perm_identity Accidental happenings along the way

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 192 ~ May, 2013

I haven’t thought of my childhood mishaps leading to stitches in the longest time but was reminded of some of the accidents that occurred before I reached adolescence when I recently read an essay by a woman looking back on similar experiences.

I’m the oldest of four, and was by far the most athletic and coordinated, yet I was the one who frequently ended up in the emergency room, at least when were kids. Such accidents create vivid snapshots of the moment, though, in truth, I don’t exactly remember everything else that was going on in my young life.

The first accident, one in which I can clearly remember how I felt at the time, happened when I was five, I think, because my brother hadn’t been born, and my parents only had to contend with myself and my sister, who was a year younger than me. How the accident took place, I’m still not entirely sure. We were living in Queens and I was across the street playing with Jeanie DeMaeo, who was my age, though I don’t think we had much in common. I can still picture running in her backyard and watching her seem to pass magically through a wooden gate which looked like it opened on its own. I was right behind her, but nothing special or spectacular protected me, the gate came back toward me, swinging and hitting me smack in the face, leaving a rusty nail sticking out of my lower lip.

Standing there, seeing the blood, and the nail jutting out, I was more stunned than scared, and the pain hadn’t hit yet, but I knew, knew desperately, that I had to get to my mother, the only one who could make things better. And that’s when a major dilemma popped up. I wasn’t allowed to cross 32nd Avenue, where we lived, without an adult accompanying me. I remained on the DeMaeos’ side of the street, wondering what to do. Different degrees of fear were swirling through my head, that of the dire needed for help because of the nail in my lip, and also my reluctance to break a rule my mother had instilled in me. I waited, crying, debating what to do, and then the panic increased so much, my decision was made, and I anxiously glanced right and left, watching the traffic on 32nd Avenue whizzing by until I saw an opening and dashed across the street, continuing on up the steps and into our house, blood dripping on the carpet as I screamed for my mother.

My mother was great in emergencies. She was very practical and never lost her cool or overreacted, and she possessed a gentle sense of genuine empathy which always comforted others. She didn’t gasp, or let on that anything terrible was wrong, but simply took me by the hand and led me out to the car in the driveway.

We went up the block to Kenny Krueger’s house, a corner house up a hill, to see his father, the doctor. These were still the days when doctors made house calls, and would still come home at a reasonable hour, so Dr. Krueger was there and immediately took me into his office, which was above the garage. My crying, and fear, had increased, but Dr. Kreuger sat me down in the equivalent of a chair in a dentist’s office and told me in a reassuring voice that all would be okay. I still didn’t quite believe him, but my mother remained calm, and seemed to accept what Dr. Kreuger said, so I tried not to look at the nail and hoped for the best.

When I saw Dr. Kruegr’s hand reach toward my lip, I closed my eyes and gripped the sides of the chair with each hand, squeezing as hard as I could. I felt a sharp pain as the nail was pulled out and opened my eyes in time to see blood spurting out and down the front of my shirt. I wanted to run, but where could I possibly go?

I also knew, as much as i might not be able to articulate it all that concisely, that Dr, Krueger was the only one who could save me, and it helped enormously having my mother there, never worried she wouldn’t protect me and trusting everything would be okay somehow, even if I couldn’t imagine how.

Dr. Krueger, with complete confidence in his voice, told me that excessive bleeding was not unusual with an injury to the mouth and there was nothing for me to worry about, that he was going to stitch up the wound in my lip where the nail went in, but first he needed to give me a booster shot. The instant terror of being stuck with a needle, and the anticipated pain was far more intense than the blood coming from my lip, to which Dr. Krueger began to apply antiseptic gauze.

For those who remember shots as a kid, the thought of it was always much worse than the actuality, at least in my case, but it still hurt like hell and made my entire lower arm sore. And then I remained as still as possible as Dr. Krueger took needle and stitches and began sewing up my lower lip. It was a strange sensation, not painful, almost as if I could’t quite believe I was actually the patient, the one undergoing such an unexpected process, one which I never would have dreamed a possibility, much less a reality, when I awakened that morning.

Dr. Krueger stitched me up and gave me the green light to leave. He gave my mother some instructions and said I should come back in a week or so to have the the stitches removed, a total of three if I remember correctly.

I wasn’t that freaked out about the stitches because I knew I’d had stitches before when I was one-years-old, though obviously was only aware of that previous accident from my father telling me about it. Apparently, my mother was in the hospital, having just given birth to my sister, and my father was looking after me. I was standing up in a stroller on the landing at the top of the steps to the apartment in San Francisco where we lived in at time time when I guess I bounced too high, falling out and biting clear through my tongue, my teeth almost severing it in half, but a flap still remaining, which made the hanging part easier to stitch back together.

I have no memory of the incident, but in later years, I realized my father must have been completely caught off guard, though he was a psychiatrist, a medical doctor, and instinctively, after his training and internship in a hospital in New York City, recognized what to do. Still, it must have been stressful, with his wife in the hospital, and then having his son, me, almost bite my tongue off. He related to me when I was older that doctors were hesitant to put stitches in anyone’s tongue, but my situation wax such an emergency that it took 10 stitches to ensure my tongue remained intact.

The next accident resulting in stitches happened when I was seven, shortly after we moved from Queens to Englewood, N.J.  I was in second grade and entered  school there in March, and was terribly uncomfortable being the new kid. Fortunately, the street we lived on had kids close to my age so I made a lot of friends out of school. In typical grown up fashion, the line dividing which kids went to Roosevelt School and which went to Quarles was our street, and since we were on the north side, my sister and I went to Quarles, while those on the south side went to Roosevelt.

I think it was in early May, or it could have been April, but it was a warm day and my father’s colleague, friend, and mentor, Dr. Markowitz came up from southern New Jersey with his wife and two boys to visit our new house. My father had set a small rubber swimming pool, really so small it would be laughed at as a wading pool, in the backyard, for us to stay cool. It was a thoughtful gesture in theory but there was only room for maybe three of us to sit in it at the same time, and it contained only a few inches of water. I was sitting in the pool, and I have no idea why he felt compelled to do this but Joe Markowitz, who was my age, came running across the lawn, taking off and leaping forward, then doing a cannonball as if entering a large swimming pool and landing on my head.

The impact to my head resulted in somehow forcing my teeth teeth toward my left cheek. Thinking of it now, it almost seems impossible, yet, I managed to bite a hole through my cheek. I was stunned and wasn’t quite sure what had happened. Then I spotted the blood and slipped my right finger in my mouth, only to be horrified when my finger was able stick out from the inside of my mouth, its tip wiggling on the outside of my cheek.

At that point, fear and panic took over, and I popped out of the pool, rushing toward the house, with my hand across the hole in my check screaming for my mother. As usual, she was calm and reacted in a reassuring manner, but since we were new to the neighborhood, she wasn’t quite sure where the hospital was located. Within twenty minutes or so, however, we were at the emergency room and a doctor was sewing up the hole in my cheek, putting in five stitches, while giving me instructions on what not to do while the wound was healing.

I’m not sure if my constant anxiety started in small part from these childhood instances of proof that life was unpredictable and everything could change in a second. I do know i was very self-conscious going to school after the pool fiasco. It was bad enough being the new kid, but to also not be able to speak without sounding like someone talking in a slurred mumble, did not help inspire confidence.

A couple days later I was with a new friend, Miles, who lived one block over from the far end of our street. I had walked over to his house, not because he was fun, we didn’t much in common, but more because he was mild mannered and friendly and I still hadn’t made many friends yet. He told me about the wild kid next door, who was our age, and went to a special school because he had emotional problems. His name was Jed, and he seemed okay, just a bit hyperactive, and I wasn’t entirely sure he was listening when I spoke to him.

Jed seemed absorbed, completely fascinated when I related why I was speaking the way I was and how I had needed stitches in my cheek. Miles and I were standing toward the end of the driveway running past the backyard toward the garage at Jed’s place. The next sequence of events is still somewhat blurred, though the results certainly weren’t. Jed grabbed a power hose which was coiled up and hanging on the side of his house. He turned the tap, then aimed the hose at my face, releasing a gush of water that hit my cheek full force, loosening the stitches and undoing all the doctor’s recent work.

Once again, I was running and crying for my mother, moving as fast as I could to get home, while pressing my right hand against the reopened wound caused by the power hose. Fortunately, my mother was home and we went through the same routine again, driving to the hospital, where I was given five more stitches, which resulted in me mumbling for an extra week before they could come out.

My next accident was by far the most serious and the scar from it is still visible, though faded with time. I was fourteen and just beginning the experimental period of drinking. I was at my friend West’s house, whose parents weren’t home, with a few other friends. West’s older brother was home from boarding school and was supposed to be in charge of making sure we behaved and didn’t do anything destructive.

I’d already had a couple drinks when I approached West’s brother in the living room, and who knows why I said this, but looking at his parents’ immense liquor supply on shelves on the wall, I asked if I could take a slug from every bottle. I guess West’s brother couldn’t believe I was serious because he said sure, then went to another room and promptly forgot about me.

Time is difficult to pinpoint. I don’t know how long it took but soon I was raging and staggering drunk. West and my other friends weren’t sure what to do. They wanted to sober me up, the sooner, the better. No one had much experience in such matters, which was to be expected. Someone came up with the idea of putting me in the shower at the poorhouse, a structure which was actually larger than many average suburban homes.

I don’t remember much, the next two conscious memories were similar to “beam me up, Scottie” in an adventure of Star Trek, where I was one place one moment, and then followed by an extended blank and gap, I realized I was lying on a bed in the hospital. The first memory is standing in the shower in my underwear and seeing the thick glassed shower door being closed. I raised my hand up to stop it and the palm my right hand went right through the glass, though the real problem didn’t occur until I pulled my arm back out, slicing my wrist in the process. I slumped back against the far wall of the shower, sitting stunned, as blood spurted up and out and down across my body.

That snapshot of reality didn’t last long, and the next thing I was aware of was my mother and father standing off to the side, while I lay screaming and cursing and crying, a scared and rebellious teen, without any conception of the dire situation in which I was in.¬† I made quite a spectacle of myself, and looking back, trying to crystalize vague recollections, I feel remorse and guilt about what I accused my parents of being, things I didn’t believe and would never have even thought to have said under normal circumstances, the old it was the alcohol speaking and not me.

The doctor who stitched me up saved my life, a concept that didn’t register with me because I still was operating under the premise of the invincibility of youth. I went to school the Monday after the accident with my hand and wrist covered with gauze, giving my arm the appearance as if I was a Mummy. And still, in my adolescent mind, I was more embarrassed about having my hand bandaged when I went to school than actually realizing I was lucky to be alive.

Most of us have scars on the inside, coming from the experience of living, though some are deeper and darker, depending on the person. I only have had one other accident, at least so far, where external scars exist, but are now almost unnoticeable due to the passage of time. I was in a car accident when I was eighteen, and it was an accident in which it’s amazing I survived.

The accident involved a case of two drunk drivers coming straight at each other from opposite directions on a two land road. I was the passenger in one of the cars, sitting in the so-called dead man’s seat in the front next to the driver, a guy named George, who was a friend of a friend. We were coming back from a party in Manhattan at a dorm at Columbia University, had crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, and then were heading north up through New Jersey to Rockland County in New York, where the drinking age was eighteen, and not twenty-one. I have no idea how I ended up in a car with George and was not riding with my friend, the one who knew George, since he had been at the dorm room party with us.

Everything happened so fast, in a blink, it’s difficult to accept, though the consequences were undeniable. George was clearly drunk, and then another car with a drunk driver swerved into our lane and was coming right at us. George instinctively moved to the other lane, the one the other car should have been in, just as that car also returned to the proper lane and we were once again headed for a direct collision. George’s only option to avoid a head on crash was to turn the sharply so we were back in the proper lane again, but we were going too fast and I could see my side of the car was going to smash right into a telephone pole.

In a flash, I was lying on my back on the hood of George’s car, my face littered with pieces of glass and blood flowing down from the top of my head which had been split open from above my left eye to the beginning of my hairline. It was a rare case where I was still alive because I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. My side of the car hit the telephone pole directly, and there were a couple hundred pounds of pipe cutting equipment behind my seat, equipment used on the job by George’s fathe, which was propelled forward, crushing my side of the car between it and the telephone pole.

George’s claims he alertly saved my life, but I know he was lying. He grabbed me, using me as a shield, and when the car hit, I went flying up over the steering wheel and then out through the windshield, doing a somersault and landing on the hood of the car with my feet pointing forward. Not having a seatbelt on allowed George to grab me, and with my body propped up in front of his, he bounced off me when we crashed, sustaining no injuries except a minor cut on his face.

I wasn’t exactly sure in anything close to a coherent awareness of where I was and why, only sensing the warm sensation of blood, and seeing swirling red lights about me, lights from police cars and an ambulance, though I couldn’t move and everything around me looked like blurry images in a watercolor painting. I do remember my last conscious thought before passing out and waking up in the hospital two days later. I simply thought, “I wonder if I’m dead,” and then all went blank.

I received something like 150 stitches to sew up my forehead and a nasty gash above the lid of my left eye. When I first held a mirror up to my face while lying in my hospital bed, I was shocked, and then deeply depressed, at how hideous I looked, with one side of my head similar in appearance to that of he Frankenstein monster, with bits of red dried blood still caked across the stitches. But I was alive, and aware I couldn’t change things no matter how much I wanted.

It took time, though really not much time in the scheme of things, especially given the severity of the injuries I sustained in the car accident, but the scars healed nicely, despite my original thoughts of being doomed to looking horrible the rest of my life. In fact, over the years, and certainly today, no one even notices the vertical scar on my head, the sun, I suppose, over the years, helping it fade and blend in with the natural color of the skin on my face, and all without any cosmetic surgery, which I must admit never even came to mind as a possibility.

I’m not sure what to say, though, of course, I’m grateful to be here writing this. If nothing else, I learned, and think I’ve internalized, that present pain and discomfort can eventually be overcome, provided one does not give into despair brought on by a feeling of the eternity of the moment. Naturally, these experiences and the scars, still visible to me, serve as reminders of different stages of my life, that there are some actions I wish I could take back, or make disappear, but overall, each reminder of the past, whether prominently showing or not, reinforces a resolve to do the best I can, and to try and behave like a decent person, with each subsequent day ahead.