Grandpa drove to the pool with a towel whose laundry date was long overdue. He felt a pinch in his neck just as he started swimming. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the water was clear, the swim lane was empty, conditions were perfect, so he kept going. That night and during the nights that followed the pain in his left arm kept him awake. His neck was stiff and his left index finder was numb. Not that he needed his left index finger. Being right handed, Grandpa picked his nose with his right index finger. He used it for both nostrils. Not often enough according to Grandma pointed out the he should pluck the hairs from his nose when he worked on buggers. Not to belabor the issue, but Grandpa was pretty good at plucking hair from his nostrils, relying on sleight of hand which he developed through no fault of his own, a talent which Grandma encouraged him to practice more often. It was not much of a skill, but Grandpa was at a point in their relationship where any added value mattered, now that he was no longer relevant as a sperm donor. Grandma was a master of empowerment, sparing no effort to point out her kin’s strengths, minute as they might have been. Under the current circumstances, Grandpa was less concerned about trifling skills as he was for what he knew was an injured cervical disk. Indeed, he took pride in not needing a nose-hair trimmer – ten years past the average. Proud as he was, he kept a close eye on the technology, as well as an Amazon prime account. He could have an electric trimmer delivered a day after he pressed the yellow ‘order’ button, but this was predicated on his ability to lift his hand and put a finger on the keyboard. If a cervical disk ruptured grandpa would spend the rest of his life with his hair and fingernails growing wild as his body shriveled to bones covered by smelly dry skin. The thought of having to spend his days living like a shoe was dreadfully unappealing. Grandma did not seem to worry as much. She had such a troublesome disk replaced a decade prior and had bounced back from agonizing pain to her perky self as soon as the anesthetic wore off. So Grandpa visited to the local emergency clinic where he was welcomed by a good doctor who prescribed pink anti inflammatory pills, unlike over the counter anti inflammatory pills which were either white or blue. Grandpa was expected to take two pills a day for a month before he bothered the doctor again, at which point the prescription could be renewed for another thirty days by simply calling the clinic. Grandpa knew that the good doctor’s treatment plan was based on a flawed diagnosis saying it was ‘an agitated nerve’. Grandpa knew that nerves did not physically agitate without an agitator. It was like saying that he couldn’t download movies because of an agitated cable. However this was to be expected under the circumstances. After all Grandpa had walked into the emergency clinic complaining of pains in his left arm which in places like that could only mean that the patient was either having a heart attack or was a hypochondriac. Having ruled out he first, the good doctor assured Grandpa that the pills might help reduce the inflammation which was caused by the agitation – a combination of vague term for all maladies in such consultations. It was up to Grandpa to continue his life as best he could.
Grandpa’s expectations were generally meager. He didn’t have fancy clothes. His car was eleven years old. He had one pair of shoes which he had borrowed from Tintin who barely noticed, and two pairs of jeans. He bemoaned every T-Shirt that Grandma replaced, and knew every one of his off-white pairs of underpants by it’s shades of gray, white and hue. He did not know why they were referred to as pairs-of-underpants, when there was only one of them in each pair, but it was not like him to ask. He ate one meal a day, showered twice a week, thought that a tie was a game with no winners, and could dislodge the garbage disposal when it would not spin. His teeth were healthy, he liked meat but ate his fair share of broccoli and kale, he flossed twice a year and confessed when he ate at In-and-Out. He had no clue that Cabernet Sauvignon was supposed to smell like cedar as it aged. His only unintentional status symbol was a Uniqlo jacket which he pulled from Grandma’s surplus because he was cold. He did his best to support the family which he loved very much, but wasn’t very good at showing it. Was having a neck to go along too much to ask for?
Seeing Grandpa’s angst, Grandma went rummaging for a primary care physician, specifically one of those who was no longer accepting new patients. ‘Much like a restaurant that is always full’ she explained. It didn’t take Grandma long to find what she was looking for. Most primary care physicians in the valley were not accepting new patients, waiting for natural selection to cull the old and the ill. Grandma charmed her way from the back of the waiting list right into the physician’s business class, not before she set a condition that she would agree to join provided that Grandpa would be accepted as a member as well. Grandma was like that, when offered a finger she took the hand, leaving the other party feeling that they had not done enough. Grandpa understood the magnitude of the opportunity – being able to walk the red-carpet of health-care, was a privilege granted to fortunate scant few of the population these days. Instead of anonymous pink pills, he was offered an in-person MRI exam. He asked Grandma to cut what remained of his hair so he would look good in the pictures, and Grandma obliged him. When she was done, she excused herself and flew to Tokyo to start the cherry blossom.
By the time Grandpa got to the imaging lab the red carpet was much greyer, and much of it had been replaced by linoleum. The clinic looked much more like a FedEx pickup office than a fancy medical establishment fitting the rich and famous of the valley. There were no oak doors marked ‘private’ and no oak topped counter for the receptionists to sit behind. Gone were the Van Gogh self-portrait reproductions on the wall. The aquarium separating between the front and the back office was not there, nor was the separating wall. Without the wall there was no place to hang a flat-screen TV so Grandpa could not watch GIECO commercials as he filled the same forms forms he filled in every other clinic. There were just a doorman sitting at a table and a technician lurking in the examination chamber. There was a dressing booth in the corner, where Grandpa changed into a simple cotton gown. Unlike the bathrobes of the well-to-do, the gown fastened in the back. It was likely made of worn down sheets. When it was younger it was doctor-gown white, but it had likely shared more than one wash with colored fabrics. The gown was decorated with small flowers, which sent the wrong message to a patient. Somewhat disillusioned grandpa walked into the MRI exam chamber. The technician on duty offered grandpa flimsy foam ear plugs saying that the machine would be very loud. It was the only reference she made to the technical wonders of the machine, which had done so much to improve the amount of money owed by millions to the establishment she worked for. ‘The scan will take twenty minutes’. She secured Grandpa’s head to the moving table and shoved him into the bowels of the machine before how could ask if she also water-boarded. A sledge hammer and a fog horn began out playing each other and he could hear no more. Grandpa was a relatively educated man. He knew he was in a strong magnetic field in a device which measured the spatial distribution of water in his tissues as the polarity of the molecules aligned themselves with the magnetic force. He tried to amuse himself by imagining what it would have felt like had he swallowed a penny before the exam. ‘How foolish of me.’ Grandpa chuckled to himself. He was a relatively educated man and knew that copper was not magnetic. The form he had filled before the exam asked about every possible metal that he could have somehow brought along on or in his body. They asked about milling machines and smelters, and nails and tools and sparks and welding, and earrings and piercing. Grandpa thought of the places people pierced these days and chuckled again. ‘How foolish of me, people with piercing in their privates do not have health insurance.’ He felt quite comfortable that he had no metal to offer the machine and thought of Grandma who had granted him this opportunity – ‘…in sickness and in health…’ He thought of his vow, ‘with this ring I do thee wed’. A chill wend up his spine, at least up to C6. Where was the ring? With all that security, in spite of the grueling interrogation, having taken off all his clothes, in spite of having been tapped and strapped so he could not possibly alter his settings, he was still wearing his marriage ring. Apparently MRI technicians were better bunglers than the TSA. Here they were, able to strip everyone without prejudice and yet they did not find the one thing they should have checked for. He wondered if he should chuckle yet again, and decided against it. He needed to focus on the ring. He clenched his right fist expecting the ring finger to be pulled open by the tug of the magnets. For once he felt some sympathy for Frodo’s bulging eyes and exaggerated anxiety, which diminished the credibility of what was otherwise a well done cinema trilogy. ‘I will fight the machine no matter the cost. I will protect the ring.’ A vow was a vow. He owed it to Grandma and himself. It was an empowering harrumph moment. As he prepared to battle magnetism from middle earth, there was a lull in the surrounding noise and the technician asked him to refrain from moving. Humiliated, Grandpa took the opportunity to compare facts and theory. He had been in the machine for ten minutes. This was more than enough time for the magnetic fields to rip the ring from his finger, yet he felt no pain, there were no signs of chaffing or bruising, and the ring hadn’t budged from the untanned strip of skin which marked its eternal resting place. No force on the ring meant that it was made of pure gold, which like copper, was not magnetic. Since the day they bought the rings, Grandpa wondered whether the bargain price meant they were not pure. The MRI had dispelled his fears of thirty one and a half years. Grandpa was flooded with endorphins which improved the contrast of his tissues. The marriage ring was pure. He sank into a sanguine tranquility in the bowels of the MRI and let the machine finish.
Grandma crashed a Japanese wedding in the gardens of the Shinto Temple. She did not know the couple, or anyone else in Japan for that matter, but you never know your friends before you meet them. Sure, if they were Makuya she could have claimed brotherhood, but as fate would have it this family happened to be one of the 99.9% of Japanese clans with no Jewish affiliation. It was not easy to blend in. Her oval eyes, the higher eye-lash line, the unique green tint in her light almond irises, her sharper nose, and oval chin; not to mention her jeans, sneakers and wind breaker – stood out. Only her short thick salt-and-pepper hair could keep the family from unleashing their samurai to save their honor. But it was in situations like these, that Grandma focused on common ground rather than differences. Weren’t they all Gods children, sharing the planet? Grandma was well read, well travelled, open minded, fond of the arts and always seeking to expand her horizons. Extrapolating from what she knew of European, African, Mid-Eastern, American, Indian and Chinese cultures, Grandma concluded that complementing peoples cooking was a universal way to break the ice. Applying the ‘Astro-Jump’ principle to what looked like the breakfast buffet, Grandma selected a cold Unagi and began licking it like a popsicle. Not that she could be blamed for not noticing the subtleties, but Grandma has inadvertently selected the Chonkonabe menu on a table reserved for the bride’s younger brother who was a rising sumo wrestler. Somewhat taken aback by the size of the three-hundred-and-twenty-pound youth coming towards her wearing what looked like a diaper, Grandma gathered herself quickly. He could not have been more than eighteen years of age, still fragile and not fully developed emotionally. He could be receptive to a grand show of affection. Grandma held out the Unagi for the youth to grab, spread her hands wide, put on the glowing face with which she greeted all children and grandchildren and urged the child on calling ‘Mi Ba Le Safta?’ She embraced as much of the huge young man as she could, resting her head on his bosom, hugging him with no restraints, as she did with her closets of kin. The youth reciprocated the love. He sat down and put grandma in his lap, holding her close, licking the other end of the Unagi. They sat there exchanging pure compassion and fondness until the Unagi thawed and began to wiggle. Grandma was behind the child’s back before he understood what had happened. She knew better than to scare the youth, and continued to caress the back of his head and neck, mumbling ‘Eizeh Tzlofach Chamood’. The youth bit off its head and chewed it happily, enjoying Grandma’s tenderness. In the five minutes that he had known Grandma, he had experienced an outflow of more emotions than in his entire existence – so reserved was his upbringing. The affection was disruptive as it was genuine. He sucked the eel into his mouth as if it was spaghetti and gently pulled Grandma back over his shoulder into his lap. For a tender moment he hugged her, relaxing to let her breath, as he finished chewing the Unagi. Then he stood up, put Grandma down facing him, smiled, retreated and bowed his head. Grandma returned the gesture. The Sumo had accepted Grandma as a friend. The bride followed, then her mother and father opened up as well. Grandma greeted them all with hugs and kisses, and ‘Mazal Tov’. They taught her to say ‘Omedeto’. Grandma marveled at the intricate metal works of their Mekumo-gane wedding rings and touched lightly on hers. The rings were as different as their cultures, but the makings of relationships were universal. They switched to English and Grandma let the ceremony continue. She wished the couple all the best and went back into the hotel to contemplate how she had lost three hundred and twenty pounds in fifteen minutes.
Grandpa went to meet the physiatrist who would interpret the MRI results and offer corrective actions. As a prelude to meeting with the expert he was asked to fill more forms. Grandpa accepted the forms as one accepts airport security, but wondered if there would ever be an electronic fast track. The doctor began with a physical examination that showed the reflexes in the left arm were back to normal, as were sensations, except for the tip of the left index finger, which the doctor glossed over, as it was not included in the speech which he had prepared. He explained that Grandpa has a somewhat higher than average stenosis of the vertebrae and cervical disks which is a word doctors use for wear-and-tear so that they can justify the cost of medical treatments. Grandpa glanced at the MRI pictures, on the screen. Some looked like pairs of T-bone steaks mirroring each other. Knowing about steaks, Grandpa concluded that these pictures were horizontal cuts through the neck and shoulders, which the technician took to hang in her kitchen. Grandpa pointed out a vertical cut which showed more specific findings between C5 and C6, but the doctor did not want to be rushed to conclusions. Grandpa took a mental pause to wonder if the doctor parted his hair before every consultation. ‘There are a few courses of action we can take,’ the doctor said. ‘We can give you something for the pain…’ Grandpa explained that he had no pains that needed medication. ‘…and if that does not help we can inject steroids directly to the agitated area.’ Grandpa let him finish and repeated that he had no pains. Just weakness in some muscle groups of the left arm. Grandpa didn’t want to use the term ‘triceps’ so as not to put the doctor on the defensive. ‘If the injections do not help there is always a surgical option.’ ‘The pain often diminishes first.’ The doctor was speaking about the past in future tense, determined to have a say, regardless of its relevance. It was clear to Grandpa that his case was just a statistic with nothing out of the ordinary, and the doctor was merely obliged to somehow fill their get-together with twenty minutes’ worth of substance, after all he was the one wearing the white gown and grandpa was in the paper blue scrubs. Anyone who stepped into the room would have no doubts which of them was the subject matter expert and which one was the subject matter. The MRI pictures showed that Grandpa’s disks looked more like rivets, which would have been a good thing had he been a ship. The doctor made a passing comment that the tip of one of the rivets was applying some pressure to a cervical nerve, but was very careful not to make a prediction as to how much of the damage was reversible. Grandpa decided that it was best if he coaxed the good doctor into referring him to physical therapy. This would end their relationship in what could be regarded as a productive outcome. The family physician sided with the opinion which grandpa suggested to the subject matter expert, and Grandpa decided to ignore both of them and went back to his chiropractor for an opinion he could trust. The instructions were plain and clear; treatments were applied in ascending order of intervention: traction, exercise, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, oral cortisone, cortisone injection, micro surgery and finally, when all else failed, open surgery. Against everyone’s advice Grandpa went jogging and felt better. He felt better after eating over the counter hamburgers, telling himself that the antibiotics in they contained would help him heal. Not to mention that the dopamine surge induced by a double-double with cheese had anti inflammatory benefits superior to those of cortisone.
Grandpa was optimistic. He put the towel in the wash and went back to the pool with a clean one. When Grandma returned from her Sumo training they would do traction so the rivet could slip back between the vertebrae where it belonged. They would exchange vowels. Grandma would teach him a few Japanese words, and he would try to mimic the noises made by the MRI machine.