Maul in the Family

Angela Baerg

© Copyright 2007 by Angela Baerg


 I write advice articles on health. It’s what I do. But, as I discovered in June 2006 while I was issuing warnings about the dangers of excessive summer sunshine and antibiotic overuse, just because you help others heave over their own health hurdles doesn’t mean you get to dodge all of your own.

 In retrospect I know I should have seen it coming, having watched the able-bodied members of my household be whittled away one by one in prior months. My mother had been the first to go, knocked out of the ring by a sleep-falling disorder. What had first appeared normal—only carsickness, we were sure—soon kicked up its intensity when she collapsed in my stepfather’s arms on the side of the road.

 It wouldn’t end there. For two tumultuous weeks, her peach-colored skin was bruised by ill-fated unconscious midnight living room rambles and disastrous attempts at cuisine a la snooze. In the end, we pinned her painful predicament on an iffy culprit: a vertigo-inducing ear infection. After that viral bully ran its course, my mom bounced back.

 Just in time to aid another. Barely a month had passed before my stepfather, Jack, started feeling funny as well, plagued by what he was sure was only a nasty case of heartburn, an overdue consequence of his habitual late-night feasting. It was while he was operating on someone else that he realized it was worse than he had realized and that he was the one who belonged on the operating table. When the back of the utensil he was using accidentally brushed his abdomen, the stabbing pain it generated was nearly unbearable. Hurriedly, Jack wrapped up the procedure and rang a radiologist.

 The doctor’s diagnosis wasn’t pretty: an unidentified bowel obstruction, possibly cancer. Until now we’d figured Jack’s distended belly was the result of overzealous body-building. His surgery said otherwise. The bulge was not muscle; instead, it was 3.5 feet of colon backlogged with unejected excrement. In an emergency surgery, the mutant colon was exorcised, and although Jack nearly sabotaged his recovery with four-mile jogs that he passed off as unstrenuous strolls, his recuperation was soon complete.

 But by now in our house that word had become a synonym for disaster. Our cat, Honey, was next in line for emergency care. When she was plowed into by our energetic pup, Axle, she nearly broke her back. Almost before her pain pills had worn off, Axle himself needed medical attention, and June 8 was the special date set for his neutering operation.

 Looking back, I almost wish his recovery hadn’t been so quick. Since we were now out of animal occupants, it was obviously time for another human being to bite the dust. For weeks now my body had been preparing for disaster, sending a glut of systematically ignored signs: feverish nights, stymied bowel movements, mysterious vaginal bleeding.

 I thought I knew exactly what was going on. “Mom,” I whispered in a jam-packed cafe, suspiciously skimming the chattering crowd for eavesdropping acquaintances. “I think I have a hemorrhoid.”

 “A hemorrhoid!” she bullhorned in response. “That’s nothing! It happens to the best of us. Just slap on some Preparation H, honey! It’ll be gone in no time.” Although her earsplitting advice might have assisted any of the restaurants’ other patrons, it didn’t help me. Every day walking and even sitting became more difficult.

When I asked my dad for advice, he hocked fiber as a cure-all more deftly than a traveling salesman. His explanation for why it kept getting worse was simple. “You must be straining,” he stated matter-of-factly, dumping a heaping capful of spindly gray flakes into a lukewarm glass of water.

 “But I’m not,” I insisted.

 “Just drink some fiber,” he insisted, scooting the unappetizing glass in my direction. “It’ll go away.”

 But when I woke up feverish and nearly inoperable the next morning, the only absent object was my peace of mind. I was all-around drenched, my sheets soaked from sweating, my pillow soggy with tears. Abruptly I scrapped Plan Tough-It-Out, subbing in its place Plan Call-My-Mommy.

 “I’m coming down,” she announced, passing the phone off to my stepfather like an Olympic baton.

 “I can get someone else to take me,” I demurred miserably, quailing at the thought of her loathsome 2.5-hour drive.

 “Angela,” my stepfather responded incredulously, “she’s already on her way.” And it was a good thing, too. If she hadn’t come, my flawed insurance paperwork never would have squeaked past the front desk. But she pounded it through, and I was admitted and finally awarded the sacred privilege of having my derriere prodded by the physician’s assistant’s iron fireplace poker fingers.

Aw, that doesn’t look so bad!” he commented playfully, scoffing at my crushed countenance and disproportionate groaning.

 “But that’s not where it hurts,” I countered feebly. “The pain is right…here.” I gestured to the proper spot on my pincushion rear as well as my stomachward position permitted.

 “Whoa!” he bellowed, tone changed entirely. “That’s no hemorrhoid! That’s an abscess you’ve got there!”

 An abscess meant surgery—two separate tries—trailed by a slow, pain-pill pushing, devoid of action-packed recovery. And as my family’s fate would have it, my remedy was another’s ruin. “Can I have a bowl of cereal,” I whimpered to my sister, who was playing nurse, “and yogurt (peach, please!), and an omelette (oil-free) in a makeshift grilled cheese (make sure it’s crunchy!), and part of an apple, and maybe some shredded wheat?”

 Most people would have gawked, but my forbearing sister just pivoted dutifully towards the kitchen, having by now come to terms with my ridiculously complex meal requests. “And—” I started up again.

 “Hold on!” she interrupted. “One thing at a time.”

 I held my tongue, feet strategically elevated, head propped by a velvety cushion, listening as her soft steps turned into the kitchen. She started to open the cabinet door, but its lazy groan was drowned out by a sharp crash and a shrill cry. Slightly woozy, I sprang up and rushed in to find a guilty-looking ceramic cereal bowl broken in half, its razor-sharp edges embroidered with blood, and my dutiful maid clutching a partially dissected squirt gun of a hand.

 The ER doctors said it’s a severed digital nerve, one that—even with surgery—could take up to five years to return completely to normal, if it ever does. Although most of me is sad that she had to be so agonizingly inconvenienced, a small part of me is comforted by this extended offering, one I hope will keep our house’s blood-thirsty gods temporarily at bay.

Even so, I’m the first to acknowledge that there are no guarantees. If you want to send your condolences, I wouldn’t recommend visiting. After all, we’ve exhausted our supply of able-bodied family members. If you ask me, you’re safer just sending a card.

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