Pain in the Gut

For weeks after Mark died, my stomach hurt. Searing pain, centered in my gut.

Then, winter turned to spring. We made a pilgrimage of sorts to California. Upon returning, I was thrust into the school umpiring season and then, it was summer and more baseball games to arbitrate.

Mary decided to embark on training to get ready for the Tri for a Cure. She returned to work. I got dumped from one of my jobs. Life continued, without Mark.

How does one normalize that which isn’t normal? Life missing a portion of your heart, a family unit in mourning, and now, it’s tourist season and everyone’s life is filled with the seasonal things we all know and love. Except it’s hard to find joy when your life is turned upside-down and you continue reeling.

Our gut is part of the nervous system, known as the “brain-gut axis.” According to an older issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter detailing the effects of stress and abdominal pain,

“our brain interacts with the rest of the body through the nervous system, which has several major components. One of them is the enteric nervous system, which helps regulate digestion. In life-or-death situations, the brain triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. It slows digestion, or even stops it completely, so the body can focus all of its internal energy to facing the threat. But less severe types of stress, such as an argument, public speaking, or driving in traffic, also can slow or disrupt the digestive process, causing abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal symptoms.”

Stress causes disruption of the digestive process. Since Mary and I have been on stress overload continuing to deal with the details of a life sans its guiding force here during summer’s height, I guess I know why my stomach is hurting again.

Stress can cause pain in the gut.

One thing we both have attempted to do is manage our stress to some degree. We don’t always succeed, but our goal is to take care of ourselves as well as possible given the shitty hand we’ve been dealt.

Last week, during a stretch characterized by a lack of sleep, I gave up any guise of productivity on Thursday and headed out on my bike. I set an achievable goal of cranking the pedals like my life depended on it. Riding across beautiful back roads nearby, I remembered a ride that Mark and I took together years ago, when he came home for one of his visits when we were still living in Durham.

Mark had been running and was in good shape, but at that time, hadn’t done much cycling. He borrowed Mary’s bike, which was probably a bit small for him. No problem for Mark. I had to ride like a madman just to keep him in my sights. He kept urging me to ride faster. Mark was always encouraging me onward, beyond my self-imposed limits. During last week’s ride, I imagined I was chasing Mark. When I made it back home after about 90 minutes of riding, my stomach no longer hurt. I’d pushed stressful thoughts out of my head, or maybe Mark had.

Having some true-blue, tried-and-true friends has been a gift that keeps on giving for us. One of those friends met me after work Monday night. We hit tennis balls back and forth before retiring for a few beers downtown. It’s hard to hold onto the cares of the world when you’re trying to get across the court to a ball skittering down the baseline.

Later, sitting with Mary before heading off to bed and my usual habit of reading ‘til I can’t keep my eyes open, we counted ourselves lucky for those time-tested friends. We also reminded one another that we don’t owe anyone anything. We’ve given enough and still; we continue being asked to give more, taking care of the ongoing administrative details of Mark’s life, nearly seven months later.

Current events taking place in Charlottesville over the weekend were hard to hear about, especially learning about a young woman—a hopeful, committed millennial who makes me think of Mark—run down by a driver, using his car as a lethal weapon. Remember two weeks ago when I referenced the Treehugger article indicating that “cars are like guns”? Maybe better, tools of terrorism.

Do you still have doubts?