April 14, 2010 | Spanish
In which Spanish, strangely, seems to protect me from pain.
Today Spanish shocked me by making a normally wretched occasion not only tolerable, but even pleasant. I have previously described my annual appointment with the gynecologist as one of my least favorite life events, but really, that does not compare to the misery of the mammogram. (Any delicate male readers, you may want to skip the following two paragraphs. By paragraph four, you will once again be safe.)
Okay, so for the past two years my annual mammogram has been extremely painful and unpleasant. In fact, the last one hurt so much that I started to pass out—without falling of course, because I was still suspended in mid-air by the breast that was at that moment being flattened into a pancake between two screwed-together plates. I think it was only my strong desire to stay attached to that breast that prevented me from passing out completely.
The whole process offends me. It seems a medieval and degrading way to go about gathering information on a woman’s medical status.
Because of last year’s experience, I was filled with more dread than usual this time around. To comfort me, I took my Spanish grammar book and a small Spanish-English dictionary. I hardly got to use them, though, before I was whisked away from the main waiting room to an inner office. (The inner offices are of course where the bad stuff happens.) The alacrity of the whisking confused me, because part of the mammogram torture process is that you first have to wait for at least an hour in a crowded room with a whole bunch of other dread-filled, increasingly angry women who want their turn to come and yet really don’t ever want their turn to come.
To my amazement, the mammogram didn’t hurt, not really anyway, and it took half the time it normally does. These things confused me, too, but then I remembered that the two years that had been so torturous for me had both been inflicted on me by the same woman, who was not the woman standing before me now. Don’t get me wrong: this new woman was not exactly friendly and comforting. In fact, I found her borderline rude; she was stern and impatient with me. But she did not hurt me. And I give a lot of credit for that.
After it was over, I had to wait for phase two: an ultrasound. I got out my grammar book to distract me. I was afraid of the ultrasound. I had one last year, and it hurt. I would just like to note here that I am a person who is not generally all that afraid of or sensitive to pain. I have run multiple marathons. By choice. As another example: when I am asked by massage therapists whether they are pressing too hard (this type of question has come up in every massage I have ever had), I never understand what the question means. They could jump up and down on me and it still wouldn’t hurt. In fact, it would probably be a more satisfying massage; those therapists really never press hard enough.
While studying my grammar book with more than the usual determination, I noticed a woman in my waiting area speaking Spanish into a cell phone. As soon as a third woman who was in the room with us left, I pounced.
“¿Habla usted español?” I asked.
She nodded, and we launched into conversation. She seemed delighted to talk. It’s more enjoyable to talk, after all, than to dread. She is from Mexico, came to New York in 1986, is married to a Dominican, and has four children, the oldest in the military.
I asked about her kids. The first is going to Afghanistan shortly; she is proud of him. She wants the second to go back to school. Talking to her was great practice, and it was also fun to talk to someone from Mexico. Los Angeles, where I grew up, was home to many Mexicans, and I find I run into far fewer here in New York.
After about 10 or 15 minutes, a technician came to fetch me for part two of the torture. It turned out she was Dominican. Having overheard part of my conversation, she asked me, “Do you want me to speak to you in Spanish or in English?”
I laughed and told her, “I would love for you to speak to me in Spanish, but my medical vocabulary is not too good, so that might not go well.” So we stuck mostly to English during the ultrasound, but she taught me some vocabulary, mostly food-related, just for fun.
She also told me about her great-grandparents. Her great-grandfather lived into his nineties, and her great-grandmother is now pushing 100. The great-grandmother still lives in the Dominican Republic.
When I expressed amazement at their longevity, she said, “What do they have to be stressed about? It’s not like here. All they do is sleep and eat. The only stressful thing in their lives is, how should I kill this cow?”
To my surprise and my delight, the ultrasound didn’t hurt either.
I was in and out of the medical offices within maybe 45 minutes, without suffering in mind or in body. I actually had fun. Spanish was like my armor against an oncoming army of big bad medical equipment.