A Burden Shared

What we do for one another is a mystery.

 

Penny woke on Tuesday morning and cautiously assessed the level of pain. If she didn’t move at all, there was nothing but the familiar bone-deep ache in all her joints. That wasn’t so bad, nothing stabbing, nothing grinding. Penny smiled. Ann must be having a good day. Maybe even heading for another minor remission. This was much better than it had been on Saturday, when Ann’s pain had woken Penny with a shock; that time, she had flinched against it and made it worse. This was nothing more than the pain she had endured Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for the thirty years since her daughter’s birth. Still smiling, Penny eased herself to sitting and reached for the cane she kept hanging on the rail that ran along the wall. Once she had it she stood, breathing deliberately, as the smile became a grimace, then walked slowly to the bathroom, where she used the rail to lower herself carefully to the toilet seat.

That evening, as Penny was lying on the daybed grading papers for her next day’s classes, there was a knock at the door. She levered herself up slowly and walked toward it. Her ex-husband Noah was on the doorstep, his gleaming Viasolo parallel parked on the street. If he’d done that, and not pulled into her driveway, he must want a favour. Too bad the pain was too much for her to consider standing on the doorstep while she found out what it was. “Hi,” she said, warily. “Come in.”

“How are you?” he asked as he followed her into the living room. They had been divorced for more than twenty years, after a marriage of less than ten, but seeing Noah always provoked the same mixture of exasperation and weary affection. She could recall the times when catching sight of Noah had sent thrills running through her, and also the times when just hearing two words in his careful patronizing tone had made her want to kill him. Now what she felt was gratitude that he had always been there for Ann. Well, nearly always.

“I’m fine,” Penny said, easing herself back onto the daybed. She was stiff and exhausted from the day’s pain, but he knew all about that.

“Good. Good . . .” He moved books from the gray chair to the beige one and sat on the gray one. When he had lived here, the house had been tidier. “I hate to drop this on you, Pen, but can you possibly do tomorrow?”

“Oh no,” she said.

“Penny . . .” His entitlement pressed hard on the exact places where her affection had worn thin.

“No. I can’t. No way.” She cut him off. “You know I’m prepared to make reasonable accommodations, but not at the last minute like this. I’ve arranged my classes specifically, my whole schedule is set, and tomorrow I have three senior seminars, a lecture, and an important dinner meeting. And I haven’t had a day free this week. Janice is in the middle of a Crohn’s flare, so I took that Sunday so she could preach, and yesterday—”

“I have to fly to Port Moresby,” Noah interrupted. “I’m on my way to the airport now. Old Ishi has had a stroke, and Klemperer isn’t coping. I have to go. Our whole Papuan capacity is collapsing. I have to be there. It could be my career, Pen.” Noah leaned forward, his hands clasped together.

“Your career is not more important than my career,” Penny said, firmly, though the thought of going through the eleven-hour flight from Cleveland to Port Moresby with Ann’s pain was legitimately horrifying.

“I know, but this beyond my control. Ishi might be dying.” Noah’s big brown eyes, so like Ann’s, were fixed on Penny’s.

She had always liked Ishi, Noah’s senior partner. “Do give her my best when you speak to her. And Suellen too.” She deliberately looked down at the icon on the app that recorded how many papers she still had to grade, to harden her heart. “But I can’t take tomorrow. Ask Lionel.”

“I already did. I called him. He’s rehearsing all day. Coppélia. They open on Monday.” Noah shrugged.

Penny winced. She loved her son-in-law, but she wished sometimes that Ann had found a partner whose career made it possible for him to share a little more of the burden.

“If you can’t do it, there’s nothing else for it: Ann will just have to shoulder her own pain tomorrow,” Noah said.

The words “selfish bastard” flashed through Penny’s mind, but she didn’t utter them. She didn’t need to. Noah knew how hard Ann’s pain was to bear, and he knew how much easier it was to bear someone else’s pain than one’s own. So he knew that he was forcing Penny to accept another day of Ann’s pain, however inconvenient it was, because he knew she wouldn’t put their daughter through that. One of the things that had led to the divorce was when Noah had wished aloud that pain transference had never been invented. Penny never felt like that. Bad as enduring Ann’s pain could be, it was so much better to suffer it herself than to watch her daughter suffer. After all, Penny only took the pain. That was all people could do for each other. Ann still had to bear the underlying organic condition, and the eventual degeneration it would cause.

“I’ll take Thursday and Friday,” Noah said, into her silence. “I really can’t manage tomorrow; I have to get some sleep on the flight so I can cope when I arrive. But Thursday I’ll be there, I’ll have found my feet, it will be all right.”

Penny sighed. Mentally, she had already filed this with the many other arguments she had lost to Noah over the years. “Can you at least take the pain until you get on the plane?”

“I’ll do that,” he said. “I’ll take it right now. And thanks, Pen. You’re the best.” He tapped at the app, and the sensation as pain left her was so delightful that she almost bounced up off the bed. His face, in contrast, seemed to age a decade as the pain hit. She reached back for the cane she no longer needed, and handed it to him with a stretch that would have been impossible moments before. “Thanks,” he said, pulling himself up carefully. “Just until I get to the car. I always keep one there.”

She walked out with him. “Do you think it’s a bit better today?” she asked.

He grinned through the pain. “Better than sometimes, definitely. But you know that long-term it just gets worse.”

Penny nodded. Wincing as he reached for it, Noah pulled his cane from his trunk, one of the high-tech lightweight models with a folding seat and a retractable snow spike. It looked as flashy next to her more traditional wooden cane as his zippy Viasolo did next to her sedate Solari.

When Penny went back in, she headed for the kitchen, almost dancing down the corridor. She was hungry, as she had not been all day. Moving without care felt like a luxury. She enjoyed standing to chop vegetables, relished taking a step to the fridge for a slice of lobster with no warning stab preventing her from moving. She sang as she stir-fried, and ate sitting at the kitchen table. If she hadn’t had this break from pain she’d have ordered banh mi, and this was so much nicer. She always liked to exercise on pain-free days. There wasn’t time to go to the dojo or the pool, but she did a few squats after dinner then sat at her desk to finish the grading. By the time Noah was on the plane and the pain hit her once more, she was ready for bed.

She woke Wednesday morning in absolute agony, pain tearing through her stomach like the worst imaginable period cramps, combining to set all Ann’s arthritic joint pain jangling. Penny blinked, and gasped aloud. When she tried to move, she could not suppress a cry. She called her daughter right away.

Ann sounded sleepy. “Mom?”

“This is really bad, sweetie. It might be some kind of warning sign. I think you should go to the doctor.”

“I’m so sorry!”

Penny hadn’t been living with Ann’s guilt for as long as Ann’s pain, so she wasn’t as used to it. Her daughter had been born with the joint condition, but the guilt developed as she grew, blossoming fully only in the last decade. Penny wondered sometimes what kind of mother-daughter relationship they would have without the existence of Ann’s disease. They loved each other. But Ann’s pain, and the question of who felt it, had always been between them, both binding them together and keeping them apart.

“I’m happy to bear it for you,” Penny said, even as a new ridge of pain ripped through her stomach. “Do you have your period?”

“Not until next week; you know that,” Ann said. “Why?”

“It’s just that this feels a bit like cramps,” Penny said, though she had never had any cramps one-tenth this bad.

“I never have cramps,” Ann said. “Let me feel this.”

“No, darling, you don’t want to,” Penny said.

“Mom, I am not a little kid anymore, and you have to let me make the decisions about my pain, just the same as anything else in my life. Let me feel it, and I’ll decide whether to go to the doctor. I can override you and just take it back.”

“Just for a minute, then.” Penny knew her daughter was right, but it was hard to let go all the same, to know that the agony would be inflicted on her. What kind of mother would she be if it didn’t hurt her as much emotionally as it relieved her physically to press the app to return her daughter’s pain? She pressed it decisively, and at once the arthritic ache was gone. Once the switch had been set up it really was that easy, though setting it up was a complicated process. For an instant Penny relaxed on the bed. “Mom?” Ann said. “This doesn’t feel any different from normal.” Penny hated to hear the pain, so familiar, coming through in her daughter’s voice. Then another cramp hit her.

“No, I guess these cramps are something else. Maybe Janice—though it doesn’t feel like that. And she’s considerate. She always calls. And anyway, her husband is taking her pain all this week.”

“It could be something of your own,” Ann said.

Penny laughed. The laughter hurt her stomach, so she stopped. “I didn’t even consider that possibility. I’m never ill. Maybe it’s some kind of menopause thing. I must be getting to that kind of age. Though I hadn’t heard that it feels like this.”

“Go to the doctor, Mom,” Ann said.

“I can’t today—I’m teaching, and it’s my really full day. I’ll make an appointment for tomorrow.” Penny stood up and walked toward the bathroom, taking the cane with her, because she’d need it soon enough, but swinging it like a baton.

“How come you had my pain if you’re teaching?” Ann asked. “Did Dad duck out of it again?”

“Didn’t Lionel tell you?” Penny asked, stepping under the shower.

“Dad asked Lionel?”

“He told me he had. He said Lionel’s in rehearsal for Coppélia.”

“That’s true. I’m so proud of him, Mom. This could be his big break, getting out of the corps, soloing. But he should have told me Dad called. I can cope with my own pain.”

“Sweetie—”

“Mom.” Ann’s voice was firm.

“But truly, it’s easier for me than it is for you.” The shower cycled to hot air. “There have been studies and everything.”

“Not when you have your own pain too,” Ann said. “Maybe you should give me that!” She sounded enthusiastic.

“What, I take yours and you take mine?” Penny joked, making her way back to the bedroom.

“No, seriously, Mom! I never get to do anything for you, because you never have any pain. But now I could! And you always say how much easier it is to bear somebody else’s pain. Everyone says that. Let me!”

“I’ll need it to show the doctor,” Penny said, pausing in pulling on her underwear and doubling up in pain as another cramp rocked her. “It wasn’t too bad in the shower, but now it’s biting again.”

“You said you were going to the doctor tomorrow, Mom. And if you have a full load teaching today, I should keep mine and yours!”

“No. That’s not happening. I’ve taught with yours before. I’m used to it. But if you really want to try trading, we could do that.” Penny pulled on a freshly printed academic robe.

“Fantastic!” Ann’s voice was bouncy. “Let’s switch, then.”

Penny hadn’t traded her own pain since they had tested the app with a needle jab. Unlike accepting and returning other people’s pain, which she had set as shortcuts, she had to go through several layers of menu. “Accept, accept, accept,” she heard Ann mutter, and as the cramps left her, Ann’s familiar grinding joint pain came back. She sat down fast on the edge of the bed.

“Oh, Mom,” Ann said, her voice full of concern. “Mom, I think you should go to the doctor now. Really. I don’t think this should wait until tomorrow.”

“Really?” Penny was surprised at the concern in Ann’s voice.

“Really. I’m happy to bear this for you, but what even is it? I’m worried. I’m making an appointment for you right now!” This was Ann’s lawyer voice, solicitous but with a competence and decisiveness she showed her clients but seldom her family. “There, she’ll see you at eleven thirty.”

“Give me my pain back, then, if I’m going to the doctor,” Penny said.

“No. I’ll drive over and we can go to the doctor together. I’m in court this afternoon, but this morning I’m working from home.”

“Pick me up from campus, then. I’ll take my first seminar and cancel the next. As long as I’m back by two for my lecture—is that when you’re due in court?”

As Penny drove her little Solari through the crisp fall morning, she tried to think what had been so different about her conversation with Ann. It had been like dealing with a friend, an equal. Maybe Ann was finally grown up enough that they could have a new kind of relationship? Or maybe it was having pain of her own to share. Apart from the usual array of viruses and skinned knees, all the pain Penny had ever experienced had been vicarious. It was hard to imagine that in the old days she’d barely have known what pain was, and been forced to endure the sight of other people suffering without being able to help at all.

In the ten o’clock seminar, the students were each giving five-minute presentations. The third student, Regina, was hit with pain and collapsed in the middle of hers. “Duleep!” she gasped.

The other students gasped too. “Lucky Reggie!” Danee observed. “I’ve been signed up for Duleep for two years, but never felt it.”

“While I’m sympathetic to your pain issue, let’s focus on our presentations now,” Penny said. “Could you continue until Regina is feeling better, Kim?” Kim came up to the podium, helped Regina to a seat in the front row, and began to speak.

Even hopelessly out-of-date Penny knew that Duleep was a Bollywood superstar who suffered from a kind of ulcer caused by the parasites endemic in the part of India where he had grown up. His pain was shared by his millions of fans worldwide. As with other celebrity figures who shared their pain, the recipients were thrilled to feel it. Regina’s writhings seemed exaggerated to Penny, but they wore off before she felt it necessary to comment. Once restored to her normal status, Regina sat quietly listening, and redid her presentation at the end. As class ended, all the other students crowded around to compliment her on her luck and stoicism. Penny left them to it and walked out the long way around, down the slope of the hill, avoiding the steps. Ann was waiting in the plaid Honda Sky she shared with Lionel.

When she slid in, Penny was horrified to see how drawn her daughter’s face was. “I’m glad we’re going to the doctor with this, because the sooner it’s fixed, the better,” Ann said, switching the car to self-drive mode. “I don’t know what this is, but it’s not good, Mom.” She hugged Penny, who hugged her back.

The doctor’s office was traditionally paneled in supposedly soothing shades of beige and puce, and decorated with close-up photographs of aquatic birds. Penny had spent way too much time there with Ann.

Once her blood had been drawn and tested, the diagnosis was almost instant. The doctor frowned, and ran it again, while Penny frowned nervously at a grebe. The doctor handed the paper to Penny. “There’s no easy way to tell you this,” the doctor said.

Penny stared at the paper, hardly able to believe it. But the doctor had run it twice; it had to be right. “How can I be riddled with inoperable cancer?” she asked. “I didn’t feel a thing until today!”

The doctor frowned. “Have you been experiencing a lot of pain?” she asked. “Sometimes that can mask early symptoms.”

Penny handed Ann the prognosis as they got back into the car. Ann gasped, and hugged her again, then insisted on taking Penny’s pain back before they drove away. A chilly wind was blowing the leaves from the trees at the roadside. Before there were new green leaves, Penny would be dead. She couldn’t quite take it in.

“The first thing we need to do is sort out a pain management regime,” Ann said. “You’ve helped enough people. Lots of them will be happy to help you.”

“There are also painkillers, for cases like this,” Penny said.

Ann flinched as if her mother had said one of the five words you don’t say in church. “Mom. I love you. Other people love you. It won’t come to that. You don’t have to poison your body with those things, even if you are going to d-die.”

“This reminds me of the time when we got your diagnosis,” Penny said. “You were just a tiny baby. And you had this incurable disease that was going to give you pain forever. And your father and I were sure we could manage it. Delighted we lived now so that we could share the burden instead of being helpless and leaving you to suffer it alone.” They drove on, past the college, where Penny would not no longer teach out the school year. “What are you going to do, Ann?”

“I’ll cope,” Ann said, stalwartly. “Dad will be there. And Lionel will do what he can. I’ll find a way to manage. Don’t worry about me, now, Mom. Think about yourself.”

Penny looked out the car window, as helpless in the face of her daughter’s suffering as any parent had ever been.

 

“A Burden Shared” copyright © 2017 by Jo Walton

Art copyright © 2017 by Richie Pope

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