By: Dennis Vannatta
A dozen years ago I underwent a CAT scan. My doctor called me in to discuss the results. He looked at the image from the scan, and then, rather than addressing the very serious medical issue involved, said in a tone of surprise and something like amusement, “You have scoliosis!”
Later that day, I reported on the test results to my wife and then, almost as an afterthought, said, “Guess what? The doctor told me I have scoliosis.”
“Of course you do,” she said. “You’ll had it all your life. Didn’t you know that?”
No, I did not. How was I to know? She’s seen my back virtually every day of the forty-odd years of our married life, and I’ve never seen it once, not as one should to observe the effects of scoliosis: that is, straight on from the rear. What sort of mirror arrangement would be required for that? One of those three-panel jobs you often see in department stores, maybe, but they’d sort of frown on your stripping down to the waist right there in front of everyone to have a look. Besides, I’m not sure even that would do the trick. In our master bath we have a long horizontal mirror over the vanity and a long vertical one on the adjacent wall; even using both of these, the best I can manage is to see a portion of my back by twisting my torso, which would only distort the spine’s curvature. Or at least I think it would. I’m really not sure.
But where’s this going? I’ve already written a few hundred words on the not very promising subject of my back whereas I’ve never written a syllable about the much more serious medical condition that led to the CAT scan. Why?
All I can say is that that medical condition is now, thankfully, behind me. I can see it clearly, what it was, what happened, what effects it had on me and others. What I see clearly doesn’t hold much interest for me as a writer. My back, though. I’ve had it my entire life. I carry it with me everywhere. It’s very nearly half of me. And yet I rarely see it, never see it fully, clearly.
Am I wrong to be bothered by that?
I find it troubling that anyone in the world can see my back more clearly than I can. And many do. What do they think of what they see? I spend a fair amount of time each day grooming and dressing the front of me, preparing a face to meet the faces that I meet. But what do they see when they see my back?
I see my wife (and other women, too, I confess) from behind and, being a red-blooded American male, often think pleasantly erotic thoughts. Would a woman, seeing me from behind even in my younger days, think erotically? I’d really like to know. What would a male say? “There walks a by-God man!” Or, more likely, “Look at that poor galumphing bastard.”
When I speak of my back, I include not just the rear portion of my torso but all of that unknown region behind me. My wife laughs at my skinny legs. I can see why, looking in that vertical mirror in our bathroom. They look liked toothpicks. And that’s from the front. From behind? I hate to think.
When I was a young man, I was rather vain about my looks. There’s not much vanity left at my age, but I flatter myself that the bone structure is still there: oval face, moderately-sized nose, cheekbones prominent enough without being ridiculous about it. What about the rear of this noggin my mine, though? It feels awfully flat, as if I lay on my back too much as an infant and—irk!—this is the lamentable result. But that freakish flatness that I feel but do not see is only part of it. What’s much more distressing—hell, depressing—when I put my hand back there is that clammy bald patch. My hair is thinning everywhere, but it’s not thinning back there, oh my brothers, it’s g-o-n-e GONE. Disgusting. Everything has a silver lining, though. I’ve stiffened up so much in recent years that I can’t turn my head enough, even in our adjacent-mirrored bathroom, to see that bald patch.
My wife can see it, though. “Of course you have scoliosis. You’ve had it your whole life.” Well, to be more accurate, I was twenty-four when we met, so she really can’t speak for my whole life. But apparently even at twenty-four I might have been her hunka-hunka burnin’ love from the front, but from behind, I was twisted, deformed. And I didn’t even know it.
Maybe I shouldn’t worry. Backs don’t seem to count for much in our culture, judging by the frequency—or lack thereof—with which “back” as a physical thing or even concept comes up for most of us. I’d wager that if I put an equal amount of effort into considering the importance of the nose, say, or eyes, ears, face, arms, hands, feet—damn near anything on the front of us—I could compile several times the evidence that I can for the back. Perhaps the very paucity of results makes what little I’ve come up with quite interesting. To me, anyway. Maybe not to one who hasn’t spent his life betrayed by a twisted thing curled up just out of sight back there.
Just because I have a grudge against my back doesn’t mean that the world has to join me, of course. Indeed, backs do have some positive associations. To have a strong back is a good thing. (Tell me about it.) A pat on the back, figurative or actual, is comforting, making you feel better about things. In times of trouble, it’s good to hear someone say, “I’ve got your back.” (One could argue, though, that implied is the feeling that the back is vulnerable, open to attack, an area where you need help.)
No doubt there are other positive “back” associations in our language and culture, but right now I’m having trouble coming up with any. Negative, though? Satchel Paige cautioned us, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Although we appreciate Paige’s humor and folksy wisdom, his warning doesn’t make much sense. What he should have said is that it’s what’s in front of us, coming toward us—the future—that’s alarming: a fastball that loses its pop, inevitable end to one’s playing career, unemployment, the specter of poverty, old age, decrepitude, death. But no. For Paige, “back” was more alarming.
Being a literature wonk, I can’t help considering the importance of the back among my fellow writers. The news isn’t good.
John Osborne didn’t find much to comfort him back there, entitling his most trenchant play Look Back in Anger. Hugo’s most famous character, arguably, is that pitiful, grotesque, and frightening hunchback. Although Iago is Shakespeare’s consummate villain, the hunchback Richard III isn’t far behind, and his disfigurement doesn’t elicit our compassion, as Quasimodo’s does, but revulsion. Throughout most of our literature, my twisted spine would qualify me only for villainy. To be physically whole, strong, handsome is to be good and heroic—“upright,” in other words. To be physically imperfect, deformed, is to be suspect, often forbidding.
As much as I enjoy contemplating literature, the uses of “back” in our everyday discourse is much more significant. Most “back” phrases that I can think of are clearly negative. To be “taken aback” is never pleasant, and no one likes a “back-slider,” “back-biter,” and certainly not a “back-stabber.” And please don’t accuse me of being backward. Although, depending on the circumstances, to “back down” might be prudent, it generally carries connotations of giving in, a hint of shame about it, perhaps even cowardice. There’s something not quite cricket, figuratively, about a “back-door” strategy, action, or solution; and historically one does not want to be relegated to “the back of the bus.” Have “a monkey on your back”? Apparently, that’s worse than having one of your chest or perched on your head or trying to crawl up your pantleg.
Let’s return for a moment to that phrase “stab in the back.” Why do we hear and use that instead of “stab in the front” or “stab in the belly”? You will argue, I suppose, that’s it’s not a vicious physical assault being conjured up so much as a sneaky, underhanded action, one that the victim doesn’t see coming. But consider this scenario. I approach my friend from the front, greet him cordially, draw near as if to shake his hand only to suddenly whip out the Ginsu knife I have hidden in my coat and stab my dear friend in the gut. Wouldn’t that be at least as sneaky and underhanded, and I’d think an even more ghastly shock to the victim, as a stabbing in the back? Evidently not, though. It’s the back that our language, our collective psyche, has embraced as most vulnerable.
The back is not just symbolically but actually vulnerable.
At the risk of making the present discussion even more unpleasant, consider this: if you’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of seeing photographs of men—slaves, sailors, prisoners—who’ve been flogged for some offense, you’ll notice that the portion of the anatomy selected for such kind attentions is invariably the back. But why? I know that I for one, if I had to be flogged, would much rather be flogged on the back than front. I’ll bet almost all of us would. If that’s true, and if flogging was designed to be a corrective punishment, why not target the front? But I don’t recall seeing a single photo of or reference to a flogging being administered to the front. It’s the back, always the back.
Walking down the street on a dark night, I’d rather see a dangerous-looking thug walking toward me than hear footsteps of unknown origin (could be a policeman, a little old lady, a friend wanting to repay a loan) behind me. If I had to choose, I’d rather walk point for a combat patrol winding its way through the bush than be the last man in that line. Just thinking about it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
I had planned on a taking a more speculative turn in my ramblings at this point. Is, for instance, “back” so often negative in our language and associations because it is unknown and unknowable at the same time that it is so disconcertingly there? Or is that doppelgänger quality of back/front more nearly analogous to the conscious/unconscious? The dream life as opposed to the waking life? Is it the past, behind us and yet we can never get rid of it? The possibilities seem endless—and perhaps only distract from what’s really important.
I can’t recall the name of the scholar who offered the best advice on how to read Kafka’s fiction. It’s not, he argued, what it all may symbolize or represent that’s most powerful and unsettling in his work; it’s what actually happens. So too with my back. Hell with speculation. The thing is there, always there. That’s what I can’t get past. Ah, but you wouldn’t give it a thought, you say, if it weren’t so grotesquely flawed. But it is, you see. It is.
I finally saw it a couple of years ago, or at least saw an X-ray of it. I was shocked. I thought I’d see some subtle variation from the perfectly vertical, but there it was: my spine snaking downward in a repulsive S-curve. I’d undergone the X-ray for yet another medical condition, and my doctor noticed but wasn’t much interested in the curvature of the spine. “We’ll keep an eye on it,” he said, adding, “not that we can do much about it.” Cold comfort, that.
Since seeing that X-ray I’ve become more conscious—self-conscious—of my scoliosis. No, I still can’t see it from the back, but now I can detect the damn thing from the front. If a person stands straight, his chin, breastbone, navel, and pubis should be in perfect alignment. Not so for me. If my chin and pubis are in a line perpendicular to the floor, my breastbone will be over an inch off-line, my navel over two inches. I notice it even more when I’m sitting. If my shoulders are perfectly parallel to the floor, my hips will be at an angle; if hips are parallel, my shoulders will slope. Not a thing I can do about it. Aggravating—and if I sit too long in one position, painful.
When I was a young man, I was five-foot-eleven. The last time I was measured, I was five-nine. I’m shrinking, my spine like a spring slowly compressing.
And I’m afraid the scoliosis may not be the worst of it. Scoliosis is the name given to curvature of the spine as seen from the rear or front. Curvature of the spine as seen from the side is kyphosis. I think it may be worse. And I think I may have it.
“Stand up straight!” my wife commands me at least once a day. She thinks my increasing stoop stems from bad posture, simple laziness. When reminded, I’ll try to stand up straight and can manage it for a few seconds, maybe even a minute or two. But it’s difficult, not just a matter of will. It requires all the strength I have, forcing my spine to do something it does not want to do. And what it wants to do can ultimately be pretty awful.
Many years ago, I had a student in my composition class, an older lady, who hobbled along on a cane stooped over so that she was staring at the ground. She loved to bake and had burn scars on her forearms as a reward because not only could she not stand upright, she couldn’t bend lower and, unable to see into the oven, often brushed against the heating elements with her forearms when she retrieved some item. Poor old dear.
My father-in-law was a giant of a man, six-five, broad shoulders, huge hands. He owned a construction company and loved to get out there and saw and heft and hammer. In his 80s he began to stoop. By his 90s, he hobbled along with his torso very nearly parallel to the ground, first with the help of a cane and then a walker. Finally, he needed a wheelchair. My mother-in-law, proud wife of that proud man, hated to see him in the wheelchair. I recall picking them up at the airport, and she demanded that he use his cane, not a wheelchair, on the long walk through the terminal. The look of dismay on his face! Big John Kimball wanted more than anything to be in a wheelchair.
Will that be me ten years from now?
What you need, you say, is a doctor who’ll offer something more helpful than, “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
True, there is surgery. I’ve lived my life by a certain code: don’t go under the knife unless you absolutely have to. Maybe this is the time, though?
There was a professor at the university where I taught who walked slowly, studiously, with an exaggeratedly rigid, bolt-upright posture. Watching him pass by one day, someone joked, “Who put the corncob up his butt?” I imagine he’d had spinal-fusion surgery, or something similar.
Maybe rods inplanted. My wife’s cousin suffered back problems or years until she finally had surgery, long steel rods inserted to straighten and support her spine. Not long ago we learned that one of the rods had snapped, forcing an emergency surgery. Yikes!
To endure surgery, months of pain and arduous rehabilitation, only to wind up like one of them? No, I’m not going under the knife any time soon.
How will it end?
When we were children, we’d sometimes lie flat on our backs and stare up at the sky. It never looked the same—the sky—on your back as it did standing. It would be lovely initially but then somehow disorienting.
I didn’t enjoy it much, couldn’t lie that way long. It wasn’t that dizzying immensity above me that caused me to spring up after a few minutes, though. It was the feeling I’d have as if my back were pressing against the earth—no, not just against it but drawing me into it, trying to make me one with it.
I think of that for some reason. I think of that.
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