It’s a muggy Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting in a dental chair in my periodontist’s office having a heart attack.
The dental assistant is patting my arm, telling me I’m doing a good job and to just relax. My rib cage is housing a wild, flapping bird of a heart and my breath is choked. “Deep breaths,” he keeps saying. “It’s not a heart attack. It’s not even a panic attack. It’s just the epinephrine from the Novocain.”
My arms are jerking violently of their own volition and I’m crying now. Ugly cry-face in front of this sweet, Midwestern beau hunk kid who ten minutes prior was talking about a seventy thousand dollar motorboat he wants to buy. This is the sixth dental visit I’ve had in four months and they rush together in a blur: a root canal on top of an old root canal, teeth cleaning, two hour exams, referrals, and now this gum grafting surgery for bone loss. These visits have been interspersed with eight visits to a podiatrist who gives me cortisol blocks in my feet and fitted me for orthotics, another visit to my physician for a month-long recurring rash on my arms and legs, a follow-up with a dermatologist…
“The crying is normal,” he says. “It’s a scary feeling.” I want to tell him the crying isn’t about my involuntary muscle movements or my throbbing heartbeat. I want to tell him how tired I am of being inside my body, how this biologically induced panic attack feels like the pinnacle of my fear and exhaustion and aging. “Think of the big picture,” he says.
When the numbing agents kick in twenty minutes later and I no longer feel like Uma Thurman’s character in “Pulp Fiction” with a needle sticking out of her chest, the dentist begins removing a section of gum tissue from the roof of my mouth. I feel no pain there, just a strange, insistent tugging and what sounds like ripping. I close my eyes behind the dark safe-wear glasses and feel the tense pull of muscles in my neck, my jaw. Even my legs are rigid with the pressure of holding myself so still. My throat aches to swallow the pool of blood that fills it, but I am past basic bodily functions at this point. I am a tight replica of a body without being.
The big picture? That at the rate I’m going, I’ll be walking around on toothpick bones with three teeth in my head and a gigantic bunion I’ve nicknaked “Paul.” I want to tell him it wasn’t always like this, but when I really start to think about it, I realize that might not be true. The moments I have felt alive or good in my body are rare, and that’s depressing when I let it be. Even my first marriage was the result of an impending and necessary surgery because I didn’t have the insurance I needed to cover the operation. It doesn’t get more romantic than that. That marriage saw me through a few surgeries and treatments–multiple laminectomies and diskectomies in my back and neck, a gastric bypass operation, thalassemia minor, a breast reduction, iron infusions, hospitalization. A glamorous check-list of ailments in my twenties that invited doctors to say things like “but you’re so young” or “you’ll recover so fast, you’re young.” One gynecologist said “usually I only see cysts like these in female truckers.” Another said, “You’ve got the cervix of a nine year old!”
There is little you can do about genetics, except wallow in it or rise above it. And here I am now, years later, in a different marriage with a different post-baby body, kicking around with my tiny cervix. This time around it’s bone loss and slipped disks and plantar fasciitis and allergies. How seemingly mundane. I sound old. I sound tired. Chronic pain is the kind of thing that only sufferers can really understand. How it changes the mapping of your brain, how you respond to stressful situations, how truly present you can be in a moment. And it’s nothing compared to the sliding scale of people who suffer to the point of immobility, or are not high functioning, or on pain killers. It’s more like piling the straw on the camel’s post-surgery back. She’s bowing from the pressure. Or is she drowning?
“Sorry about all the blood,” says the dental assistant, “I’m trying to suck it up as much as possible.”
I smile or grimace in response and start to remember an accident my daughter had a month or two ago. It was her bedtime and she got a case of the sillies. If you’ve ever parented a toddler, you know the sillies. You’ve missed the twilight call of the perfect bedtime window and your child gets the second wind. Daylight Savings Time exists solely to screw with parents of small children. So on the brink of new spring hours, my husband asked, “Do you think we should take her up to bed?” just as my daughter started to sprint toward the window seat like a colt.
“Probably,” I hedged, thinking about the walk up the stairs and my sad knees. “You know how clumsy she gets when she’s this tired.”
You can’t write foreshadowing this succinct or accurately. The second the words were out of my mouth, she tumbled head-first and hit her face against the edge of the wooden and tile window seat. Cue the deadly silent scream. I scooped her up, didn’t see any immediate red marks and started to say “I think she’s ok…” just as her mouth began to pool with blood.
Bloody mouths are remarkable things. You’ve never seen so much blood so fast, and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, could only feel my stomach dropping like I was barreling down a roller coaster. I ran to the bathroom and instinct took over as I wetted a washcloth and shoved it against where I thought there might be a cut in her mouth, over her top teeth. Easier said than done with a hysterical child. It’s hard to simultaneously soothe and doctor.
“What can I do?” my husband said, his face white.
“Call the nurse’s line,” I said quickly.
I don’t know how he found a nurse’s line to call in a matter of seconds, but he did. For twenty minutes the nurse walked us through what we were doing and had us look at the wound. I lifted my daughter’s cheek and removed the washcloth to see a three inch gash along her upper gums, as well broken skin on her lower lip where she must have bitten herself. The short version of this story is that eventually she stopped crying, eventually the bleeding stopped, eventually my husband held my hands while I cried, told me how amazing I was to keep my shit together under those circumstances–to do my crying later, when my daughter had been doped up with Tylenol and put to bed.
Is this what it’s like for those mothers who lift cars off of their children, fend off would-be attackers with incredible rage and adrenaline? It doesn’t feel good. It feels enormously frightening to know you might not be enough, that your body isn’t enough. But being conscious of pain and present with it has helped me become much more empathetic to suffering in others, so maybe there is a trade-off here.
I see my daughter learning the world through her body while learning how to be in her body, and in turn, she is teaching me. She loves to try on my shoes and attempt walking in them. When the oven is warm, she presses her face against it and says in a stern voice, “hot!” Water on the windows is a marvel – “rain!” Puddles make noise when feet are stomping. Blankets are great for hiding under. Teddy bears are for hugging. Mama’s swollen, post-surgery chin is perfect for head-butting.
Her body will undergo so many changes that sometimes I’m overwhelmed trying to imagine it all. It will be regarded as property. Laws will be made about it without her consent. It will be objectified, looked at, the subject of countless articles and conversations. And it will suffer pain. It already has. It already does. How to listen to your body, acknowledge the pain, and move on? I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be present in my body, to know when to push it and to know when not, but it still surprises me. And I find myself baffled by how to teach her to love her body when I can barely stand to be in mine sometimes, but maybe that isn’t the point.
I see our reflection in the sliding doors at the super market as I hold her hand while we walk. We hobble together in our way. Her steps are slow and loud, mine are just slow. But when we sit together in the overstuffed chair at home, her body nestles against mine like a puzzle piece. When we lie on the small bed together, we fit just right. That is the marvel–that my body had a hand in creating another body, so perfect and new and strong; that I would do ten more of these gum-grafts and wear ugly running shoes for the rest of my life if it gives me more time to just be here.
When the oral surgery is over, the dental assistant hands me a goody bag with a soft toothbrush and a three page post-surgery checklist. It’s a ten-week long recovery process full of follow-up appointments and special care. “Big picture,” he says again with a smile. “You’re going to be just fine.”
And I believe him.
* The image heading this blog post is from the gorgeous series “A Beautiful Body,” by photographer Jade Beall, which features the bodies of real mothers. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out immediately (here, at the Huffington Post site). It’s a stunning and sensitive look at the post-baby body. (KSL)