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  • What We Miss, or Ignore, or Refuse to See
  • Amber Jensen

Blake never felt any pain in Iraq. It wasn't until he and the rest of the 147th made their requisite stop in Kuwait. It wasn't until the weight of war—Kevlar helmets and vests, weapons and ammunition—was lifted that for the first time in his life, Blake's back hurt.

Stateside, Blake was diagnosed with a service-related injury, degenerative disk disorder, a ten percent disability. Blake laughed about it at the time. His friends and family teased him about living off the government, soaking them for all they were worth. Even as the pain increased, we joked. When he wore a battery-operated box with patches he could place on his back to zap his pain with low pulses of electricity, we called him the bionic man. We dreamed of the imaginary back-iotomy that would someday eliminate his pain. But the jokes defected serious conversation, and Blake hid the intensity of his pain as much as he could.

After six years of that service related disability, I followed Blake into the garage one evening when he went out for a smoke.

"How'd it go at the VA?" I asked. In the dimly lit garage I could make out Blake's movements, his shadowed face.

"Oh, not bad," he said.

"Do they have a plan—something different?" I leaned in his direction.

"Not really," he shrugged. "Another cortisone shot. I told them it didn't help, but they say sometimes it takes a few before it starts working."

I studied Blake's silhouette, the exaggerated erect posture that gave away his pain, the way he paced. I stared blankly, studied him, wondered what I could say, what I could do to convince him that he needed to demand more from his doctors.

Surely the silence was strained, because Blake had to know what I was thinking. I had been urging him for years to insist a bit more, be more honest, do something. It wasn't fair, I'd told him what seemed like hundreds of times. I know, he'd answered. But they're doing their best. The next treatment will work. I bit back my words, searched for new ones that might convince him this time.

He laughed.

"They gave me a sleeping pill, though."


"So I can sleep." I could make out the jester's curl of his lips, and I knew he was pleased with himself.

I acknowledged the joke with a roll of my eyes. But I couldn't laugh. My mind raced. I had assumed he made his way to the couch at night because our two children so often crowded our bed at night. Wasn't it their sharp elbows and knees, the heat of their bodies that kept him awake at night? He answered my question before I found the words.

"It really is that bad. I can't sleep because of the pain."

My thoughts spun. How could it have gotten so bad? How could I not know? How could something like this slip by unnoticed? I felt like a failure of a wife. Like I let him down.

He insisted it would be fine. As he had for years, he explained away the guilt. [End Page 84]

"This next shot might help. And if it doesn't, they'll do a surgical consult. I'm sure it will be fine."

Despite the fact that guilt still throbbed in my chest, I let myself believe him. It had to get better. Surgery was the next step.

Only it wasn't. Another cortisone shot, another six months passed before we drove to Omaha for a consult with a neurological surgeon. He was almost giddy with anticipation. We left at four in the morning to arrive early for his appointment, packed lunch for a zoo outing, planning to celebrate good news from the surgeon, the possibility of pain relief. Before the kids and I made it back to the car Blake was already calling me.

"I'm out. Where are you guys?"

"We're headed back to the car," I said, confused. "What do you...


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pp. 84-88
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