When does a child first understand pain? “Don’t worry,” doctors say, when preparing to circumcise baby boys, “they don’t feel it.” The high pitched cries coming from infants during that procedure make me doubt the truth of that statement. I remember the combined look of disbelief, confusion and horror on each of my daughter’s faces when they got their first baby shots. No one had hurt them before. They didn’t understand; I worried that they’d never trust me again.
Of course, I didn’t remember my own baby shots, though by the time I was a toddler, I was terrified of the doctor, and the needles that often accompanied his visits. Terror is a different thing than pain, though, and the poke itself was not really so bad. I was in the third grade before I gained true knowledge of pain, and the many forms it takes.
When I was eight years old, I broke my foot. Though that is how I always start this story, it wasn’t actually me that did it, though it was clearly my foot that was broken. I always feel like I’m letting myself down by assuming responsibility for something that was clearly not my fault. It was lunch recess, the longest break of the day, at Bishop Kelley School. Grades one through five were all outside, together, on the playground that sat beside the convent, and between the church and the school.
I was on the teeter-totter, alone, just sitting on one end of the thick, green board. Minding my own business. A girl, younger but much bigger than me, asked if she could teeter-totter with me. I nodded, and stood to lower the other end of the board so that she could get on. We went up and down a few times, just as you are supposed to, on a teeter-totter. Then, the girl did not push back off when she was in the lower position.
She grinned at me tauntingly, and kept me up in the air, though I encouraged her to let me down in every way I could think of. I begged; I whined; I threatened to tell. I didn’t have enough weight to shift the balance. I was stuck. I was humiliated. I was scared. She started bouncing up and down at her end, which made my perch seem even more dangerous. I held tight to the metal handle, and wrapped my legs around the board. Then the bell rang, signaling the end of recess.
The girl leaped off her end of the teeter-totter, which sent the other end crashing down, right onto my foot. It was the worst pain I had ever felt. When you come from a big family, there is always one sibling or another who will point it out to you if you are doing something stupid. So, by the time I had reached the third grade, I knew a little bit about appearances, and tried hard to not make a fool of myself. Still, I couldn’t help it: I burst out crying.
The nuns and lay teachers at Bishop Kelley School were strict. Rules were there for a reason. When that bell rang, we had less than five minutes to get to the outside door of our classrooms, and form a single-file line. And here I was, barely able to walk. Children zipped around and past me, sometimes wide-eyed or snorting at my appearance. My sister Brenda, one year older and ever-so-much more worldly-wise, slowed down long enough to scowl at me. “You’re going to get in trouble,” she said, before continuing on her way.
Then, my brother, Ted, showed up. He was there to help! Ted was two years younger than me. He still is, actually, though it seems much less of a big deal now, than it was when I was eight-years-old. On top of that, Ted had the butch haircut that my Dad always insisted on, and thick coke-bottle glasses, with a big wad of graying adhesive replacing the hinge on one side. Ignoring the possible consequences of being late, Ted took my hand, and let me lean on him as he helped me to my classroom. So kind! Yet what I was thinking, was how embarrassing it was to be seen in public with my goofy little brother.
There’s more to this story. I remember children snickering as I made my way to my seat. Mrs. Snoddy, my third-grade teacher, scolded them for it, and removed my shoe…which allowed my foot to swell. My family did not have a telephone, so I stayed in the classroom for the rest of the school day. Since I was clearly unable to walk the two blocks to catch the bus, I stayed there after school let out for the day, too. When Mrs. Snoddy finished grading papers, she drove me home.
My mother did not drive; my father was at work. My sniveling and whining was clearly going to be an irritant, so Mom sent me upstairs to bed. I made it up the stairs by sitting on my bottom, pushing off with my one good foot, one step at a time. The next morning, Mom and Dad took me to see Doctor McBride, who took X-rays, and encased my leg up to my knee in a big plaster cast.
That’s not all! Because I couldn’t ride the bus, I had to cross the street and wait alone in front of the old high school, for about a half-hour until my mother’s friend, Mrs. O’Connor, got out of work, to bring me home. Because no shoe would fit over the cast, that foot was dressed in a loose-knit Scandinavian-patterned slipper with a plastic sole. As if it wasn’t ugly enough already, by the time the cast came off, that slipper was in tatters! It wouldn’t stay up, so I always had a mound of slouchy yarn around my ankle, leaving the yellowing and dirty cast exposed.
So, from this one incident, I experienced all kinds of misery. Because I was conscious of how I was fitting in, or not, and was quick to suffer embarrassment and humiliation, the physical pain was probably the least of it!