"When I was at school today, my chest hurt."
My momma heart lurches. Full stop. Anxiety spikes. "What do you mean? Can you describe it? Is it like an ache, slow and steady, or like a pain, like it's here and then it's gone?" I ask. This isn't the first time my 5-year-old has had this complaint.
"Like when you bump your head on metal," she says. "Like when you have a stomach ache."
In my mind, my body, these two things contradict one another. Then she continues, holding her stomach as if to reenact the pain: "It's around my heart.
"It will last for two or one minutes," she finishes, authoritatively. Like most kids her age, she has an absurd relationship with time. Last night she was sobbing that she needed to make more art before bed, then actually negotiated for less time as I set the timer.
I decide to email the doctor, knowing what he will say. And I'm right: "Ninety-nine percent of chest pain in small children is benign. If you don't have a family history of sudden cardiac arrest, I wouldn't worry."
We don't. I'll worry anyway.
This is the dance that my daughter's doctor and I do. I'm not one of those hovering, symptom-Googling mothers (at least not anymore . . . after five years of endless germs and a few ER visits, I've grown sturdier). But when I reach a certain threshold of confusion about my daughters' bodies, I send him the obligatory email so he will tell me that children are wildly unreliable narrators of their own bodies.
Which has me thinking: Perhaps this is the more honest way for all of us to relate to all of our bodies.
I get migraines. Or at least that's what I call them. I have no clue if that's what you would call them if you had the same tightness spread across the back of your skull, the same nausea, the same sense of creeping doom. Like our perception of color, I sometimes wonder if my pain is the same hue as other migraine sufferers' pain, or if what I call brown they actually call green. My dad gets migraines. My grandmother got migraines. She's dead now. The story we tell in our family is that we are all sensitive souls with a shared constitution that makes us vulnerable to migraines.
I have strong memories of holding the palm of my little hand on my dad's forehead and imagining that I was vacuuming all the pain out of his head and into my arm. Then I would shake my hand to get the pain out of my arm and into the air. I must have seen my mom do it. He swore it made him feel better — that I had a magic touch. When my daughter was a baby, I used to sometimes hold the tiny heels of her pudgy feet on my closed eyelids when I had a migraine. It felt as if it steadied something inside me.
So now I walk around in the world telling people, when it comes up, that I am a person with migraines. I have never told anyone that I have a magic touch. Are both true? Or partly true?
I never paid attention to human bodies this carefully before I became a mother. Not even my own. I had never tried so hard to solve the puzzle of them.
When we visit my husband's huge family — he is one of six kids, most of whom have reproduced not infrequently — Maya complains about stomachaches. I let her hide in an upstairs room, flipping through the pages of a "Curious George" anthology, the dull roar of her cousins detectable but distant below. Eventually she closes the book and extricates herself from the tiny bed (Nana has enough tiny beds to compete with Snow White), and creeps back downstairs. So the stomachache, I decide, is actually her being overwhelm. When she says, "My stomach hurts," she means "I'm overwhelmed."
And then she says, "My stomach hurts," and I smile knowingly, and five minutes later she turns white and then throws up repeatedly. So maybe "my stomach hurts" sometimes means "I'm overwhelmed," and sometimes means "I'm about to throw up my Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes."
"Why can't she be more clear about what's going on?" I think, with no small amount of irritation. But then I think of my migraines. Sometimes I get them and decide that it was because I was dehydrated. Or hormonal. Or maybe some sort of "energy" (adrenaline?) got stuck in my head instead of flowing to other parts of my body. I should walk more. I should drink more water. I should watch more funny movies. I should get the doctor to take out this IUD. I should tell a different story?
I'm afraid the truest story to tell is that none of us could justifiably claim to be a reliable narrator of our own body. Not that we are lying. Not that we don't have important instincts and insights. Just that, like the universe itself, our bodies are partly knowable, but also mysterious conundrums — a complex collision of emotions and sensations and stories. Our bodies are unpredictable weather. Our attempts to anticipate or describe that weather are mostly unsatisfying.
So what are we left with?
Compassion, I guess. Maybe grace? I can't predict or control my daughter's aches and pains, but I can comfort her when something hurts. Whether the "chest pain" is sadness or a bruise, I can scoop her up in my arms and hold her. I can say, "I'm so sorry, sweetie, that sounds like it hurts." I can find a quiet corner in the house for her to make a nest of blankets and seek the distraction of that curious little monkey.
I can meditate on the word "benign," typed by a person in a white coat, when my own anxiety rises. I know so little. So I might as well just lay tender hands on my sweet little girl, as I did my sweet old dad, and wish the pain away.