On Hurting My Back

Last weekend, I did something I have not done in a long time: I hoisted my daughter up onto my shoulders while we were walking through Hampstead Heath. My daughter loved it; she was laughing, bouncing up and down, and really enjoying the view. But I quickly realized why I had not done this in quite some time. My daughter, who is four-and-a-half years old, is just a little bit too big for this kind of thing. And I, at 44, am getting just a little bit too old. It was a big mistake.

The next day, I had a very sore neck and back and am still mostly in pretty excruciating pain. I feel like a whiplash victim without the neck brace: I can barely turn my head without spasms of muscle pain shooting through my left shoulder. The simplest movements—like bending down to tie my shoes or getting in and out of a car—become extremely slow and painful. When I walk, I must look like a Cyberman escaped from the Doctor Who set: carefully erect and totally rigid, I hardly move my head at all. When I turn to look at something, I swivel from the hips so my entire upper body pivots rather than just my neck and head. I am, truly, a pathetic sight.

The experience has given me a scary glimpse into how it must feel to be old, and an even scarier insight into how it must feel to require help in performing the most trivial tasks of daily life. Pain concentrates the mind wonderfully, but only on the things made evident by the pain itself. For example, I never knew how many back muscles are involved in a simple sneeze until I sneezed this morning and ended up writhing in pain on the floor as the left side of my spine seized up. Motions that we normally perform unconsciously—like turning a key in a lock or looking down at the keyboard to type this sentence—are vividly highlighted because they hurt. Who knew such intricate interconnections, such a fine mesh of musculature was behind all these things that I take for granted.

Needless to say, I won’t be hoisting my daughter onto my shoulders again anytime soon. We’re both beyond that now. Sad but true. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to give her piggy-back rides, though, for a little while longer at least. Those are less traumatic from a back pain point of view. After all, she ain’t heavy; she’s my daughter… Theodore Roosevelt advised:

Pray not for lighter burdens but for stronger backs.

Roosevelt had the constitution of an ox. He was shot once while delivering a campaign speech; he finished the speech, the bullet still lodged in his chest. As for me, I’d rather have lighter burdens and a stronger back.