Today, I sit on the bed, looking at the piles of laundry. There is a pile on my right. There is a pile on my left, and there is a pile on the bed. Afternoon happens to be when I am at my weakest. The pain is like a splinter I can’t get out of my thumb, but in this case, that splinter is wedged deep in the space between my condyles and my skull. The diagnosis I’ve been given is idiopathic condylar resorption—in other words, my jaw joint is disintegrating, along with the condyles. “Idiopathic” simply means no one knows why.
The jolt of caffeine at breakfast has worn off. My son is supposedly asleep upstairs for his nap, and mid-afternoon I am faced with the silence of the bedroom. These are my hardest moments. I often choose to ignore my situation by scrolling through my iPhone. Otherwise, I have to submit to working through it.
The most unnerving aspect of pain is that the effect of pain is a ripple outwards. Sarah Manguso writes, “When I lived on my own, my only experience of illness was the illness itself. It’s now just as much about my son.” In other words, pain wraps its talons around an individual, but it also wraps itself around the rhythms of a family.
Pain makes you aware of how ridiculous it is to try to accomplish things in the ebb and fall of function and disability on an hourly basis. Productivity is a myth you tell yourself when you are well. Pain, on the other hand, I think of as a continuous, cruel sacrament. Every day, at 9am, 10am, 11am, 12pm, and so on, on an hourly basis, I perform the sacrament of remembering how human I am, with pain as the conduit. It is as if these vespers are my accountability pact with God to pay attention to decay.
Here, when I’m sitting at the table with my children—and the pain strikes—here in the pang of illness, I remember the nail pounded through human skin into the gristle—the flesh of his hand. If pain is not a cross to be born, I do not know what is. I wonder how I came to be chosen for such a vocation.
It reminds me of a visit to a monastery I made two years ago. At the time, it astonished me to learn that the monks met at all times of the day and night for prayers and singing. They prayed for the entire world: single mothers and the chronically ill, businessmen and world leaders. I remember my own shock that there was a clockwork procession, daily, of petitions to God.
Afterwards, even when I was asleep, in the middle of the night, I’d wake and think about the monks’ prayers. It astonished me, the regularity of it, the absolute refusal to despair. Now, I imagine these regular monastic prayers as the counteraction to the pain of humanity around the world. Monks who testify to human unraveling each hour. I imagine each pang experienced by myself and others, thwarted by the monks’ prayers, each jarring bruise, neutralized by a psalm of praise.