“I hate to see you like this,” my friend said seemingly uncomfortable with the idea of seeing me in pain.
It had been a week since I’d had surgery on a torn rotator cuff and bicep tendon. I understood his concern. The sling is a lot. It’s big. It’s black. Its thick straps wrap around my waist and around my left shoulder to hold my healing appendage and bicep in place.
Arthritis cripples him. He, too, hurts. But he has to announce it. Invisibility obscures his pain behind pearly whites and a sunny disposition. Unlike his sore, veiled and out of sight, friends and family cannot avoid seeing my big black sling. Its sole job to hold one part of my body in place, close to my chest.
“Man, I hate to see my friend like this,” he said after dinner and after he noticed the side effects of narcotics snaking through my veins—my eyelids growing heavy, my head hanging lower.
I admired his fortitude to face his emotions out loud. That’s something a lot of people don’t know how to do. In the midst of well-wishes, I’ve received strange responses. Jokes shroud people’s intent. Comments about push-ups intermingle with words like worry and sleep at night.
Many of us don’t know what to do with visible pain or the thought of our loved one being hurt. The discomfort of another’s distress is…uncomfortable. And so, we ignore it—we sloppily shuffle around it. We hold our emotions close like my big black sling, hoping not to re-injure.
But even if I stand strategically against a wall, people wiggle and bump into me, while uttering unapologetic sorrys. They stare intrigued with the background story. This representation of pain is unavoidable. This sling is big.
“I just hate to see you like this,” he said once more. This time, we stood in the parking lot of a liquor store. He’d insisted on “buying me a bottle for my big birthday.”
I accepted. And I wondered if he spoke to me or himself. His pain is visible only through X-ray. He can smile and no one would be the wiser. If I smile, people can focus on the symbolism of the sling.
“Next time, maybe you can visit when I’m not hemmed up,” I said.
“For sho’,” he agreed, describing a return trip in a couple of months.
I reassured him my recovery would be speedy. “April will be here in no time. We can celebrate life for real then,” I say.
For real means sipping handcrafted drinks in short gold-rimmed glasses and copper tin mugs, shutting down restaurants, and complaining about the privilege we’ve designed for our young adult daughters. We did little of that on this night. That night, was reserved for facing pain: his and mine. His invisible, mine observable.
Post-script: I wrote this one week after my surgery on January 27, 2023. I’ve started physical therapy and feel fine 😉