uncles who tickled me in very private places with rough, thick fingers, and told me it was 'just a game' and I was supposed to like it.
The friends who turned out to be false – not many, in the course of my life, but some, and those were deep and shocking disappointments.
I could go on and on and on, remembering pain.
I have not experienced her pain, though, the friend who wants me to understand it. I didn't have a father who beat me in the belief he was saving my wicked soul. I didn't have excessively religious parents – quite the opposite, mine were agnostic. My mum wasn't very warm and huggy, but she didn't have the hard, unrelenting coldness of my friend's mother.
And I have not had her long, chronic, potentially fatal illness. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to keep on living through that; to keep on defeating it, with her will as much as anything; to be physically limited and reliant on others, even while soaring in her mind.
A memory returns from fifty years ago, of telling my psychiatrist some of my own hurts, then adding, ashamed, that I shouldn't complain. 'I know there are a lot of people worse off than me.'
'But pain is subjective,' he said.
I find a quiet part of the afternoon. I sit and close my eyes. I open heart and mind to read her pain. I promised.
Immediately I feel immensely sad. I am surrounded by vast, amorphous grey. I myself am that grey, outside and in. Tears fill my eyes.
She does constant energy work for the planet. I think she perceives all the pain of the Universe, all the pain that ever was.
Then, in my own body, her bodily pain begins. The worst is around my head. I think of a crown of thorns. I feel pains in my palms, and think of nails and a crucifix. Is she sacrificing herself? Is she being sacrificed? I recall that in the story of Christ they were the same thing.
I wonder how long I should stay with her pain. Then I realise she asked me to read it, not experience it. I decide I have stayed with it long enough. I feel that any longer might destroy me. I am not built to withstand such pain as that, not while I live in a physical human body. And yet she does, without surcease.
Gradually, I detach. The physical pain leaves me. The dreadful, oceanic sadness remains.
Does it matter? she asked, when she asked me to read her pain. Is what I do important? And if it is, how?
I pull four cards from my Voyager Tarot. Yes, I tell her. What you do matters. It brings about joy, equilibrium, and a compassion of divine quality. It has made a brilliant new beginning in bringing about harmony.
That night she texts me a spell to give me a peaceful, restorative sleep. I sleep sweetly and wake refreshed.