Dee Marley: The princess, the pea and the tough, old coot

December 3, 2013 

Dee Blackwelder Marley lives in Chapel Hill.


I share a sensitivity with the heroine of “The Princess and the Pea.” However, instead of sleeping on those 20 mattresses and 20 eiderdowns, I’d need to stand on them to feel the pea.

You see, I suffer from neuropathy, which causes pain in the nerves of my feet and thinning of the padding. The combination means that I’m limited in the kinds of shoes I can wear. While that eliminates spiked heels from my wardrobe, I find it more difficult to deal with the increasing pain that limits the time I can spend on my feet.

I started running 35 years ago and loved it. The buzz and feeling of accomplishment kept me out and going even in the worst weather. A decade ago, I gave up running because of knee pain, but I could still walk. When I retired six years ago, I increased my mileage to almost 40 miles a week. I missed the runner’s high, but I was still out moving in the world every day.

Now I experience pain most days during my walk, and the 6-mile walks are increasingly difficult. If I manage the distance, I’m done being on my feet for the day. I’m changing my exercise routines and have tried to reduce my calorie intake to make up for the loss. I’m seeing a podiatrist, and he’s working on mechanics – searching for the perfect shoe/orthotic combination that will ease the pain when I exercise and prescribing drugs to help with the burning sensation. I dislike change and I like my routine, so all of this makes me cranky.

But concern for the future makes the current problems seem easy. My father, a tough old coot, died this spring unable to hold a cup or shift his own body. He suffered from arthritis most of his adult life; between that damage to his joints and the toll of aging, his body gave out. Seventy years old and harvesting soybeans in 100 pound bags, he took a bag from my husband and said, “I’ll do that – you’ll hurt your back.” My husband has no back problems, but my father always wanted to be the toughest guy in the room. I inherited his good health genes – low blood pressure and cholesterol – with no reason to imagine I missed the bad ones.

He was that tough guy until he turned 90. He needed a cane to walk. Well, most of the time he didn’t actually use a cane. He’d use the hoe when he was out in the yard to get to the riding mower, then he’d ride to the garden. As he deteriorated, even the mower wasn’t safe. Once or twice, he fell off. My father sold his tractor without telling anyone, shocking all of us by giving it up without a fight. When he sold his pickup, we figured he’d accepted his fate. In reality, he was preparing for his last stand, that lawn mower. He raged when the family hired someone to mow the lawn. Getting him to give up on his last job, his last useful contribution, ended up as a long, hard fight. He never really gave up. Even in his last days in the nursing home, he was plotting a way to get back home.

We watched him give up driving, mowing, walking, feeding himself – giving it all up until there was nothing left. We used to talk with our friends about which was worse as you aged, a healthy body with a damaged brain, or a functioning brain and a damaged body. We all agreed we wanted that healthy brain, but now I’m not so sure. My father’s clear brain told him exactly how much his body was letting him down every day.

I know I’m lucky. I suffer from this one specific pain, and there are far more terrible conditions and diseases out there. But I know that feeling the pea under the mattresses doesn’t make me a princess. It makes me a Cassandra who sees a future that no one wants to know.

Dee Blackwelder Marley lives in Chapel Hill.

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