Word Nerd at the Doctor’s Office

So I went to see my doctor (actually my nurse practitioner) yesterday because I’ve been having some stuff that might feel like arthritis and I’ve had a really, really, really sore throat.

I don’t wait long, the nurse calls me in, first stop the scale – yay! 40 pounds by their measure!

Onto the exam room. The nurse verifies my name and birthdate, and why I’m there. She asks me about my pain – where does it hurt? Well, I think to myself, it doesn’t really hurt. “Hurt” is not the right word to describe what I feel. “Ache” is a better word. My ankle and my knee and my hip ache. But she doesn’t ask how much it aches, she asks how much it hurts.

And then, because I’ve been having this internal conversation and have evidently been a little slow on the uptake, she shows me this handy “pain level” chart with smiley faces on it. Now I know they have to do this. I once served as a lay person on an Institutional Review Board, a group of medical and non-medical folks who review the protocols and consent forms for new drugs and devices and procedures. So I know that those things have to be written so that a person with an eighth-grade level education can understand it.

But smiley faces? Really?

I point to the smiley faces that is more of a wavy line that a curve and describe my pain as a 7.5.20130419-151237.jpg

But then I go inside my head again. My pain doesn’t look like a circle with two dots for eyes and a wavy line for a grimacing mouth. Then again, my pain does not look like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Nor does my pain feel like what St. Teresa20130419-151304.jpg felt as the cherubim stabbed her into ecstasy in Bernini’s sculpture at the lovely little Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Put that on your chart.

My pain is not absent as it would be in a lovely Fragonard painting; there is no peace in my body that mimics a classic Dutch landscape.20130419-151331.jpg

If the nurse had asked, “Which painting in the great repertoire of Western art most evokes the ache you feel in your ankle, knee, and hip?” I would have been happy to ponder that and answer. “Why, thank you, Nurse Shelly. My ache is best represented by Rembrandt’s self-portrait of 1669. He’s not wincing, but there are shadows around the eyes and a set-ness to the mouth that evoke some ongoing pain and sleep-interrupted nights.” And then Nurse Shelly and I might get into a conversation about the evolving nature of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. But we don’t. She notes in my chart that I pointed to the wavy-line mouth smiley face, then tells me the nurse practitioner will be right in.rembrandt self 1669

My only consolation in all of this is that my nurse practioner asked if the symptoms in my leg started at the same time as my sore throat because the two might be related, except she didn’t say “at the same time.” She used the word “concurrently.” I was so happy, and answered her right away, because my little brain did not need to imagine synonyms or paintings that would better describe it all.

Of course, they still don’t know what’s wrong with me….

ps: If you are my mother reading this, it’s probably just a virus and nothing serious, so please don’t worry

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The Sympathy Card

sympathy cardEveryone knows that the best place to buy greeting cards is at the car wash.  Don’t ask me why, but as I stand there waiting for Sherwood Forester to get all sparkly and clean, I browse the card carousel like there’s no tomorrow.

Here’s the thing: the car wash has birthday cards, thank you cards, you’re a great friend cards, wedding cards, engagement cards, thinking of you cards, congratulations on your divorce cards, but no sympathy cards.  And that’s a problem, because I am in need of some good sympathy cards.

Only once in my life have a found a great sympathy card, at an independent bookstore in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.  The wife of a work colleague had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and we found a card with a magnet attached that read “Oh sh*t” (except there was an “i” where the “*” is.)  Evidently she loved it, and kept the magnet on her fridge until the day she succumbed to that cancer.

I have sympathy cards to send – to the family I never met of the friend who died; to the best friend of the friend who died; to my husband’s sister-in-law who lost her dad; to the widow of a former minister colleague in Milwaukee.  Now some of those folks will be happy and comforted by a card with a beach sunset, or a bird flying against the sun, or a weeping willow.  But in my own grief, I want to find a card with a Jolly Roger flag that reads “I am so sorry you are going through hell right now, and I wish I could be with you but I think you have to get through this hell without me because, to be truthful, the thought of experiencing a loss like that terrifies me.  I’d rather walk the plank.”  I might even throw in a good “aarrrrrrr.”

But Hallmark doesn’t make those cards.

And even once I find the card, then I have to figure out what to write.  You have my deepest sympathy.  You and your family are in my prayers.  For the non-religious, I hold you in my heart.  And here’s the other thing: there are words we’re not supposed to use in our notes, so “It totally sucks that your beloved died” becomes “The passing of your loved one is a grief beyond comprehension” or something else poorly written like that.  Euphemisms play a big part in the sympathy card.

In seminary and in hospital chaplaincy training we were taught to use the words “die”, “death”, “dead”, and neither to beat around the bush nor hem and haw at the gates of the underworld.  As a pastor, I feel differently about that, and sort of decide in the moment which word I am going to use – “died”, or “went to God”?  “It sucks”, or “I can’t imagine your pain”?

Part of the problem is that I am a word person, and sometimes words don’t work.  Sometimes they do – Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes” comes to mind, as do the lyrics to that great old hymn “I’ll Fly Away.”  But the words that I grasp for, in talking with someone or in writing the card, don’t come.  I am not a poet, nor a lyricist.  I’m a human being who will herself die one day, who is terrified of losing the people she loves, who really can’t make a 100% claim about the afterlife.

I guess, in the end, I’ll look for some blank cards with a beautiful picture, hoping the beauty might ease the soul.  I’ll write something truthful and gentle, and I’ll keep it brief.  I’ll put a stamp on the envelopes and put them in the mailbox.   Then I’ll tell my beloveds that it’s time for dinner, and in making dinner, and saying grace, and telling stories about our day, I’ll  let go of the worry of losing them for just a little bit, and hold fast to them in the time that I have.

jolly roger