Here’s a lesson I have now learned that I am sharing with you: Before you are scheduled to have surgery at a place, check that place out. Meet the doctor, if possible. And make sure you’re not going to be outnumbered by people in Ed Hardy shirts.
I arrived at my oral surgeon’s office yesterday at 12:20 for an appointment at 12:30. After two hours of waiting in a crowd that would have been equally comfortable at an OTB parlor, I was finally taken to the back and put in one of a room’s two dentist’s chairs. The other was occupied.
The guy in the other chair and I waited for another half an hour or so as moans came through the walls from other rooms and hygienists walked in and out changing their gloves. Hip hop blasted from a Panasonic boom box on the floor, circa 1991, so retro that it didn’t even have a CD player, only a tape deck and a radio.
At some point I started to shake — a normal enough response to perpetual anticipation, especially when you’re waiting to get all four wisdom teeth out to the soothing sounds of Jay-Z. Hygienists shot me amused looks and talked to each other in Spanish. I tried to calm myself down by silently reciting the Kipling poem “If,” which my dad had me memorize ages ago:
If you can keep your head / when all about you are losing theirs / And blaming it on you / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / Yet make allowance for their doubting too / If you can wait and not be tired by waiting —
Then the surgeon and a fleet of hygienists came in to start working on my roommate. They wasted no time: within five minutes, he was gasping and twitching; within ten, he had arched his entire back off the table like Cary Elwes in the Princess Bride when his life is being sucked from him by the Machine.
I’m not a brave person. There’s a reason I carry small, dissolving tablets of Klonopin around with me in my change purse. I don’t like pain, I hide from danger, and I am not even that crazy about excitement. I am CERTAINLY not crazy about watching dental patients reduced to begging for their lives.
Roommate #1 was restored to a sitting position, stuffed with cotton, and released. Then the hygienists ushered in Roommate #2.
If you can dream and not make dreams your master / If you can think and not make thoughts your aim …
You’ve got to be joking, I thought to myself. But the same team went to work, and again I had to watch. There wasn’t so much as a curtain dividing my side of the room from theirs.
The surgeon approached me and I asked to be knocked out. Retroactively, if possible. Wake me up when it’s over.
Sorry, said the surgeon. We don’t do that here. We don’t have the equipment to monitor if your heart stops.
I don’t care if my heart stops, I said, glancing across the room.
He laughed, and then shot me in the mouth from all angles.
If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same. …
I was left to grow increasingly numb as they finished with Roommate #2. By the time Roommate #3 had come and gone, I was ready to give up. If this were war, I would have been ready to tell them anything — name, rank, serial number, state secrets, battle plans, you name it. I didn’t sign up to be a soldier. I work in a Jewish non-profit, for God’s sake!
But they didn’t want secrets. They wanted my teeth.
They switched me from my chair — where I’d been sitting, by that point, for an hour and a half, feeling much like I had when a film prof put on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in class — to the other chair. The one that had been wiped down three times already.
New York … trilled the voice from the boom box. These streets will make you feel brand new, these lights will inspire you …
Ready? asked the surgeon.
I whimpered, and he went to work.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / to serve their turn long after they’re gone / and so hold on til there is nothing in you / except the will that says to them “Hold on.” / If you can fill the unforgiving minute / with 60 seconds worth of distance run …
Thankfully, compared to the agonies of waiting and watching, the pain of the procedure itself was not too bad. I mean, it didn’t feel GOOD — it felt like someone was tearing my teeth from their sockets, which is more or less what was happening. But the surgeon was done in ten minutes. I was stuffed with cotton and returned to a sitting position, given two prescriptions and a pack full of sterile pads, and proclaimed a champ.
Yours is the earth / and everything that’s in it. / And, what is more, you’ll be a man, my son.
In my case, a man who eats lots of applesauce and watches episode after episode of Buffy. But Rudyard helped me through it, for which I am grateful. More, I am grateful to Charrow, who spent her whole afternoon in the dentist’s office and then helped get me home, ignoring all emissions of bloody drool. That is true friendship.