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Moodswing - Pain in the face

Then I discovered I don't even know pain

Until Saturday, I would not have said the word "bullfrog" fit into the description of my face. Not that I have a perfect face — far from it — though my upper teeth are regrettably perfect now. I had braces put on them when I was 20, not by an actual orthodontist, mind you, but by some guy with a dental chair in the back of his van, pretty much. That's what you get when you bargain hunt for braces. That and pain.

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I remember he cut corners by yanking out a few of my upper teeth to facilitate the easy and quick movement of the others, which were pulled in and back to close the gaps and give my smile its present state of straightness. That I might, like, need room one day to actually close my bottom jaw just didn't seem important at the time, to either of us.

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"Looky me!" I exclaimed when the braces came off exactly one year later. "Straight teeth." Since then, my jaw has almost completely receded so my lower teeth can accommodate the diminished bite above them, but hey, such is the cost of reasonably priced perfection. Later, when there's nothing left but a flapping bladder of empty skin where my chin once was, maybe I can find someone to fix that, too. Not an actual plastic surgeon, mind you, but some guy who runs an operating room out of his basement, with a plaque that heralds his recommendation by four out of five Haitian Hooters waitresses across the street from the place that pooped out his diploma — because when it comes to my face, you know, I gotta have standards.

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So you might wonder why I chose to fall on it last Saturday when there are other parts of my body that would have made a much better cushion.

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"How far did you fall?" asked the emergency-room nurse.

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"My ceiling is 20 feet high," I muffled.

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"You fell 20 feet?"

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I nodded. Pretty much. I fell 20 feet onto my face. Sometimes I wonder if I might have fared better if I'd hit the concrete floor, which is at least smooth, rather than the striated rungs of the ladder that slipped out from under me and left me striped with cuts and bruises all up and down my body, not to mention the job it did on my face and neck, which is all swollen now, with a big contusion of swell beneath my chin — thus the "bullfrog" comparison.

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"Did you stay conscious?" the nurse asked.

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"Only by employing my immense mind-control abilities," I said, and she laughed. But it's true. I remember willing myself not to black out and risk leaving my little girl to seek help from a hapless neighbor, or worse, Grant, who'd come in and complain about my decor while my splayed, unconscious ass lay there bleeding internally. So I did not pass out, but instead immediately got up, grabbed my face and walked in circles. "I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm fine," I keened. It was an act even my 5-year-old didn't buy.

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The nurse laughed again. She had crystal blue eyes and asked me why the tops of my hands were so tough, thereby making it difficult to stick me with an IV. "What do you do with your hands that makes them so muscular?" she asked.

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"I type a lot," I muffled. It was hard to say more, as there was a lot of pain in my face, which is where my talking comes from. Also, someone in another part of the emergency area was in way more pain than me, not screaming in torrents of agony, but worse, trying terribly to contain himself and not succeeding. The loss of dignity that comes with extreme pain is immensely more awful to witness if it's slipping from someone so intent on keeping it. The nurse was used to it, but I wasn't and she could see I was distressed. My veins were all constricted, for one.

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"Relax," she said, "tell me about your daughter."

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But I couldn't tell her that much because of the pain in my face. So the nurse held my gaze and told me about her own grown daughter instead. She told me how her daughter was strong-willed and curious and had strawberry-blond hair. She told me how her daughter was named after her and how she herself was named after her grandmother, who in turn had been named by a stranger passing through town, because by then her grandmother's parents had had so many kids, they'd run out of imagination for new names. She told me how her daughter became a nurse's assistant in her 20s and used to stand up and tell the doctors what-all without a care in the world. Then she told me her daughter flew to Hawaii recently all by herself, even though she was undergoing chemotherapy for advanced thyroid cancer. The whole time the nurse was holding my hand, waiting for my vein to relax. Thyroid cancer? Her girl?

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"How are you holding up?" I asked.

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"I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm fine," she said, containing herself, hanging onto her dignity. Then, fleetingly, the anguish was evident in her eyes. For that second, there was unfathomably more pain in her face than I hope I'll ever have in mine. Then she shrugged it off. "Does that hurt?" she asked as she inserted the IV. I shook my head. Between the two of us, I was not in pain. Between the two of us, I don't even know what pain is.

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Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."