When I was a kid and somewhat sick from a cold or other bug, my dad would take a look at me and if I wasn’t actively throwing up or profusely sweating, he’d send me to school. I always hated it – why didn’t I get to stay home like every other kid? “You’ll live,” he often said when I whined about something that wasn’t life-threatening.
That’s the thing about growing up with a parent who is a medical professional – you cannot be wimpy about illness. They’ve seen worse.
I’m not sure I was a less-whiny kid about my minor illnesses, but as I grew up, I knew that complaining about every ache and pain wasn’t going to do much good. So I often ignored the mild stomachaches and the pain in my back. They weren’t going to kill me, so why focus on them?
I wasn’t that sympathetic of a partner, either. Shawn could sometimes get one of those colds that some women term “man-colds” where he whined about a mild illness. It was annoying to me when he acted like this, and he knew it. I usually just tried to ignore him, and after a few days, he was better.
I took this same tactic when he first got sick. Everyone gets food poisoning every once in a while, right? Because that’s what the early stages of his cancer looked like – like food poisoning. After a few weeks, we both decided that it was worse than we’d initially thought, and we wondered if maybe he’d picked up some sort of infection while traveling. But it wasn’t until sometime in November that I actually became concerned.
People get sick, I figured. I’d had all sorts of crazy long illnesses when we lived abroad, so this couldn’t be so different. But it was, of course.
In a way, Shawn’s death broke me from my belief that most minor aches and pains would always stay minor.
In the months after Shawn died, I constantly thought something was wrong with me. I felt physically awful, on top of the terrible emotional grief, and I couldn’t ignore it. There were nights when my heart actually hurt so much that I thought I was having a heart attack. Isn’t that what happens to some widows? What if I died too?
The pain in my chest eventually eased, but not before I made my dad examine me a half-dozen times throughout that first year. But other things remained. A headache made me wonder if I was having a stroke and tingling in my arm made me think my body would soon fall victim to a degenerative disease.
I didn’t tell many people about this, apart from some of my widow friends. It made me feel crazy to all the sudden worry that every bout of constipation was certainly colon cancer. I had never been like this before! But I couldn’t control my worry that even a small issue might be masking something much, much bigger. Because, of course, it could. And it did, with Shawn.
All my aches and pains? They weren’t ever something big. I am amazingly healthy. And yet, I might not be healthy tomorrow. And that weird pain I’ve been having in my ring finger? Maybe it’s a sign of something else. (I have no idea what. I don’t let myself Google this stuff. But I haven’t been able to take off my wedding ring for almost a month! Maybe that actually means something more than that I live near the Equator?)
I know I should chill out, and now that it’s been almost 5 years since Shawn died, I’m usually able to tell myself that I should ignore these small aches and pains. I can usually hear the voice of my father in my head, or I can actually call him on the phone and he’ll say to me, “Marjorie, that’s nothing.”
And he’s right. I know he is.
At least for now.