The Constipated Mathematician

Jim Ross

During her last three years, Mom lived at an assisted living facility. With memory largely intact, she in many respects reverted into the abandoned child she once was, living for seven years with a succession of inattentive foster parents.    

In her final year in assisted living, she once became severely constipated. Her excruciating, implacable bowels demanded her full attention and much of mine.

Her sad eyes and sweet entreaties to the nursing assistants had earned her only daily doses of warm prune juice and the admonition, “Patience, Frances. All things work out in the end.”

After she pleaded to me, “Please take my pain away,” I remembered a joke I’d heard at camp when I was 12:

Did you hear the one about the constipated mathematician?


Worked it out with a pencil.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I gazed around a room filled with symbolic reminders of Mom’s 84 years for an ultra-sharp pencil.

Pay dirt!

I walked Mom arm-in arm to the toilet. Sounding like a priest at church, I said, “Please be seated.” After Mom got settled, I told her to bend over.

“No, all the way over.   Try to touch the floor with your finger tips. You won’t fall. I’ll hold you.”

“I think there’s a pebble in the way,” Mom said, her shoulders braced against my knees.

When I spread Mom’s cheeks, I saw a cannonball blockading the exit.    

I didn’t ask Mom to trust me because she already trusted me implicitly. Also, I didn’t want to suggest to her that maybe she shouldn’t trust me. 

I didn’t say, “Don’t move,” because she wasn’t going to unless I suggested not to.

I stabbed my surgical instrument adroitly, just like the Fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea did when he sunk his harpoon into the shark’s head to protect his beloved marlin.

I’d crossed the Maginot Line, infiltrated the enemy’s camp, ignited the arsenal, and watched the fireworks.

A mountain-sized asteroid hurtling toward earth had been intercepted and fragmented in outer space.

Francis of Assisi, waylayed by gangsters, sprung loose from the Inferno of Hell. 

Mom released an audible sigh of relief—the most beautiful song to ever pass her lips.

I helped her sit upright again. She felt lighter. When she looked up at me, I saw a smile on her face for the first time in over a week.

"That was magic.  It doesn't hurt anymore. How’d you do that?" Mom asked.

“Ever hear the one about the constipated mathematician?" I asked.                        

"No," she said.

"I'll tell you some time.  Glad you're feeling better,” I said.   

  "I knew there’s a reason why I love you," Mom smiled mischievously. “Can you do me one more favor?”

“You name it,” I said.

“Can you dump that horrid prune juice down the drain? I’ve been collecting it for weeks.”  

Jim Ross, after retiring in early 2015 from a career in public health research, jumped back into creative pursuits to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. He's since published 45 pieces of nonfiction, several poems, and over 150 photos in more than 50 journals in North America, Europe, and Asia such as 1966, Amsterdam Quarterly, Friends Journal, Ilanot Review, Lunch Ticket, MAKE Literary Magazine, The Atlantic, Pif Magazine, riverbabble, Stoneboat, and Thin Air. Jim and his wife--parents of two health professionals and grandparents of three toddlers, with a fourth expected imminently--split their time across MD, VA, and WV.

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