When I woke up this morning I remembered the pain in my right arm. What had happened to it? And why hadn’t I noticed yesterday that my arm wasn’t hurting anymore? Or (come to think of it) on Saturday when Dylan and I were on our steam trip? It was ridiculous, I told myself, that I had neither felt the pain nor remembered it in the last two days. On Friday evening, at the height of the arm attack, I had almost driven myself to the hospital, concerned I might be showing early signs of heart attack. How could my medical emergency have evaporated (and been forgotten) so quickly?
It’s not the first time I have developed symptoms which convince me I have a chronic condition before disappearing as quickly as they developed: the jaw I could barely open for months; the back pain which prevented me from swimming for years; the aching right elbow I struggled to drive with; the right shoulder I couldn’t lift. Some of the symptoms lingered but they all cleared eventually like lifting mist. What would it take for me to remember this?
I was getting better I told myself; I had driven home on Friday evening rather than going to A&E. Not that I had often acted on such things in the past; mostly I just worried. Anxiety tends to fuel symptoms and mine can be exacerbated by the pressure to stay well for Dylan; no one wants to get sick but the prospect is scary when you are responsible for someone vulnerable. This, at least, is the argument I rehearsed with my osteopath. Her view, however, was that my aches were symptomatic of something more specific; there were links, perhaps, with the site of pain and events in my life?
My locked jaw, for example, might represent blocked communication with my daughter. My back pain became chronic when I doubted myself as mother. The pains in my right elbow and arm were about self-reliance. My right shoulder, meanwhile, had buckled under the weight of my metaphorical shield. When my symptoms magically cleared (as truces were called and battles won) I marvelled at her ancient wisdom. This morning, remembering the osteopath, I speculated that perhaps my right arm ached on Friday because I was taking Dylan into the community alone again, being my own right hand woman.
Where in the body, I wondered, does absence live? Could I pinpoint an ache for Dylan moving into residential care? Then I remembered a Carol Ann Duffy poem. In ‘Nostalgia’, Duffy’s subject is men who leave a community in order to make money but who, away from home, become ill:
They had an ache here, Doctor,
they pined, wept, grown men. It was killing them.
The sickness the men experienced could be partially alleviated by returning home but, Duffy tells us, it was ‘too late’ for their lives to be fully restored as they returned to ‘everything changed’. Thus, the symptoms of nostalgia were recognised:
It was given a name. Hearing tell of it,
there were those who stayed put, fearful
of a sweet pain in the heart; of how it hurt,
in that heavier air, to hear
the music of home –
If these men felt the absence of home as hurt, a son’s absence can surely bring sweet pain to a mother’s heart.
Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Nostalgia’ was published in Mean Time (Anvil, 1993)