The Cheek of God

I definitely inhaled . . .

Tag: smile

Window

The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time.

~ William Butler Yeats

Growing up, I enjoyed riding shotgun. I could call dibs faster than Kelly Minisofer. Since this was back in the day before air conditioning came standard, we used 4/60 air – four windows down, going 60 mph. All the kids were jealous of the awesome tan on my right arm; I’d extend it straight out the window and do those cool aerodynamic swirls. And sometimes, since seat belts were also optional, I’d lean way out and let the wind, and occasional bug, rifle up my nose.

Remember that feeling? The onslaught of summer wind so strong it made breathing damn near impossible? The sting in your eyes, forcing you to squeeze them shut, instead just letting the sound of the road echo loudly in your head?

Zoe gets this. I can’t drive anywhere without her wanting to come with (as my Minnesota relatives so eloquently put it). This morning, it meant bringing her along to the little country store half a mile down the road. We could have walked, but where’s the fun in that?! Zero to thirty and we’re there. But not before she’d leaned out the window and lost her favorite hat to the warming Indiana breeze.

Not the first time she’s lost shit out the window. The first time came when she was probably four. We were on our way from Evansville via Terre Haute and were at that spot along US-41 that runs by Boot City, home of 10,000 soles. The air in my Honda has never worked really well, so we had the windows down, the music up, and smiles on our faces in anticipation of the corn dogs we planned to scarf down at Dog ‘n Suds. Then came The Scream. You parents who’ve had four-year-olds know The Scream. It’s heart-stopping. I quickly look over, thinking perhaps she’d been stung by a bee or something. Instead, I don’t see her favorite big cream-colored teddy bear anymore. Not in the floorboard. Not in the back seat.

Not in her arms.

And she’s pointing out the window. And tears are streaming down her face. And she’s screaming.

1.5 seconds have passed.

I glance into the rearview mirror and through the heat glare I see Teddy laying on the side of the road all Pee Wee Herman, half on, half off the blazing hot cement, yellow line bisecting his torso. And cars swerving like they were circumventing road kill.

Part of me, for just a brief moment, wants to keep driving. I’m suddenly all Tough Love. There’s a lesson to be learned here, I contemplate; “Don’t hold shit out the window you want to keep!” Yeah, she’d cry. A lot. But she’d learn a lesson.

Then, probably not. And what kind of a heartless son-of-a–

I slam on the breaks and pull over. And as she leans out the window, her crying abating, I walk down the shoulder and rescue Teddy. Now she’s all smiles. Innocent and beautiful. And I’m her hero.

We also stopped and got the hat back on our drive home, her head tilted out the window, the breeze blowing her hair. Again, she’s all smiles . . .

[photo credit]

Scrapbook

I thought a good night’s sleep – in my own bed instead of on an inflatable Coleman mattress – would help clear the fog that rolled in over the lengthy holiday weekend. Not the sated and soothing sort of grogginess the media likes to blame on gluttonous tryptophan intake. Rather, a disconcerting unease that comes with seeing a situation clearly for the first time . . . an acknowledgement of powerlessness, where circumstances and consequences are out of reach, not in your control, but weigh heavy nonetheless.

Alas, I am mistaken. And, for the time being, at a loss for words.

So I invite you to join me as I disconnect a bit and take a stroll through the tattered pages of my scrapbook . . .

Me, pre-Unibrow. Whatever I’m looking at must have been simply amazing . . .

May 31, 1991. Bemidji, Minnesota. Wedding rehearsal dinner. Were I a guest on This Is Your Life, these are some of the folks I’d like to see Ralph Edwards pull out of the wings. Especially that little guy on the left. He came to stay with us for a week after the wedding, and a conscientious neighbor confused him for Jacob Wetterling. It’s the only time in my life police investigators have knocked on my door . . .

Blurry. But not the memories. A litter of puppies that came too soon. A shallow hole dug near the driveway. Frantically dousing them with water from a glass, hoping they’d wake up. Crying . . .

Yeah, I earned all those. Worked my ass off to earn my Eagle Scout rank before I turned sixteen. How the hell I managed to get my Fishing merit badge is beyond me . . .

Funny. How a smile can say more than any word. A smile is a peak that says things are alright for the time being. Or maybe his hands were cold. A tickle spot, caressed. A smile can light the world . . .

Have you noticed? My right ear sorta leans forward and sticks out a bit. Even before my sisters found yanking on it to be so much fun. And I would kill to own a shirt like that again . . .

Thanksgiving, 1984. Sauk Village, Illinois. Big mistake, putting that plate of heat-n-serve rolls so close. My dad built that table. It weighed roughly the same as a Pinto and barely fit into the dining room. We had to use extreme caution because the legs weren’t quite finished and were attached somewhat provisionally. Amazing how something so incomplete and wobbly can carry the day . . .

Spring, 1987. I’ve been staring at this one for five minutes now and can’t come up with a single thing that I feel like sharing. Such is the weight of it all . . .

So I’ll leave you with this one. When all else leaves you speechless, there is still football. Roger Staubach had way cool hair, and Danny White was the hero waiting in the wings. It’s just a shame they never could figure out how to beat Terry Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh Steelers. We hated that man . . .

[insert ominous thudding noise as I slam the cover closed and prepare to face the week ahead]

Hope

“Man, it’s cold in here. Can we turn the air off?”

Sure

“Where should I put my stuff? I suppose you won’t let me read a book while we do this . . . ?

On the counter is fine. And, no.

“I’m never going to finish that book anyway. I’ve been reading it for weeks and I just can’t seem to find the last page.”

I’ve read books like that.

I’ll turn on the Cubs then . . . listen along.”

Whatever makes you comfortable.

Small talk makes me comfortable. When I’m nervous as hell, about to tear down some scabrous pathway with no clear end in sight, I talk. So I chat up Courtney. Colorful Courtney. Today she’s wearing scrubs of a color nestled somewhere between the petals of a late-Summer sunflower and an orange sherbet Push Up. She’s a dental assistant from the area who went to school in the same town where I spent my freshman year in high school. She was a toddler back then. She lives where I used to work . . . before I was laid off. She’s sad to hear about that. She marvels at how small the world is. And she’s probably tired of talking. But she keeps smiling – preparing all the tools and suction hoses and gauze pads and syringes and vial after vial after vial of Novocain, all the shade of urine and resembling those little glass tubes of free cologne I used to get at J. C. Penney – and never lets on.

Eventually Dr. E. comes in to numb up my lower jaw. He prods deep with his long Q-Tips and then goes for the nerves, moving the needle around, stopping to reload several times. I can’t help thinking of Bill Cosby’s bit about dentists. How they dig around as your mouth is gaping wide and try to engage in their own small talk. “Ever do any fishing?” I’m spared the humor; Dr. E. is all business. After a few minutes he leaves me to my Cubs game. I go numb while he is next door making impressions of another patient’s smile.

So this is it. Yet another point of no return. I haven’t let it hit me that way just yet but the thought is festering in the back of my mind, clawing its way to the front with an agitated determination that will defeat my denial eventually. It always does. Meanwhile the Cubs break it open in the 5th scoring six runs. It’s exciting to watch. Even pitching phenom Carlos Zambrano gets a hit, a double to right that almost goes over the wall. I miss Harry Carey. I get bummed when I realize I’m watching a rebroadcast of last night’s game. This is yesterday’s excitement for millions and here I am cheering. The belated fanboy. Like the outcome of the game depends on my fist pumping and mumbled rally chants. Figures.

Dr. E. is back and he and Courtney have donned their masks, wheeled up their stools, tilted me back, pointed their strobe light and limbered up. Let’s do this! I think to myself, a weak attempt at bravado, and I open my mouth and close my eyes. Find a happy place. He pokes. “Can you feel that?” I shake my head, very gently, side to side . . . Nope. “How about that.” Nope. So he goes to work. I hear the scraping. Feel the pressure in my jaw but feel no pain. Even as he grabs a tooth and starts wrenching my head side to side. I strain my neck to keep my head buried on the sturdy blue pillow and try not to give in and move with each tug. I hear a tiny crack, like a lone, distant firecracker. My neglected tooth offers little resistance, giving easily to implements made of steel. A little suction, some gauze, a stitch. And then on the next tooth.

Twenty-six times.

Four hours.

A prescription for Vicodin and Amoxicillin and an instruction sheet basically telling me to get some rest.

I pause at the mirror mounted on the wall next to the receptionist’s desk as I head out to meet my wife and youngest daughter. I smile weakly. My temporary dentures are already stained with blood and make my mouth feel way too small. I gag slightly at all the gauze. Then I slam my mouth shut, cover it all up with a cheap and reeking paper towel and head to the van for the unbearably long drive to Walgreens.

I catch a few glimpses of myself in the visor mirror as we drive. I’m at a loss for words. The sun has gone down, I’m freezing cold and I feel like shit. And I cry. Not gentle sobs but the kind of crying that rocks the van. The hopelessness that I imagined would come once I welcomed and walked past that point of no return is here, and it is brutal. I am not strong. I pity myself and hate myself and take no comfort in the fact that it’s over. I let my anger and bitterness embrace me and shake me.

And eventually it passes. My pity party comes to an end when my daughter places her hand on my shoulder and tells me it’ll be alright. Even as she betrays her fear and uncertainty with her pouty eyes, I sense a strength in her that is almost physical. I let it in and hug her, accepting her cute little offering of hope and fanning it with what small amount of my own I can muster. At the end of this day, even a little hope is a good thing.

 

(Photo credit: I found the picture used above here and include it in lieu of my own, alarmingly similar x-rays, which remain sequestered away in a folder deep in the bowels of Aspen Dental. The photo is credited to davescunningplan. Some rights reserved.)

A Boring White Wall

“Right over there, against that wall please.”

She said it after fiddling with some paperwork, greeting me with a generic smile, and while looking not at me but at the buttons and dials on her digital camera. I swiveled slowly around, my entire body moving, as if I wore a neck brace and the individual parts just couldn’t take actions independently of one another.

The wall had no taste. No style. No feng shui. It just stood there, brilloed, barren and bright white. I thought of those black velvet cloths that jewelers display diamonds on for scrutinizing customers. This wall would make anything that leaned against it pop with clarity, no imperfection hidden from even the most casual observer.

I turned back around and took note of all the other people in the office: a receptionist chatting with another patient about some insurance matter; a secretary filing chart after chart, all piled haphazardly on a wire cart; a tech walking through with a vial of blood on her way to the lab across the hall; and my nurse, the one whose job included taking my “before” picture. I’d been weighed (378 pounds), my arms had been squeezed – the pressure of the blood coursing through my deeply-submerged arteries measured and written down – and now all I had to do was lean against the white wall and smile. Or not. The choice was mine. “Perhaps I should save my smile for a few weeks down the road, when all this is finally a reality,” I pondered.

The date was April 11, 2002. Five days before I went under the knife and got my innards rearranged. The medical folks called it an open Roux-en-Y. It’s Gastric bypass or bariatric surgery to us laymen, and simply weight loss surgery to the larger, skinny populace. Some called it the “easy way,” a senseless, overused option for quitters – those who gave up on giving good old honest will power a try, for once. Others called it my last hope and applauded my bravery at taking such drastic measures. Still others remained silent but supportive; the time for words had come and gone and all that remained was to do this thing and get it over with.

I had been through all the preliminary medical testing – poked and prodded by a menagerie of nurses, doctors and technicians, and left sweaty and winded. I drank their concoctions, felt them course through my system as they sucked my thick dark blood into vial after tiny little vial. I let them inject me with their tracer fluids, then stood real still while they donned their protective vests and disappeared behind walls with glass windows and talked to me through tinny speakers. Turn left. Turn right. Raise your arm . . . higher . . . now lower . . . now your other arm . . . etc., like a marionette on so many sterile strings. I spent an hour in the psychiatrist’s office reaffirming my intentions to make the necessary lifestyle changes – drinking oodles of water, taking up walking, visiting the doctors as scheduled – that would make the procedure a success. That I would be happy to reach the higher regions of the statistical benchmarks regarding optimal weight lost, but could also live with the more modest numbers. And that, no matter what steps I had to take, regardless of how far I had to reach out for support, I’d maintain a positive attitude even when times got tough. And times would get tough, he assured me with a gentle yet used and tired smile.

Sort of like the one I flashed ever so briefly on the morning of April 11, 2002, leaning against a boring white wall.

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