The murky water of the Grand Canal radiated a cold sensation that floated up from its chilly waters. The boat sat low in the water, muddy waves lapping at the base of the windows.The dampness crawled under my skin, triggering the presence of the old lady; her irritating stiffness clamped down on my joints.
We floated down the narrow canal past lush patios and gardens; low-rise apartments overlooked the man-made body of water. Arched bridges stretched overhead showing off the curved beauty of Eastern architecture found in almost every building and bridge in this extraordinary land.
The boat glided on the water, weaving through the twists and curves of the canal; we left the luxury of the appealing villas and floated into a shanty town. Tiny shacks teetered on banks threatening to give way to the cloudy water that flowed mere inches from their doorways. We climbed up to the top of the boat; only a few at a time could accommodate the small platform. I took my turn, cringing at the twinge in my knees and shoulders as I pulled myself up the tiny ladder.
I studied the muddy slopes, listening to the water splash against the lip of the embankment; dilapidated rowboats bobbed in the water, pressing against the bank as small waves slammed into their sides. A small child clung to her father as they watched us drift by their shattered home. An elderly woman crouched on the edge of the bank, washing her clothes in the filthy water; she looked up and in her withered face I saw what I imagined to be the face of the arthritis that encompassed my body.
I pulled a compact mirror from my bag and turned my eyes on my reflection – that ancient face did not present itself. Blue eyes stared back at me revealing a young woman with smooth skin – perhaps a smidge of light crinkles just beginning to form. This was the face of a woman with arthritis who endured a demanding eight-day journey in a foreign country; the face of a woman who climbed the Great Wall and hiked through the tombs of the emperors; the face of a woman who fought to live the life she wanted in spite of the chronic disease that tried to bring her down.
I recalled the image of the little child in her father’s arms; I studied the faces of the people in our group. We were a diverse illustration of time, with ages ranging from those in their early twenties to the oldest couple in their seventies.
I cast my eyes on the amazing sights around me and smiled. We are all the faces of arthritis – just look at what arthritis can accomplish today.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.