Healthy Conversations

When I was a kid, our family used to go over to my mother’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving. My aunt Rosemary and her husband, Jack Ready, had ten kids, and there were four kids in my family, so there were fourteen kids and four adults crammed into their Chicago home.

Before we all sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, the grown-ups would sit in the living room with their cocktails and most of the kids would go down into the finished basement. There we played a terrifying game called Go Touch Grandma’s Leg.

Grandma was my mom and Rosemary’s mom, and she was an extraordinarily independent woman who had lived alone in an apartment and took the bus to get around Chicago—even when she was in her seventies and had one artificial leg, which was due to an amputation from diabetes complications. After she died, the adults couldn’t quite figure out what to do with her artificial leg, which had a nylon and a stylishly sensible black shoe on it. It seemed disrespectful to put her leg into the garbage can, and it’s not something you can give to the Goodwill. (“Oh, look, an artificial leg that fits my stump perfectly!”)

A lack of any good ideas led to Grandma’s leg being stored in a dark, cluttered, unfinished storage room in the Readys’ finished basement, where it became the object of our Thanksgiving game. The game consisted of the older kids lining up the younger kids and making us go one by one—alone!—into this dark, scary room to touch Grandma’s leg. You had to navigate your way through the clutter to the very back corner, where Grandma’s leg was propped up against the wall. I always came running out of that hellhole screaming at the top of my lungs while those waiting in line screamed, too—because everyone was sure that Grandma’s leg (or worse, her ghost) was gaining on you from behind trying to touch your leg.

And what would happen as you came back into the light, limp with both fear and victory? One of the older kids would say to you with slitted eyes, “You didn’t touch it! I saw you! Go back in there and touch it!”

It was torture! And we loved it. Sort of. Because sometimes I practically had diarrhea, I was so scared. I was more afraid that when I was alone in the dark with Grandma’s leg, the older kids were going to turn out the rest of the lights in the finished basement and all run upstairs, leaving me stumbling around in the whole dark basement by myself, bereft, like poor Helen Keller before she met Annie Sullivan. You ask any of my older Ready cousins today, and they’ll tell you, “Oh, sure, we would have done that if we’d thought of it.”

So the point of this way-too-long story is that sometimes I wondered what the hell the grown-ups were talking about upstairs that was so damn interesting they wouldn’t notice all the screaming that was going on in the basement literally right underneath their feet.

Now that I’m older and have been similarly absorbed in the pre–Thanksgiving dinner cocktail hour, I realize that those grown-ups were not talking about lofty ideas but most likely about this one’s back problem, that one’s arthritis, and the other one’s diabetes. Get a bunch of people over the age of thirty together in a room and inevitably the conversation veers toward their health problems.

Over fifty and it’s worse. Certainly we talk far more about health issues than our parents ever did, because our generation talks about every aspect of their lives in more detail. Plus, our parents’ generation trusted their doctors unconditionally, which can substantially shorten a conversation between two non–medical professionals.

Not so with our generation. We not only talk about our own health, we’ll bring into the conversation the health of our relatives, our friends, our co-workers, our hairdresser’s neighbor, and even the guy who washes the windows at the pet-food store, if it’s relevant to the symptoms or treatment we’re discussing.

The downside of this loose-lipped approach to life is that it leads to a lot of sharing of personal information that’s really, well, personal. Considering that I just met you. And already I know more about your colon than I do about what television shows you watch.

Over the years we have all become mini-physicians with specific areas of expertise. Due to the medical conditions of my various friends and family members, I specialize in small-cell lung cancer, bladder cancer, and Parkinson’s. If I need to know about dementia, I call my friend Susan, because that’s her specialty. Raynaud’s disease? My friend Wendy. You get the picture.

When I have a health problem (more accurately: when I suspect I have a health problem), my typical MO is to diagnose myself via Google, discuss it among my friends for a second opinion, and then go to the doctor for a third opinion.

I so rarely have headaches that when I recently did have a bad one, I was compelled to check it out. It appeared I could have meningitis. I mentioned my terrible headache to people I ran into that day and “joked” that I hoped—ew!—I didn’t have meningitis! I knew the odds were in my favor of talking to someone who knew someone who had actually had meningitis and had been originally misdiagnosed as merely having a bad headache. This mentioning of garden-variety symptoms in the context of misdiagnosis is like catnip to other halfway-to-dead pseudo-MDs.

Indeed, I was told repeatedly that meningitis was going around right now and that I should definitely get it checked out. Somebody’s plumber’s aunt had died because she just took aspirin and didn’t go to the doctor in time. Obviously somebody’s plumber’s aunt did not own a computer.

When I went to my doctor the next morning to confirm my diagnosis, she told me no, I didn’t have meningitis. All I had was a virus.

I said suspiciously, “Well, maybe I have viral meningitis,” but she said with a slight touch of irritation in her voice, “No, you don’t have any kind of meningitis. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

And I did. And then I had to tell everyone who called to check up on me that I was feeling better, thank you. What a waste of time. Which is probably what my doctor was thinking, too. Even I must admit there should be a friends-and-Google surcharge on my doctor bill.

My goal for my sixties and beyond is to take a page from my dad’s book. He is Superman about his health. Never complains. When I was in high school, he had a bad fall on a family skiing trip when a guy crashed into him. This was back in the days when your bindings didn’t release like they do now. Therefore, the resulting pressure of a bad fall was released by your bones snapping. “Just a bad sprain,” he insisted as he scooted along the floor on his rear end, unable to walk. For a week this went on! Only when my mother threatened to divorce him did he finally consent to going to the emergency room for X-rays. Presto! He had broken both of his legs. Can you imagine!

(Not to press the point, but I do have to tell you one more story about my Superman dad. He had banged his fingertip pretty badly somehow and had a horrific blood blister beneath his nail bed. Did he go to the doctor to get it taken care of? No. He walked over to his drill press and . . . yes! He drilled a hole into his own finger to relieve the pressure! Why the CIA never saw his potential is beyond me.)

Anyway, I’m already sick of all this health talk. While I hope that I am lucky enough to live for a few more decades, I also hope that I am not facing a few more decades of these conversations. So I’m trying to figure out a way around asking, “How are you?” because these days people our age will tell you exactly how they are—body part by body part—and I’ll know someone with a similar problem and we’ll end up having quite a go-around about it.

Undoubtedly, my eventual grandchildren won’t be able to get away with murder during the pre-Thanksgiving cocktail hour like we did when we were younger. Not only because our house doesn’t have a basement, but because I’ll be listening for any excuse to leave all the health talk going on in the kitchen.