I was going to apologize for my over month-long absence, but in fact, as many of you probably know, there was good reason for it. I’ve found myself wondering from time to time what the best way to handle the subject of Wayne’s and my motorbike accident would be; if it was something I even cared to include in my blog at all. Ultimately, of all things, intermittently over the course of the past weeks at our house in Thung Song, in the hotel in Bangkok, and now at my kitchen table in Virginia, I decided to write an essay. I didn’t write it for the purposes of my blog, but in the end have decided it’s about all the reflection I care to do on the incident for the moment, and I wanted to get it out of the way so I can move on to some of the more pleasant parts of the last of our time in Thailand. It’s long, as I’m sure comes as no surprise, and the first half isn’t about the accident at all. But here you are.
When I was 11, I was living on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with my family. I attended General Omar Bradley Elementary School as a 6th grader– something that didn’t sit very well with me when we moved there from Augusta, Georgia, and all of my fellow 5th-grade graduates were moving up to middle school. In the end I don’t suppose it mattered much at all.
My dad always disagrees when I make the firm assertion that in my younger years I was a bona fide nerd, which I suppose is normal for fathers. When he asks what evidence I have to support my claim, I casually mention the big, round glasses that occupied a prominent position on my face, the fact that I was in the gifted program, and the fact that I played violin, for starters. I will say, however, that in all of my pre-teen years, the 10 months spent in Kansas seemed to be the least bogged down with a sense of any sort of rejection on account of the nerdiness. I attribute this to the fact that General Omar Bradley Elementary School was, as you might surmise from the name, populated almost entirely by military children, many of whom were also there for less than a year. The school was small and judgements seemed to flow a little less freely. We were all more or less in the same boat.
Though I don’t suppose the glasses did me any favors, some of my best friends were in the gifted program with me and the violin was miraculously almost kind of cool. I took lessons at a place in downtown Leavenworth called the Tune Shop, the threshold of which was adorned with a postcard from Melissa Etheridge, a former Leavenworth local. Turns out her old guitar instructor taught at the same shop, which I felt earned me a bit of cred-via-association (never mind that one of my friends whose mom was also from the area said she was great friends in school with both Melissa Etheridge and Julianne Moore– and that she had a photo of the latter in her underwear at a sleepover to prove it). Another of my good friends took lessons at the same place, and we’d play duets together.
As with most elementary schools, come the end of the school year General Omar Bradley hosted a talent show. Much to my disbelief and excitement, students were able to perform in more than one act– provided their auditions were good enough. This was great news for me, because in addition to playing something on the violin, which was just assumed, I was eager to sing something. You see, I’d always fancied myself something of a vocalist hiding behind a violinist’s exterior, and as far as I could tell my big break had come in Kansas. I’d earned the role of Mrs. Cratchit in our Christmas play, and had a solo verse in the Cratchit family song, “We’ve Got Love.” For a project in music class I’d garnered the confidence to sing Jewel’s “Foolish Games” in front of the whole class. I’d even made sure to silence the tape when she said “damn” when I copied the song over from my CD, just to make sure there would be nothing to take away from the performance. My first boyfriend that year, Dexter (who, coincidentally had been cast as Scrooge in the Christmas play), wrote me a note once listing all the reasons he loved me, and it culminated with “especially the way you sing.”
So as far as I was concerned, I practically owed it to everyone to do a vocal number in addition to whatever I’d end up playing on the violin. One of the favorite movies amongst my classmates that year was Dr. Doolittle, the Eddie Murphy one, and as I’m sure you all remember, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” was, for whatever reason, one of the big promotional songs for the movie. You know, the one with the baby gurgling in the background and Timbaland proclaiming that he’s the man from the big V-A during his rap interlude. The one where she talks about the subject of the song being her prey, and admits various times to being ‘naughty naughty.’
Unfortunately at this point in my life I can’t exactly recall the sequence of events that led to me and my friend Charles, who could not only rap but also dance (not to keep bringing everything back to A Christmas Carol, but I’m pretty sure somehow he was able to incorporate a quick Moonwalk into one of the dance numbers), deciding that “Are You That Somebody?” would be our ticket to Talent Show fame and adoration. But that’s what happened. And I would love to have been a fly on the wall, or privy to the readouts of some kind of mind-reading device inserted in the brains of the pudgy middle-aged white women watching my tiny, equally white, buck-toothed, bespectacled, 11-year-old self kind of bounce around (I didn’t exactly possess Charles’ finesse on the floor) and tell them that “I gotta watch my body; I’m not just anybody.” This just before making way for Charles to pull some more-than-likely inappropriate moves and claim to make “playahatas to believers” during our audition. Though I imagine it was plenty entertaining, I don’t suppose I really need to mention that we did not make the cut for the Talent Show.
To my chagrin, I had to accept that I was a better violinist than hip-hop star. Where my homage to Aaliyah failed, my tribute to Vivaldi paid off; specifically in the form of the first movement of his Concerto in A Minor that I had to memorize from the fourth Suzuki book in my private lessons at the Tune Shop. Though it killed me a little inside that I’d blown my opportunity to croon to a hypothetical man about how “weak” it would be if he “slept” in front of a crowd of presumably awestruck onlookers, I couldn’t deny that I loved that Concerto and was pretty proud of myself for having memorized all three pages of it. It was fast-paced and exciting, with little teasing build-ups throughout and a nice, dramatic ending. It grabbed listeners’ attention instantly with its persistent high A notes and kept hold of their ears with measures and measures of finger-knotting scales– or at least it should have.
I’d been given a coveted slot near the end of the Talent Show, leaving me about an hour sitting on pins and needles while younger students told jokes, juggled, performed magic tricks, or did whatever else it is that elementary schoolers do at talent shows. It also left just enough time for a rogue bird to be about thirty seconds away from an unprotected entrance to the gym by the time I took the stage, meaning twenty seconds into my performance every eye in the place was not on me but on the frantic ball of feathers circling the rafters. The jury’s still out, but it didn’t take long for the bird to either knock a forgotten whiffle ball out of some obscure nook OR to lay an egg mid-flight. This, of course, drew the audience from being silently distracted to engaging in full-on bedlam. They were standing, moving, shouting… doing pretty much anything they could that didn’t involve allowing my well-rehearsed Baroque masterpiece to wash over them.
I was later asked, many times by many people, why I didn’t just stop and wait for the chaos to subside. Oh, such an easy and practical solution, in retrospect! My answer was that since I had memorized it I wouldn’t have been able to pick up wherever I’d left off– it was one fluid piece in my head and I didn’t trust myself to break it into arbitrary pieces (though my sixth grade explanation probably didn’t include the words ‘fluid’ or ‘arbitrary’). “Oh but you could have just started over!”, they all said. Yeah, I could have. And I think what it really came down to was that I was unwilling to accept that a mischievous bird was more deserving of the spotlight than I was. I had just hoped, prayed, expected that they’d come back to me… I’d worked so hard, I was performing as well as I’d ever done in practice, every note was in its right place… Surely their attention would be redirected before long?
Of course, we’re talking about elementary schoolers here, and they probably would have been more entertained by a sleeping bird in a cage than by Itzhak Perlman himself sawing away on a violin as it was. By the time I commenced the final ritard I’d say maybe only a third of the spectators had remembered that one of their fellow sixth graders was doing something musical on stage. I removed my bow from the strings, gave a little giggle, avoided eye contact with anyone, took a small bow, and rushed off trying to fight the tears forming in my eyes. By the time I returned to my seat I think I’d pretty well composed myself, and was able to laugh off the whole ordeal from there. I don’t know that I ever admitted my disappointment to anyone; my self-awareness as a mere child who’d practiced like crazy in the hopes of impressing her peers, only to be shown up by a lost little bird.
* * *
Two weeks before I turned 25, my boyfriend and I got into a motorbike accident on a highway in the town where we were teaching English in Thailand. We were coming home from a club, making a detour to pick up bread and cheese to serve to the friends we’d spontaneously invited over for an after-party of sorts, when an 18-wheeler cut us off as it made a U-turn from the outside lane. My memories of the incident are choppy– first we’re on the bike making plans for our last-minute grocery run. What could only have been five minutes later I’m looking down at Wayne’s limp form on the ground, surrounded by debris, shouting, “Fan! Fan!” (the Thai word for “boyfriend”) at an anonymous bystander or two before spitting out a mouthful of my own blood. However long later in our town’s hospital I feel a buzz in my pocket, retrieve my phone with its newly busted screen, and tell my friend that all my teeth are falling out. When she asks if I’d been in an accident I can only answer, “I think so.”
That very night we ended up being transferred to the hospital in our province’s capital, an hour away, where there was a better neurologist and dental surgeon. Wayne had a slight fracture in the back of his skull, despite the fact that he’d been wearing a helmet. His brain was swollen and there was slight hematoma. Though I’d fallen into the bad habit of neglecting helmet-wear on account of the fact that they don’t fit when one’s hair is pulled up, I’d miraculously avoided my own head trauma. Still, over my right eyebrow was a nasty cut that stretched in three directions. My left thigh was covered in a sweeping shallow scrape, and my right calf had been subjected to an exhaust pipe burn that required the removal of nearly every layer of skin. Worse yet, I’d broken my jaw in two places (though, in fact, lost no teeth. The broken section of my jaw was just tilted at such an angle that there was a significant gap between my front incisors and one of the bordering canines).
When it became clear that we were both going to be okay, the first emotion to consume me was the realization of our overwhelming good fortune. If Wayne hadn’t been wearing his helmet, if I’d fallen in any other direction, if we’d been going any faster, if we’d hit the truck at any other angle… who knows what might have happened. The second wave of emotion accompanied all the other what-ifs… What if we’d called a motorbike taxi like we’d considered doing earlier in the evening? What if we’d left the club half an hour, a minute, even thirty seconds earlier or later? What if we’d decided against going to that club altogether? Or my favorite– what if I’d remembered I’d left my wallet at home and spared ourselves a trip for groceries we wouldn’t have been able to buy, seeing as Wayne had already spent all his money on mixers? My friends kept warning me that the “What If?” game was a losing one– and worthless at that– but alas, for me it was also an inevitable one.
You see, I had a flight booked for back home a mere twenty days after the accident, and the opportunity cost of my one week (and Wayne’s two weeks) in the hospital, and the subsequent at-home recovery time, was at times unbearable. He and I were meant to have a romantic getaway to a remote national park we’d had our eyes on for ages the weekend after the accident. For my and a friend’s birthday the weekend after that, a big group of us had made plans to have one last hurrah at one of our favorite beaches/rock climbing havens– a trip we’d been looking forward to for weeks already. We were forced to miss our last two weeks of school, rendering the fun reward lessons I had planned for students futile and forcing us to cancel the “Thank You” outings we’d scheduled with a number of our helpful Thai coworkers. I knew the importance of any and all of these things paled in comparison with that of, you know, our very lives being spared and I tried to keep a chin up in light of all the goodness being shown to us by friends, neighbors and colleagues. Still, it was difficult at times to not get lost in the regret I felt towards an incident I, in the end, had little control over in the first place.
Come my “Birthday Eve,” the day before we all should have been planning to hop on our bikes and set off for the beach-province of Krabi, I was instead on a minibus making the hour-long journey back to the hospital. This had actually become a highly anticipated trip in itself for me, as it meant the removal of the wires that had been holding my mouth shut for eight days, and I was greatly looking forward to working my way up to solid food once more. Wayne was still in the hospital so they could continue to closely monitor his brain; his sister had arrived from China, where she was also teaching, that morning, and his mother had come from their home of South Africa days earlier. I gave them all greetings and hugs when I arrived, then shuffled off to the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Ward.
Perhaps out of my excitement to finally have an at least moderately mobile jaw; perhaps because I’d been clinging tightly to the notion that things would only improve from the time I’d been released from the hospital nearly a week previous; perhaps simply because I hadn’t allowed myself to contemplate what exactly might be involved in the removal of a mouthful of grisly wires, I had not really mentally prepared myself for any considerable unpleasantness in the experience. I’d already made it through the accident itself, the subsequent surgery and swelling and soreness and stitches, the helplessness that accompanied the first few days of Wayne’s recovery– his frustration, confusion, and moodiness that are all prime symptoms of head trauma. There was also the dreariness of our separate wards, where over fifty mostly older men and women, all seemingly on the point of death, laid in beds within an arm’s reach of our own for weeks on end, being cared for not only by nurses but also by steadfast friends and family members who’d make little camps in the passages of the hospitals and even sleep on the floor under their loved one’s bed so there would always be someone present with them. On a few occasions, for both Wayne and myself, we’d wake up to newly empty beds, or beds with different occupants than that night before, in our immediate surroundings. We were always pretty sure the former occupants hadn’t simply gone home. As far as I was concerned, I’d had my share of unpleasantness and was on the up and up.
I loved my surgeon, a beautiful young Thai woman with excellent English (she, for instance, introduced me to the term “maxillofacial”) and a wonderful disposition, and was happy to see her again. When it was time for my appointment, she greeted me warmly, proceeded to compliment how clean I’d kept my “grill” (as friends and I had taken to calling it), and assured me that the two incision points along my gums where she’d operated to insert the steel plates now holding my jaw together were healing even more quickly than expected. “That’s great!” I mumbled back to her, as clearly as I could with my teeth locked in place. One of the many lessons I’ve taken away from the whole ordeal is that I’d make a terrible ventriloquist.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly until approximately a minute and a half after she doused my entire mouth with some spray-on analgesic and instructed me to hold it in my mouth for a few minutes without swallowing. I felt the numbness setting in, but before long the tiniest bit managed to trickle down my throat, setting me off on a weird combination of choking and coughing, neither of which are very easy or pleasant at all when your mouth is wired shut. I had no choice but to spit it all out– who knows how long before my surgeon planned on giving me the green light to do so. When she heard my sputtering she attempted to stop me but it was too late. My mouth was as numb as it was going to get.
Her assistant pulled back my lips and my surgeon got to work. With a scissor-like tool she’d twist and twist and twist the wire where two teeth butted up to one another, and when it become untwisted, she’d yank. The first few came out rather easily, but still offered both the sounds and sensations of flossing with paperclips. Others, she had to work a little harder for. Twist, twist, twist; then yank (pause)– yank YANK! Though I’d managed not to lose any teeth in the accident I began to feel more and more certain that a few would give up the good fight before the procedure was finished. And where I’d managed to make it through my many rounds of stitches and bandagings without making a sound, I felt myself more and more inclined to issue winces and finally full-on shouts of discomfort during this procedure. After a few agonizing minutes, she put her tools down, reached back into my mouth, and pulled off the silver brace that had sat along my top teeth. Free of their hands, I relaxed my jaw and found that it dropped. My mouth was open for the first time in eight days! It felt wide as ever, but when I went to pass my tongue through my teeth I found even the tip barely made it through.
And I was reminded that there was still a whole row of wires along my bottom teeth. They gave me a moment to relax, and then jumped back in. More twisting. More yanking. More wincing. The added annoyance of coming close to choking again, this time on the blood that was beginning to collect at the back of my throat. My eyes were pricking with tears, and when it was finally all over I felt as pained and exhausted as if I’d just delivered a baby (of course, I write this as someone who’s never delivered a baby). It was as if the weight of all the physical and mental distress I’d gone through during the previous weeks hit me at once; that I’d been keeping it at bay but couldn’t fight it off anymore and was forced to finally really experience it.
I took a few deep breaths and as the pain started to subside I began to attempt to drag myself out of my self-sympathy. It was over, and that was a source of comfort in itself. I mustered the energy to sit up and rinse my mouth, the cool water strange on my semi-numbed, semi-ravaged gums. Blood came out of my mouth over and over in weird clumps, perhaps an effect of the analgesic. I was handed a mirror which confirmed my suspicion that I might look like I’d just been punched in the face, between the swelling and the crimson stains along my teeth. But the wires were gone, and when I gave it my best effort I was able to create a half-inch gap between my top and bottom teeth.
And then, out of nowhere, my attention was abruptly brought to the faint sounds of the Thai TV playing in the adjacent waiting room. I heard an open E as a pickup note. Five high As rang out in succession, and were soon followed by a series of those familiar finger-knotting scales. For the first and last time in Thailand, perhaps in my entire life, I heard the first movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor ringing out in a setting that wasn’t my bedroom, the Tune Shop, or the gym of General Omar Bradley Elementary School.
Oh yeah… my other artistic (sorry, “artistic”) outlet about the accident came in the form of a rap (sorry, “rap,” and I suppose here is where “of all things” might be more appropriate) after having many people liken me to Kanye on account of his having broken his jaw and then had his mouth wired shut as well. So here’s that as well.
Lyrics after the jump. Continue reading