by Kathleen Stack

In the blinding light of the dental chairs I frequent these days, I lie back, mouth stretched wide, cotton wads wedged under my gums. I listen to the whir of drills, feel the spray of water and the whoosh of air. I hear the snips and twists of wire tightening braces to tug a wayward anchor tooth into place. With soft voices and agile hands, dentists and their assistants request and receive tools over my head. They work so manufactured teeth will fit my aging mouth. I am annoyed that I’m still dealing with the outcomes of the accident more than 50 years later.

Sometimes during these procedures, I have flashbacks. I remember awakening as if from a deep and peaceful sleep to a vague curiosity about why I see tree branches and sky, and not my bedroom ceiling. Then a strange man leans over me. In a kind voice he says, “Don’t worry.  You will be okay.” 

“Why is he saying this?” I wonder lazily, noticing the cottony overstuffed feel of my mouth. 

Next, my grandfather is sitting beside me on a metal chair. He touches me gently and says comforting words, but he isn’t looking at me. He looks down into his lap. I lie in a green-tiled room, on a cold table with machines all around me. In and out of consciousness, I begin to absorb that there has been an accident. Then, I find myself in a hospital bed with my mother by my side. I learn later that my grandfather had vomited shortly after he saw me.

It was 1965 and I was fourteen when the accident happened. My summer vacation that year involved a daily school bus commute to the high school for a typing class. I never finished that class.

The driver of the pickup truck was speeding through a school zone. I had just stepped from the bright orange school bus, which waited, red lights flashing, as I began to cross the street in front of it. Apparently, I turned to look directly at the truck, although amnesia has erased all memory of the moment. I never learned what happened to that driver, only that my naïve parents employed a lawyer who was a family friend. He also represented the insurance company. The settlement was small and who knows what it covered at the time. 

It was 1965 and I was fourteen when the accident happened. My summer vacation that year involved a daily school bus commute to the high school for a typing class. I never finished that class. Instead, I lay in a hospital bed for over a week, wracked with pain from a broken upper jaw, damaged gums and twisted front teeth, among other injuries. The hole in my right arm where it was pierced by the truck’s grill spurted arterial blood from time to time. I hardly noticed the cracked shoulder blade and hip bone or the broken finger. It was my mouth and face that hurt the most. I vividly remember the pain, both my own and that clearly visible on my mother’s face. I refused to use a mirror until after a week when she insisted that I look at the cuts, bruises and scrapes—and the gaping hole where my front teeth had been.

Kathleen Stack with braces
The author at age 68 with four braces.

For the first few days, the pain was excruciating. My mother actually screamed at the nurses, trying in vain to get a doctor’s authorization to provide a stronger painkiller. To take my mind off the agony, I sang every song from The Sound of Music over and over again, especially My Favorite Things.

By fall, I was well enough to enter ninth grade. I dreaded the first day of school. Here was my teenage self about to face peers with braces, gum damage, still-healing face wounds, and no front teeth. My fragile self-esteem left me fearful and embarrassed. Most teachers and many students expressed sympathy, but I returned home depressed. 

A few weeks later, the principal announced the upcoming election for student council.  My dad said, “You should run for office!” I was shocked. Nothing was further from my mind, but he was serious. “You’ll get the sympathy vote!” My parents’ political activism had permeated my life. Beyond this, I yearned to please my domineering and distant father. For whatever combination of reasons, I entered the race for Vice President of the student council.

All candidates were required to address the entire student body. This meant standing on the second-floor outside balcony of the school and speaking to the crowd looking at me from under the huge gingko tree below. My opponent was a tall, popular, athletic and academically-gifted girl named Hazel. She gave a great speech. I lisped through an account of the accident and how it had given me strength and compassion. I’m sure I said something about making our school even better than before. Well, I won. It was the booster shot I needed to get through that school year. But I always thought Hazel would have been the better VP.

Through much of high school I wore braces and a temporary bridge. I received the permanent bridge, to my joy, at 21, just before my wedding. “It should last forty years,” said the dentist. “A lifetime!” I thought.

My dental bills are daunting. At age 68, I just embarked on my second bridge replacement in eleven years.  That means braces, gum surgery and extensive work to replace six front teeth. Dentists, orthodontists, and periodontists have once again become my regular companions. The procedures are unpleasant, the costs more so. I feel myself sliding into self-pity. I hate wearing braces at this age! Then I think of a dear friend who died of cancer, a long-time colleague who has lived for decades with muscular dystrophy, and just this week I learned that my neighbor, who joins us each week for bridge lessons and dinner, has been diagnosed with lymphoma—again. My own small troubles shrink away and I feel grateful to be living a full and happy life.