Phil Gulley: Belly Aching

Illustration of a man playing with giant cartoon germs.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

A few years ago, I had chest pains while out for my evening walk. At my annual physical several months later, I mentioned it to my doctor, who listened to my heart with his stethoscope, said I sounded fine, but scheduled a stress test “so we can get a good baseline heart measurement for you since you’re not getting any younger.” My doctor and I are about the same age, but it’s always me who’s not getting any younger, and never him. Nevertheless, I liked the idea of a fixed point against which I could measure my decline, to know with some certainty when I went to hell in a handbasket healthwise.

I’m halfway through my 58th year, with no major ailments but several disagreeable aches I didn’t have when I was a kid. I say no major ailments, though I do have diabetes, which I’ve managed to keep at bay with vigorous (sort of) exercise and strict (mostly) adherence to a proper diet. I still have both legs, all my toes, and my vision is fine. My feet tingle, but I think that might be toe cancer, which I’m sure will go away if I ignore it long enough.

After my mom died, I was carrying her bed down a flight of stairs and threw out my back. I’ve been to three doctors, had six months of physical therapy, and took an exciting little opiate for a month, all for naught. I can’t even sit for an hour on the bench at our Quaker meeting, so I have to use a rocking chair, just like President John F. Kennedy, a fellow back-pain sufferer. Except I don’t look anything like President Kennedy sitting in my rocking chair. I look more like Grandpa Jones on Hee Haw. All I need now is a corn-cob pipe.

If you’re keeping a list, that’s diabetes and a bad back. Have I mentioned my bouts with skin cancer? No? Well, let me tell you about that. I visit my dermatologist once a year, and he sets my face on fire with liquid nitrogen to beat back the skin cancer I have from spending too much time outside. People die from skin cancer, so I keep a close watch on it. I want to go out with a bang, dying while rescuing a busload of children. I have no intention of dying gradually from something that could have been prevented by wearing a hat.

But my most alarming health crisis is recurrent chest pains, about three times a year, when a slamming agony grabs my chest like a giant fist, squeezing the breath from me. It always happens when I’m lying in bed next to my wife, who I don’t want to disturb, so I never wake her up to tell her I’m probably dying. I just lie still until the pain goes away, usually in 5 or 10 minutes, then tell her all about it the next morning at breakfast.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night,” I say, pausing for dramatic effect. She puts down her coffee cup and looks at me expectantly. It’s a delicious moment and I draw it out. “I thought I was having, I’m not sure what I should call it, but it was agonizing, the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I could barely breathe. Maybe it was a heart attack, but I can’t be sure.”

She urges me to call the doctor that very day, which I promise to do, then don’t. We’ve been married 35 years and this has been happening since we first married, or roughly 105 times, so I’m in the market for a new health scare, something to shake her up a bit, perhaps involving a tumor.

Headaches are wonderful. I can’t count the number of times I haven’t been able to do the dishes because of headaches, which got better just in time for me to take a motorcycle ride.

Tumors, as you know if you’ve been paying attention, generally come in two sizes—orange size and grapefruit size. Occasionally, someone in India will have a pumpkin-size tumor, but those are rare. The largest tumor ever taken from a human body weighed 303 pounds, which is like being pregnant with 38 babies.

Tumors are everywhere these days. We can’t make it through prayer time at our Quaker meeting without someone reporting a new one. Scientists tell us that 60 percent of the human body is water. Tumors probably comprise 35 percent of us, with the remaining 5 percent consisting of organs and bones, some of which likely have their own tumors.

If the world were a perfect place, we would get to pick our own illnesses. I’d pick one just bad enough to get me out of things I didn’t want to do, but not so bad I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. Headaches are wonderful for that. I can’t count the number of times I haven’t been able to do the dishes because of headaches, which got better just in time for me to take a motorcycle ride. Plus, headaches, unlike, say, a bone poking out of your skin, aren’t obvious, so no can say, “You don’t have a headache. You’re just saying that to get out of work.” All you have to do is lie on the couch, your hand on your forehead, wincing.

As long as I’m picking my illnesses, I wouldn’t mind having Munchausen Syndrome, a nifty little mental illness that lets you tell others how sick you are when absolutely nothing is wrong, so you get all the sympathy, but none of the pain. The person who dreamed up that ailment is a flat-out genius. You can set out money jars next to cash registers with your picture on it, bearing a plea for financial assistance. People will see you on the street and want to know how you’re doing these days, what with all your problems, and you can give them a brave thumbs-up so they’ll go home and tell their spouse how much they admire your attitude. Of course, after a while, when you haven’t died, people might get suspicious. But then you just make up a new illness and you’re good to go for another round of donations.

Speaking of mental illnesses, I almost forgot to mention my depression, which I get every winter because Indiana sucks from November to March. I can bear the first few months of winter, but by February I’m usually talking with my therapist about moving to Costa Rica. Did you know there are plagues and viruses in Costa Rica, deep in the jungle, that we have no idea how to cure? An enterprising young man like me could make a fortune setting out cash jars in Costa Rica. These are horrible, disfiguring maladies that get written about in medical journals, diseases so terrifying they make movies about them for the Hallmark Channel. I would die a happy man if I could have an illness bad enough to get on the Hallmark Channel.

It’s probably fair to say no one has ever looked forward to his own death as much as I do, if only to prove the people wrong who regularly tell me I’m perfectly fine and have nothing to worry about. I’ll show them.


Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.