Betty Duffy

Monday, November 30, 2009

Husks in My Teeth

I had a piece of corn wedged between my molars for several days. Whenever I bit down on something, I could feel it digging into my gum, and making it swollen. My tongue grew irritated from my subconscious attempts to dislodge it while I was driving, falling asleep, reading—always trying to get the corn out of my teeth. Finally, today, at my parents’ house, with a string from their fancy tube of dental floss, I removed the corn, right before my mom and I went out for an after-dinner walk.

“I can’t tell you how much relief I feel,” I said to my mom about my corn saga. “There’s such a wonderful void between my teeth.” The air smelled like fresh dirt. All the farmers were out late last night, lights on their tractors, turning over the fields before today’s predicted rain.

“Gives a little hint, doesn’t it?” she replied, “To what it might be like for people who are in pain all the time.”

I thought of my Grandma who’s had the shingles for three months now. She’s tired, locked in at home, in constant pain. She called Saturday morning, just to talk, but ended up crying on the phone, probably because crying is just a normal reaction to living in constant pain and loneliness.

After our phone conversation, I took my grandmother to see a movie. The movie made her feel good, and it got me out of the house, which made me feel good, and then I took her back home. Back to her pain and loneliness.

My corn problem felt very insignificant, which is exactly how it should feel when compared to constant pain and loneliness, but my having survived it, and my subsequent exultation at having it removed made me feel primed for deeper challenges. When it started to rain, and our cheeks were already cold from the nippy wind, I said, “Imagine what the pioneers went through—snow, ice, wind—anytime they went anywhere.”

Both my mom and I looked down on the two kids we’d brought with us in the double stroller. The baby was suitably covered in a full body fleece, but my daughter had left her hat at home. She was asleep with her face turned up to the sky and each rain drop caused her closed eyes to pull tighter in her sleep. I turned her face downward, and patted the top of her head. “She’s a good girl,” I said.

“Yes she is. She wanted to help out in the kitchen,” my mom laughed. “She’s imitating the women-folk.” After dinner, when we were clearing the table and loading up dishes, my daughter brought food items to the counter with a look of self-importance. “I was reading somewhere about how the first five to seven years of life are all about building up the idea of the self—the ego. And the rest of your life, then, is about overcoming it.”

“By trudging homeward through inclement weather?” I asked. My thighs grew numb as the rain seeped through my jeans.

“Think of how nice it will be when we have some tea and Dad makes up a fire,” she said, smiling into the wind. “The tea would not taste nearly as good if we had not been out in the cold.” My mom has become terribly pretty lately. She’s sixty, married forty years, but the cool made her cheeks pink, and the rain made her hair curl. Smiling at life’s adversity, and the grace soon to follow, she looked like a soup commercial.

My mom is a very rare specimen. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, and occasionally, she puts her foot in her mouth. But she is one of the few people I know who has fought the battle for holiness, and has met with some success. She doesn’t gossip or complain. She’s been pulled into the service of her parents, children, and grandchildren but doesn’t seem to mind. She makes it look as though that aforementioned emptying of ego might actually be possible.

It gives me hope, recognizing that this change has been gradual in her. She has always been a beautiful woman, but when we were little, I remember her being a little grouchy and tired. I have to mention the grouchiness, because people won’t believe me if I say my mom has always been beautiful and selfless. It also fits into the theme for the day: Like feeling relief when I’ve had corn in my teeth, and having tea after walking in the rain, Mom’s current beauty and selflessness is better appreciated in relation to her past grouchiness. It is the grace made possible by trial.

What must it be like, then, to never experience the grace? To never have the reprieve? To live with corn in my teeth for eternity? Constant pain and loneliness?

Some people have to sort through grouchiness for a lot of years, as seems to be the case for me. But one of these days, when I get serious enough about it, I’m going to conquer it—and won’t my kids be surprised? Or I should say, God will help me overcome it, when I have completely surrendered it to him, because there’s always some reason for holding on to our maladies. I know my reasons.

I can’t speculate as to why my Grandmother rejects my Mom’s invitation to move in with them, even if only temporarily, until she feels better. But I think that if my Grandmother allowed us to take care of her more, she might find it a reprieve, at least from the loneliness, if not the pain. And we would find it a reprieve from the services we so dutifully perform for ourselves—to be emptied of ego. But she knows her reasons.

By the time we reached my parents’ driveway, the rain had stopped. It felt also as though the temperature had dropped, but I think our wet clothes trapped in the cold. The children had slept through the rain, and remained asleep when we pushed the stroller into the garage.

Inside, the boys all slept around the football game on TV, and a fire burned in the wood-burning stove. It felt like walking into a womb.

1 comment:

Hope said...

That last sentence is a keeper. The other night we brought Advent calendars to our neighbours' kids and when we walked into their house the first thing I noticed was their wood heat. It was so comforting and I blurted out, "oh, wood heat" in an almost love affair kind of way.

My first visit to your blog and I thoroughly enjoyed reading here.