For my mother, Anahid, who died on November 4, 2005 in Amman, Jordan–these words, written in her rebellious, intelligent, quirky spirit.
Here’s the scene. You’re gathered around a festive dining table. There’s a marvelous display of dishes, wine, and beautiful carefully made dishes—all enhancers for this evening of togetherness and merriment. All your friends are here, with their cousins and mothers and children.
Suddenly, it begins. Someone starts talking about his or her (it’s usually her) health, about acid reflux or some such chronic condition, about how many calories there are in a glass of wine, about flax seed and omega-3 and coriander to cure your misery. And before you know it, everyone is talking about his or her body’s betrayals: arthritic joints, curving backs, unpredictable colons, and on and on like this.
What has happened to our social life that we cannot stay away from talking about our chronic ailments? Time was when this kind of behavior was the domain of the very old, of the very sick, of those who could not somehow control themselves when it came to their illnesses.
Time was when complaining was something the less fortunate, the less healthy among us did—and with dire consequences. No one wanted to be near them, to listen to their unending laments; they were repellent. The more intelligent among those old people, would make every effort to keep their complaints muted, would not talk about it, would not make it an issue, a way of drawing attention to themselves. We remember them well, these quiet souls.
Granted, the talk around the dining table or the living room (or even the bedroom) is not pure complaint; it is more antiseptic than that, cloaked as it is in the chatter about “wellness,” about “eating healthy,” (you note the grammatical mistake there, I am sure), about “staying fit” as though we were all the little specimen of Darwin’s excursions. But the subject, the preoccupation is the failing, aching body. And while we all applaud those souls amongst us who can “stick to a diet,” who can exert self-control and not slide into excess of chocolate or caffeine or nicotine and ice cream, we do so with a zeal which borders on obsession. And what is obsession if not the other side of denial? And what is health talk if not the other side of complaint?
Of course, health talk (or illness lament—how odd that sounds) is the safest topic of conversation these days when the country is polarized, fragmented, when we increasingly seem to lack a common language, common concerns, when the larger good is such a quaint sounding phrase. ( The larger good? What was that? Some kind of oversized pie?) It’s safe in the ways in which talking about politics, art, or a new book one has read are not; in the ways in which our exhausted minds and hearts are not in the mood for much effort; in the ways in which we just want to be left alone, most of the time—which may, in the long run, be the real source of our chronic ailments.
But, really, health talk and its other side are pretty dull, and deadening. They don’t make for exciting copy and they certainly don’t make us interesting and vital to others and to ourselves. And they certainly don’t encourage any sense of true communion around that festive autumn dinner table, for we end up comparing levels of misery or lack thereof, offering each other homegrown advice about this root and that leaf, all of which in the end take us back to where we began—our ailments.
And there’s no way on earth you can make ailment talk or health talk for that matter interesting, pleasurable, even if you season it with alcohol or nicotine or lots of sugar and butter. (Yes, I note the contradiction, but isn’t it so that we talk most animatedly about health when we have eaten the biggest portion of cheese cake, or gulped down an avalanche of wine, or…You get the idea.)
So, a little belatedly, I’ve embarked on a self-imposed silence regarding all the minor (they have to be brought down to size) ailments that afflict this aging body of mine. No more talk about health or illness; about the latest “alternative” treatment for that stubborn bunion on my toe; about an alkaline diet for my acid-spewing stomach; a pacifier for the cracks and aches of my knees. The list is long, as are the remedies. I have tried them all, and more.
They are here to stay, these little nuisances, my intimates—as they were for my mother and her mother, their memories verdant in my mind. They are not going away, but from now on, I will not be an accomplice to their sneaking inflation. I will resist it, subvert it, turn it into a joke, skirt around it, deny it, pretend it does not exist. Pretend. There is, in the end no other way, no real Rx except this. This.
On with life. It’s raining outside. Winter is a creep away. But here, inside, we are together, old and young, talking the night away about everything under the sun, everything but that one subject which we have finally banished, you and I, from our midst. And for good.
Pass the butter, dear one.