Musings on root canal, bad dreams and the big C
I love my dentist. That statement carries a lot more weight than you might think, because yesterday I had a combo root canal/bone graft. After an alarming amount of vigorous scraping, poking, cutting, and stitching, I felt like a construction zone. I found the easiest way to get through this thoroughly disturbing procedure was to close my eyes and tightly squeeze the armrests. Blessedly, the Novocain did its work. I only knew I was being stitched up when I felt the feathery thread brush up against my lip.
Don’t tell anyone, but besides for the unnervingly strenuous scraping, the actual dental work was not as bad as my anticipation of it. I was tremendously fearful about it. In the days before the procedure, I walked around in a snit, cranky, inconsolable, and imagining all the things that could go wrong. I felt extremely vulnerable. It’s a bit unnerving to realize just how afraid I was. I’m well aware that the unexpected can and often does happen. I live in a city where parts of skyscrapers have detached themselves and fallen far below on some unsuspecting pedestrians. Where an airplane overshot the runway and plowed into a car carrying a family and instantly killing one of the children. Where medical equipment has been found inside patients post-surgery, including someone I know. In my own neighborhood, a person walking home was run down in the middle of the afternoon by an out-of-control car that jumped the curb. I have learned that it’s not wise to take things for granted.
Last year, I had a routine outpatient medical procedure that landed me in the hospital because I overreacted to the anesthesia. Not the way I imagined spending Memorial Day weekend. But these things happen. I have concluded that it’s too debilitating to go through life ruminating on all the bizarre mishaps that may occur. Instead, we must go about our business assuming that we will most certainly wake up the next morning, that cars will stay in their own lane, and that planes will remain in the sky until they land safely at their scheduled destination. As anyone who has had a near-miss will quickly admit, though, it’s really all wishful thinking. What happens in the blink of an eye can change our lives forever.
And there’s the rub. I’m happy to report that I’m pretty virtuous. I don’t smoke or use caffeine, and while I’m not a total teetotaler, a glass of wine makes me silly and light-headed. I swim regularly and vent through my writing and political activities. But the truth is that I can only control certain circumscribed aspects of my life. Genetics and luck also play a role, beyond any good intentions on my part. I can promise Michael to do my best and I will; the rest is simply out of my hands.
How do we respond when we feel vulnerable? Everyone’s different. I don’t know about you, but I tend to withdraw within myself. I want to be alone – I dim the lights, listen to sad music, put on my pajamas (when I can), and eat lots of carbs. Maybe it’s the third alternative to fight or flight: hunker down. But I think the best answer lies elsewhere. We need to stave off those debilitating feelings of isolation and powerlessness by connecting with others. Instead of turning inward, we need to reach out, however counterintuitive it may seem.
The day before yesterday is a good illustration of a different path. My daughter, Ariella, and I schlepped around doing errands after work. At Macy’s, I returned a pair of sandals my son Michael bought in June. We wandered upstairs and while Ariella browsed the racks, I struck up a conversation with another shopper. I hate shopping, but I love talking! By the time we were through, we had accompanied Laurie to her dressing room to help her decide on what to buy (at her insistence) and exchanged telephone numbers. The saleslady kept asking me “Are you sure you aren’t old friends?” Then, we went to the fruit stand where we ran into an old family friend and schmoozed for a good 20 minutes. From there, we went to the public library where we actually ran into our friend’s husband. Everything took much longer than usual but so what? It felt good. I felt connected. It gave me a buzz.
I get the same feeling when I take Emma for a walk. We get to hang out with the other dogs and owners, catch up on things – me on conversation, and her on smells. When my schedule isn’t in sync with our fellow dog walkers, I feel out of sorts. On an off day, I’m reduced to merely waving at people as I drive swiftly past, pulling my car into the garage and closing the door, literally and figuratively shutting off the chance for any more contact. In the days before cars and 60-hour weeks, people used to stroll (what a concept!) and neighborhood watch was a given, not a program. Before air conditioning, people used to hang out on their front porch, veranda, or stoop, and chat with their neighbors passing by. Life in the slow lane has a definite appeal.
Also, this week, my family and I faced a major economic crisis and, until the last minute, didn’t even know it. It’s a little complicated but ties in nicely with just why I distrust our national love affair with, and overdependence on, computers. Bear with me. My husband, Rafi’s, weekly salary is usually directly deposited by the payroll company. Each week, I get pay stubs that I religiously enter into our check register so that I have an idea where we stand at any given moment. A few days ago, Rafi’s partner called to tell me that for reasons unknown, the payroll company had stopped directly depositing his checks and hadn’t bothered to let us know. This shook me up plenty. The next day, I found out that none of Rafi’s earnings for the last month had made their way into our bank account. I had visions of bouncing checks, bad credit ratings, missed mortgage payment with looming foreclosure, scads of credit card late fees – the works. I think that we have now straightened things out but I won’t feel safe again until I get my monthly bank statement and see with my own eyes that we are not overdrawn or otherwise in dire straits. The whole thing was very unsettling. You go along, eating your spinach, flossing your teeth, and assuming that all is well, and then pow! Major fake out.
Naturally, the payroll company denied any responsibility whatsoever, saying that someone had removed Rafi’s name (and only Rafi’s) from the list of employees with direct deposit. Since Rafi’s partner in charge of preparing the payroll doesn’t even know how to execute such a feat, it clearly was a computer error or glitch. That does not reassure me. While we may yet emerge unscathed, even with the bank’s assurances, I’m not confident. Too much power resides in a quixotic, capricious machine that may or may not feel friendly towards me or mine on any given day. Like those computerized voting machines that ate 18,000 votes in Sarasota’s 2006 congressional race, or the votes that mysteriously flipped from one candidate to another. Or the machines that break down altogether, or don’t boot up, or tote up negative votes (Volusia County, FL, 2000 at a really critical moment in our history). Think about that one for a moment. What kind of adding machine can come up with a negative 16,000 votes? What is a negative vote? It’s like my daughter Yael’s computer in college that would always crash right before she was ready to print up one of her myriad term papers. We’ve signed our lives and liberty over to these machines. What were we thinking?
Every fall, we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, when we eat our meals in a roofless hut, surrounded by family and friends. While it’s everyone’s favorite holiday, it’s also the most unpredictable. We never know if we will be wearing coats and gloves, whether the wind will carry the sukkah across the yard into the bushes, whether we will be inundated with bees and wasps, or whether it will rain and force us to eat inside. Or throughout the weeklong holiday, it may be all of the above. Like the Nation of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years, we are reminded of how dependent we are upon conditions beyond our control. For a society that generally lives in air conditioned/centrally heated homes, and for whom walking is exercise rather than a mode of transportation, it’s novel and refreshing. It’s good to connect with what’s real.
Now, each time I walk by my neighbors’ house, I get a jolt. I’m going about my business, caught up in whatever momentary aggravation or issue, and they’re struggling to pick up the pieces following Bonnie’s untimely death. I could head the other way, or harden myself to their situation, rationalizing and distancing myself. But I really don’t want to. They are a wonderful family with three fine sons. What happened is awful and very, very sad. If I stop feeling their sadness in order to feel safer, I’m only kidding myself. I tap those raw emotions – fear, anxiety, grief – to remind myself that I am, thank God, still alive and able to enjoy my life, my family, and my work. For as long as I’m able, I want to be there for my kids, and to let them learn from the many mistakes I’ve made along the way. I’m not ready to let go of them or of life.
The bottom line is that it’s not really up to me. All I can do is savor every moment and memory and try to accomplish as much as I can in the time I’ve got. And that’s true even in a week like this last one full of challenges of all shapes and sizes. Those bumps in the road make life interesting and give us a chance to learn how to navigate in less than optimal conditions. Which, if you think about it, is a really useful life lesson. How often do things ever turn out exactly the way we expected or wanted? We need to hone those lemonade-making skills; lemonade never goes out of style. It’s the downs that make us appreciate the ups. Or, to use another analogy, dealing with life is sort of like learning to be a good short-order cook. You have to learn how to catch whatever they throw at you and keep your cool all the while.