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It only hurts forever.

When I was very young, I would spend summers with Grandma and Grandpa, high up in the green Kentucky mountains, far from town. It was there they taught me, and I began to learn, the things you cannot find in books: the true pleasure of hard work done well, the knowledge that poor does not have to mean poor in spirit, and the immense value of a mail-order catalog on a farm where there is no indoor plumbing.

It was a hard living, though I didn't know it then because we all had so much fun that no one thought to call it hard. My grandparents either grew it, made it, traded for it, or did without it, and nothing was ever wasted. Old rags became beautiful quilts, like the one I slept under for 30 years and my daughter sleeps under now. When Grandpa butchered a hog he used everything but the oink, and the way Grandma killed a chicken - by grabbing an unsuspecting hen by the neck and swinging it - even saved the cluck.

She had arthritis even then, in the 1950's when she was in her 60's, though she did not complain or even say anything about it. Sometime during those years she stopped killing chickens the old (and honestly most humane) way, and began using a hatchet and chopping block until she could no longer catch them at all. Her strawberries, a labor of love that she grew each year and put up in big quart jars of the best preserves you ever tasted, were the last thing she gave up.

I can remember her in her 80's, sitting in her wheelchair near the edge of her weed-choked garden, looking at the few volunteer strawberries that were blooming and telling me how much she missed tending them. And I'd say "Yes" or "Uh-huh," or something equally stupid, though I hadn't the slightest idea what she had been through or what she was going through, either physically or mentally. I did not know then that it had very little to do with growing old and everything to do with being forced to give up something she loved that had become part of her life. But I know now.

Learning the hard way

The only time Joe DiMaggio, the great Yankee Clipper, ever lost his temper with the press was in 1949, when he was battling painful bone spurs in the heels of both feet. He was trying to leave Johns Hopkins Hospital on crutches when reporters mobbed him in the lobby. "Don't you think you've gone far enough?" he shouted. "You guys are driving me batty! Can't you leave me alone? This affects me mentally, too, you know."

I was two years old that year and not yet a baseball fan, but 35 years later I would have an experience that would cause me to learn from the courage of the great DiMaggio, and from my grandmother. Not that I'm a professional athlete, or that I worked the long, hard, endless days that Grandma did. I just liked to hunt and fish and hike and grow a little garden in the summer and cut my own firewood in the fall. Simple things. To keep in shape for doing them, and because I loved to, I ran.

I started running in my late teens, long before it became fashionable, and long before footwear companies started making the firm, supportive shoes runners can buy today. Running was my tranquilizer, my pressure-relief valve. If I was angry, I ran and it got better. Rough day at school? At work? I ran. Fight with my wife? I ran. Feel bad, out of sorts? I ran. Rain, snow, heat, cold - nothing stopped me.

I ran everywhere. I ran on streets, defying death by automobile, and on the paths and fire roads through the Alabama woods surrounding my home. I even humiliated myself on vacations by running anywhere available.

Daytime, nighttime, anytime was the right time. I was chased by dogs, almost bitten by a huge copperhead, and startled by a feeding wild turkey that almost gobbled me to death in its panic. Nothing stopped me from running; not until I couldn't walk.

Trauma, that's what the doctors called it. Good word. In my case it meant dropping a piece of firewood on my right foot, nothing serious. I limped a couple of days and it seemed to get well. But favoring the right foot did something to the left, and the next day when I tried to get out of bed I could not. It's that simple. I can't describe the pain, and won't try. If you've had it, I don't have to, and if you've never had it, nothing I could say would tell you how it is.

When it became worse and would not heal, I borrowed some crutches and made my way to the office of an orthopedic surgeon. Diagnosis: calcaneal spur aggravating and aggravated by a short Achilles tendon. Immediate problem: inflammation and tendonitis (an arthritis-related condition that, though painful, usually lasts only a short time). Prescription: NSAIDS, ultra-sound treatments and rest. Prognosis: Good. Though surgery might be necessary in the future, my doctor told me I should experience only minor problems as long as I took care not to traumatize the foot.

That doesn't sound too bad, and I guess it's not. But what it really means is that I can't run anymore, and that every time I turn my ankle or even bump my heel the wrong way I have to go through treatment again.

The first flare-up was no big deal, nor was the second. That was before I had heard of pain that never truly goes away, or diseases as unpredictable as arthritis that keep you on a blind roller coaster ride through an emotional house of horrors.

By the time the third and fourth flare-ups came, I realized this was something that was not going to go away. I had to face the fact that running, the one thing I had used and relied on to relieve stress and help me cope, was the thing I could not do.

I denied it. Every time I denied it, I over-exercised to prove the problem was gone, and I hurt myself again. I became angry, though that is too mild a word. Enraged is far more descriptive of the way I felt the day I was buying groceries and for no discernable reason, my left foot began to draw up in that now all-too-familiar tensing that precedes a flare-up. It is the pain before the inflammation, a precursor, a warning, but this time it was too late because I had a cart full of groceries in the back of the store and the only way I could get to the checkout stand was to use the cart as a crutch. I drove home somehow, through the pain, but could not unload the car.

I went into a tailspin after that. The more I hurt, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more depressed I became and the more I hurt. Pain and depression and anger and fear were the emotions I lived with and was almost consumed by.

I thought often of Grandma, and her wheelchair and her strawberries and her chickens. I wished she were still here with us so I could talk to her about this thing and learn, because she had dealt with it, and she knew something I was not yet able to comprehend.

Finding answers

I don't know whether it's good or bad, but you get a lot of time to think when you're laid up. It can be good.

For years before I had any physical problems, I had been a firm believer in positive action based on knowledge, ability and determination as the solution to any problem. In my job as an industrial salesman, I thought of myself as an irresistible force - I knew how to prepare myself to face any problem, no matter how difficult. But if I was an irresistible force, then my unreliable foot had become an immovable object, and all the mind over matter and positive mental attitudes in the world could not change that. But I tried.

I used my proven formula for selling a tough new customer: define your objective, make your plan, attack. If that doesn't work, then redefine, replan, and reattack until you reach your goal. I wasted about a year on that nonsense before I realized what I was doing wrong.

It jumped right out at me from the pages of a book I've read a dozen times, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago, the old man, battles a huge marlin as he also fights the pain in his old, battered body. Although he remembers how strong he was in his youth, he is not saddened by the loss because he has learned to accept himself exactly as he is right now He has learned to use nature instead of fight her.

Like most simple things that are true, it makes perfect sense when you finally grasp it. I watched my grandmother for years, but learned nothing. I knew she hurt, but that is something you cannot share. I knew she could not do all the things she once did, yet she was almost always busy. She went on.

When she came to my father's funeral, she was in her late 70's and could barely walk, could hardly even stand. Yet when the time came to rise for the final words and I took her arm to help her up, she pulled it from me fiercely and stood without my help. She looked at me sharply with her mouth set in silent determination, and with her eyes she told me quietly, firmly, "I will do this thing." Though I did not understand then, I think that now I have it right.

Life, nature, eternity, do not flow backward, nor should they. The trick, the secret or truth or whatever you want to call it, is not to try to beat the flow, because you can't. But you can make it work for you by working with it. It has to do with learning when to grit your teeth and say, I will, and when to know, and to accept, that sometimes, "I cannot "

About the author: Charles Nicholson is a freelance writer from Alabaster Ala., who specializes in writing about the outdoors.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Arthritis Foundation, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:remembering a grandmother with arthritis
Author:Nicholson, Charles
Publication:Arthritis Today
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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