Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Phantom Pain and Empathy

kalyna.ca
My grandmother experienced many changes in her life.  Baba's parents arrived in Canada at the turn of the last century, without the three sons who travelled with them.  The boys died on the ship.  Imagine the difficulty immigrating, decisions to leave home and family, the physical hardship on the ship, and the tragedy of loss, not just one son, but then a second, and then a third.  Arriving in port, disembarking without the children, questioning everything.  Imagine the misery, distress, torment, torture and wound of having lost all your little ones! Why? How could they go on?  How could they continue on their journey to a new life, without their beloved little boys?  With nothing but hope and faith, they did.

Pra-baba and Pra-dido ventured out from the train station in Strathcona, across the river from Edmonton by buggy, to the piece of land that would break their hearts even more.  But the two of them persevered, and over the course of time, a lovely little girl, my grandmother was born.   

Baba was an only child.  Well loved, and well educated by the day's standards, she married an adventurer, schooled, and enthusiastic for life. 

Confidently growing through the challenges of farming, they felt a sense of prosperity, at least until one day baba's arm reached into a piece of farm equipment.  She had been standing beside the "sichkarnia" (straw cutter), and called out to the men to come in for supper. Bending over the cutter she noticed some straw peeking out, and flicking the straw into the machine, a thread from the sweater got caught. Caught in the tines of the machine which kept twisting, in excruciating pain, the only way of saving Baba was to cut it off her arm.  It must have been devastating.  (The doctors tried to reattach the arm, but it was not possible.  The limb was lovingly cremated and the ashy remains were buried with her, when she died.)  But she persevered, they all did. 

It was simply a part of her, and as grandchildren we hardly noticed. The stump of her arm, cleverly disguised in the sleeve of her sweater, the other arm busily and dextrously kneading bread dough, milking the cow, picking eggs, caressing her grandchildren.  The conflict between signals from her limb, and the visual information created a mental confusion for her, I am sure.  Painkillers were ineffective, so she kept on living.

Today, when I think of her, deep inside me flinches with empathy and pain. I wonder whether my deep sense of empathy is something others feel, and whether it is pity or love.  Actually it feels deeper than that.  The loss of her limb involved a series of compensations, and compromises, unspoken but real.  There were times when the phantom pain in her fingers was something you could read in her eyes.  So Dido pinched pyrohy, rolled holubtsi, and made tea for Baba and me when I visited the farm. And the aunties washed and braided Baba's long hair, she couldn't do it alone. And in photographs of Baba, she always stood sideways so nobody would notice.

The need of that arm affected everything. Even the simple act of lovingly caressing her newborn grandchildren was disrupted.  I remember her fierce embrace. 

The Ukrainian heartland also experienced prosperity in the 1920's, but hopes for culture and nation were shortlived, disrupted by droughts, which affected the Soviet bottom line.  Couldn't have anticipated their vicious "masterplan" for the intentional, and genocidal restriction of food, and the subsequent Holodomor which destroyed millions of Ukrainians.  An entire limb was dismembered!

Can people fathom how many compensations, compromises, and clumbsy acts of self determination have been derailed by the phantom pain caused by loss of this essential limb?  Is soul jerking empathy enough?  How does one regain "whole-ness"?  How does Ukraine regain its "whole-ness"?  Just asking. 

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120606-neurons-that-shaped-civilization
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