Part 86: Stars for Your Scars!
The first time I looked at my face in a mirror after the accident was at home in our bathroom. In the hospital, the nurses kept me from mirrors without saying so. I remember a group of the nurses had gone to a wedding together, (or maybe one of the nurses was the bride, too) and they brought the flowers from the event to my room.
At the end of my hospitalization, Riley came to get me. Right before he’d arrived, someone, a doctor? A PA? Removed the tracheotomy, and covered the hole in my neck with bandages, gauze, medical tape. A doctor removed the packing from my nose the day before so I could breathe without the tube. Metal wires, like braces but more intense, kept my teeth clamped together.
A nurse with short, permed hair and pink, frosty lipstick assured us the hole in my neck would close naturally, no need for more stitches.
“Liz Taylor had a tracheotomy, and she’s still beautiful,” Riley said. The nurse nodded her frizzy head in agreement.
Riley handed me a gift. He told me who it was from, but now I’m hazy on that part. What drugs did they have me on? Was the gift from a relative on my mother’s side? I didn’t know Jan’s relatives at all. I opened the small box, and there was a gold chain with a star pendant inside, the gold star about the size of a quarter, boldly engraved with the words “Stars for your scars.”
“See? You can wear that necklace to cover…” Riley trailed off, pointing at his own neck.
“Yes,” said the nurse, touching the star. “To cover the scar with this. How clever!”
If a person wants to hide a scar with a necklace, why announce it with an inscription that says what the pendant is supposed to be hiding? Like a billboard... “Hey, I have this big scar under here! Maybe you wouldn’t have noticed, but now this cheap gold jewelry is telling you!” I fixated on my disappointment, not being able to see that people meant well.
Riley flirted with the nurse. She flirted back.
Before we left the hospital, a doctor caught up with my father and gave him a small pair of what looked like wire cutters. “In case she gets sick, you’ll have to cut the wires,” the doctor said, showing us how to do it, where to cut the wires in my mouth.
At home in the bathroom, I stared at my bruised and swollen face for a long time, the door locked. We’d just moved into this house, our third move in less than six months. The bathroom was large, but the tiles were grimy and broken, the mirror never clear no matter how many times you wiped it, but there I was in the reflection–– Picasso’s girlfriend. The surgeon in the emergency room said he couldn’t see where my nose and lips fit together, so he just had to guess when he stitched it all up.
“There were nerves poking out, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I cut them,” the surgeon said. This severing of nerves caused numbness and puffiness on my right upper lip. In the funky mirror, I could see that my mouth wasn’t centered under my nose, ripped apart by something. My jaw, wired shut, would stay that way for another six weeks.
The dashboard? Is that what split my face apart? People kept telling me it was lucky I didn’t lose any teeth. I shifted my head to the left, looking at the damage on my right side. A twisted wire poked out from my right temple, reminding me of the monster in the Frankenstein movie.
“You almost lost your eye, it’s really so lucky we could save it,” a doctor had said.
Deep in thought, I tried to remember what happened that day, but some strange shape on the floor caught my eye, snapping me into the present moment. A pile of torn fabrics, still and sculptural, sat like a tumbleweed on the tiles. I immediately recognized a pattern, the colors of the plaid shirt I’d worn, a pair of tan Dittos I begged my parents to buy me, now shredded and covered in dried blood, slashed with some sharp object. Those were the clothes I wore that day, the day of the accident.
We only had one bathroom. It dawned on me that my father, that Riley had… had used this bathroom the entire time I was gone, showering, shaving, peeing––with a heap of bloody clothes on the floor.
“Everything alright in there?” Riley asked through the door.
I bent down, touched my old shirt, which felt as stiff as it looked.
So much blood.
I reluctantly picked up the torn and bloodied clothes, opened the door and said, “Why did you save these?” Except that my jaw was wired shut, so it came out, “Whyyjewsshavedees?”
He looked at the pile I held in my hands. “I thought you could fix them,” he paused, as if to think of what to say next. “Sew them, I don’t know,” he said.
He looked dazed and said something about how the medics had to cut my clothes off, and that they gave them to him, and that he didn’t know what to do.
As mentioned in the last blog, his work at a dinner and comedy club in town called “Giggles” kept him busy, he was both the talent scout, director, and the cook, so I was alone most of the time in the hospital. That memory (through mind-altering fog of whatever was in the meds coursing through my 90-pound body) of him sitting on the edge of my hospital bed, his big hand over his face, sobbing–– I’d never seen my father cry before, he looked like a man at the end of his tether, and after, when I got home, he seemed to be unable to process what was happening, unable to do the things that needed to be done, like throw away his daughter’s torn and bloody clothes.
Once, when I was eleven and working as a bus girl in a diner where he was the cook and manager, I saw my father humiliated by two middle aged men who sat at the counter. He was pouring their coffee, telling the two men about his old show business days, and how he’d had a recording career.
“Sure you did,” one of the guys snarled.
The men began to laugh at my father. They'd been in before. They must’ve known that I was his kid, why else would a child be bussing tables? Before the accident I had his nose, I looked like him. I blindly wiped a spot on the counter over and over, while they mocked and ridiculed him. At first my father tried to laugh along, but then he went quiet, his face went pale and blank, he seemed to fly out of himself, and unable to make a snappy comeback or turn the conversation around, he stood motionless. I could see his chest rise and fall, but he went somewhere else.
“Why don’t you get back in the kitchen and do your job,” the other man barked, slapping his cup with his spoon like a warning bell. Only then did my father take the slow walk, straight-backed, to the kitchen.
We were alone together now, me and Riley, my mother still in the ICU with a severe head injury, brain swelling, and a crushed leg. We’d be alone like strange roommates for another two months.
Seeing him so confused unsettled me. I shoved the clothes into the kitchen garbage, and then washed my hands.
“Look here, you’re on the front page of the town newspaper,” Riley said.
The paper was face up on the coffee table in front of the TV, the beige Toyota Corolla my mother drove, twisted, mangled, and an article about the accident. She’d run through a stop sign, a car hit us at full speed, smashing us into someone’s house.
“It was no one’s fault,” my father said. “Just an accident. That stop sign was covered by a tree.”
I was supposed to go back to school. My father taught me a joke. “If anyone says anything about your face, just tell ‘em––you should see the other guy,” he said.
He found a plastic surgeon in a nearby town who specialized in children with facial deformities.
“Now listen, we’re going to get you back in shape,” Riley said, full of confidence. “I’ll get the money no matter what it takes.”
He told me a story about how Ann Margaret fell from the stage from a great height, landing on her face, breaking bones, crushing parts of her face. But now she was fine, she looked just fine!
“A surgeon put her back together. After that, she made a comeback,” he said.
Riley and I fell into our old routine, watching movies. When we watched “My Man Godfrey” starring Carole Lombard, Riley told me about how Lombard had fallen out of the back of a truck when she was young, scarring her face, but became a big star despite the flaw, marrying Clark Gable. These stories and making plans for my plastic surgery seemed to renew a spark in Riley, and it gave me hope that my face could go back to being what it was before the accident.
The surgeon’s name was Dr. Mitts, and he had pale skin, a shiny, bald head, wide set blue eyes that had a slight bulge to them–– which made him look a bit like a fish. He listened as Riley told him I was going to be an actress, and whatever he could do to fix the damage could help me in my future career, even though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be anymore.
There was talk of Y plasty and Z plasty to break up the scar–– medical terms I’d never heard of. “Of course, I’ll put her nose and mouth back in alignment,” Dr. Mitts said, staring at my face. There was a pause. Then, as if he thought of something else that help my face, he said, “We can take cartilage out of her knee, to have the bridge of her nose rebuilt.”
I still don’t know where Riley got the money for the surgeries. One for the scar revision and fixing the misalignment, and another to change the bulk and tension in the scar so I could move my face on that side. I put the kibosh on the cartilage-out-of the-knee idea. At the time, it sounded horrible. It still kinda sounds horrible.
This is my diary from age 12 to age 16, below.
I still have my diary from that time. I started writing in it way back in 1977. My last entry before the car accident was Sunday, September 9, 1979, and then I didn’t write it in again until Wednesday, September 24, 1980.
On Wednesday September 24, 1980, I wrote an entry in my diary about Dr. Mitts, there's something hilarious about it.
First I wrote about my mother’s leg surgery, then this: As for me, I met my plastic surgeon yesterday and he is just wonderful. I hope that works out. We have money problems and I feel like a robot. Bye.”
Here’s an entry from Feb. 25th, 1981. I spelled plastic surgery plastic SURGEORY.
It has been a long day. I just had plastic surgeory. Boy, weird experience. It was really scary right before it and right after it. But it doesn’t look so bad. Got flowers from Yvonne, she is coming up. What a beautiful person.
More some other time.
Here's bonus material, a page in which I write about something Riley told me, something he convinced me was in the works. I have no memory of this particular story he came up with, it's all mixed in the tossed salad of all the wacky shit he promised, stuff he made up. I hope you can read it. It's a whopper. A house and a company car to keep an eye on the Encyclopedia? (Which I call Riley's book in this entry.)
Wouldn't that have been something?