When Wars Rage

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One of our nation’s most horrific wars cemented awareness of a phenomenon little understood for centuries.  The Civil War resulted in catastrophic numbers of amputees, and phantom pain–in which sensation, often painful, is felt despite a limb’s absence–became a clinical diagnosis.  Dr. Silas Mitchell, who was the “father of American neurology,” treated hundreds of these patients and dedicated his life to alleviating this after effect of war.  He actually named the illogical sensation, and his memoirs trace his elusive pursuit of a cure for phantom pain.

That ghostly sensation of knowing a leg is gone, yet feeling the need to scratch a missing foot, simply cannot be reasoned nor willed away.  Current researchers believe the pain originates from a more primeval site, like the spinal cord.  To date, no specific treatment stills the shooting pain of loss.

  • As a teacher in a nursing home can close her eyes and smell chalk dust…
  • As a chef late in life can close his eyes and feel the texture of pastry dough…
  • As a mother can close her eyes and still see her son’s blue skin in death…

Loss brooks no reality.  The passages create a phantom pain in the primeval tendrils of the heart.  Not every day.  Not all the time.  Yet seeing sons of other mothers at church triggers the guilty sensation of not envy, but of wanting more, of wishing it wasn’t my cross to bear, of fighting against reality.  The quiet war rages again.  In its wake the casualties of peace and acceptance induce a very real soreness in the heart for which no real treatment suffices.  Reading the Word.  Trusting the Healer will bring the promised comfort.  Learning to live with loss.  Slow, steady bandages must be reapplied.

Phantom pain describes the heartache I feel when I open my eyes and reach out my arms…to emptiness.

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