A question of priorities

“They ought to make the feller sell his horses if he ain’t feeding them,” I said to Jill.

Jill is the nurse that administers my chemo every six weeks. She does nursing for a living and farms as a sideline, or maybe it’s the other way around. Once the usual medical questions are out of the way and the blood pressure and temperatures are taken, we almost always settle into a discussion about hay. She’ll ask me how many bales I got off Wayne’s field this year and whether I plan to overseed this winter, and I’ll ask how her second cut was and if she’s still got any to sell.

Today had been busy; the room where they stack all the patients was full, and Jill was kept running the whole time, so we didn’t get to talk about hay or dogs or equipment. This day our conversation didn’t start until just before my bag ran out and Jill was fixing to pull the IV.

She mentioned that a fellow down the road from her in Bethel had several horses and that they were looking pretty scrawny. They’d gotten bad enough for her to call animal control, and her neighbor was pretty mad about that.

“Says he loves his horses but with the drought, his pasture didn’t do well, and he claims he just can’t afford to buy any hay.” She said this with some disgust in her voice because, like me, she knows that keeping stock is a responsibility that doesn’t lend itself to excuses. I figured too that Jill had probably given the man some of her hay, probably even more than she could spare, and so her disgust was well-earned.

I guess the conversations Jill and I have about hay ought to seem out of place in a room full of rheumatoid-arthritis patients. Most of them are older women, although there are a few older men. The really sad ones are the teenagers and people in their early 20s whose bodies have been ravaged too early. Pretty much everybody in the room talks about what they can’t do anymore and how the medicine gets them back to feeling bad. I remember once, when Granny was sick, I asked how she was feeling and she answered, “Son, if I could just get a little better, I’d be about sick enough to die.”

I think a lot of the folks in that room feel pretty much that way.

We think of arthritis as a disease of stiffness and age, and so it is. But rheumatoid arthritis and its hundred or so relatives and variations, like the psoriatic arthritis I have, are more than just stiffness. These are diseases of the immune system—essentially, our bodies are finding ways to make themselves miserable. In my case, my body’s immune system doesn’t like my own soft tissues, and so it goes about attacking cartilage and tendons and ligaments and intestines and the lining of my eyes and who knows what else. The disease isn’t life-threatening, but sometimes you wish it were, just so it would be over.

I don’t really know why my body doesn’t like itself, and the truth is, I don’t really care, other than it means that I’m slowly becoming ineffectual. I’ve spent my life going out in the woods and tramping around for days at a time. I’ve cut and hauled timber. I built my house on the mountain by myself, and my response to this sickness has been to try to work even harder. The doctor tells me that my biggest challenge is realizing that I’m not the man I was, and that I can’t do the things I used to. I have to learn, she tells me, to ration energy. I should learn to engage in low-impact exercise.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what that is. I’ve never done anything remotely called exercise in my life. I have nothing but respect for those who can discipline themselves to go to a gym and strap themselves into a machine and pull and tug and lift. I look in awe at those who can run or jog or swim merely for the sake of the activity. I know it’s supposed to make sense, taking care of oneself, but for the life of me, I cannot conceive of the why of it.

It doesn’t seem fair: Our bodies break long before our time. I guess it says something about the individual, how they respond to the challenge. Daddy had polio when he was 15; they stuck him in a March of Dimes hospital and left him there to wither. The story goes that he fought the doctors and nurses when they moved to put him in the iron lung. That meant the disease had won, and Daddy didn’t mean to lose. The staff didn’t have the time or the energy to fight one more broken body, so they left him. The disease stopped before it took his lungs; maybe it was satisfied with his legs and most of his arms.

They said he wouldn’t be much, so they didn’t do much for him. The story goes that he made his own crutches and taught himself how to walk again. He didn’t do the telling; the fact is, I don’t ever remember him acknowledging he was sick or handicapped. His atrophied legs, braces and crutches seemed normal to me when I was growing up. That’s how daddies were.

Some folks make a profession out of being sick, out of being less than they can be. Some folks spend a lifetime meaning to lose. Others soldier on nobly, making concessions where they must but making it through the day and life as best they can. Some folks fight, and some folks quit. Some get angry, some get mean. Some gain patience, and some lose it.

I haven’t figured out which one of those folks I’ll be—some days I see traces of all of them in myself. At the moment, the idea of untended livestock seems more troubling to me than what a disease says my body can’t do. I think that may be a good sign.

[Mark Jamison lives in Webster, N.C.]

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