Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Eight

 

This is Part Eight of my memoir, Face, which tells the story of my being hit by a car and severely injured as a five-year-old. You can read the book from the beginning here. In this excerpt, I talk about my dad.

 

Part Eight

July 11, 1961 - Surgeon’s notes: Dressing change is done under anesthesia to reduce trauma to the patient.

I am lying in my hospital crib. Dr. Kislov and several nurses surround me, and the doctor is peeling away the dressing on my cheek and eyelid. Gauze sticks to my cheek. He pries it, loosening it with water, slowly pulling it away, minute by minute. My skin holds tight. I want to cry, but the nurses hold my arms close to my chest and say: “It’s okay. It’s okay. Stay still, stay very still.” I do not want to stay still! I want to push them away from my face. But the nurses hold me tight. I cannot move. So I cry. But I cry with my mouth closed, my lips pursed and my breath held, because that is the way Dr. Kislov wants it. He is the surgeon, the chief revisionist, and I have no say in this restoration project.

 

When I found Dad’s list, I thought, This is so like my dad. Meticulous, careful to record every expense and include everything, down to my blood-soaked panties. Oddly, one thing is glaringly missing: my mangled bicycle. I can’t imagine that he would leave that off. Maybe some kind soul got rid of it so my parents wouldn’t have to confront it, and he just overlooked it when he was making his tally. Perhaps it was just too painful to consider. I don’t know. But today I wonder about it. About whether he considered the cost versus the emotional toll. Whether in some way ignoring the bike allowed him to cope. I don’t think he would have blamed himself. That wasn’t like my dad. But he may have overlooked it if someone discarded it in an act of kindness. And when he realized it was gone, he might have decided it was too late to include in an insurance claim.

The amount my parents had to pay overall—$2,086.48—was the equivalent of more than $16,076 today. It was a lot of money. They struggled to pay the hospital bills, despite the insurance payments. They were fortunate to have the security of the family business. Even so, with four children to feed, mounting medical bills were a burden. Perhaps, in intimate moments, my mom and dad talked about how they would make it through. How they would pay for the Catholic education they wanted for all their children, the uniforms, the schoolbooks. They did what they could to make it work.

Mom sewed a lot of our clothes, and Molly and I always wore hand-me-downs. Dad worked six days a week and Mom, who had an English degree, substituted at St. Joe’s to make extra money. I was oblivious to much of it. But as I got older, though no one ever said it, I began to understand at some level that the financial struggle was my fault.

Fortunately, the dry cleaning plant offered a steady – and over time, growing – income. Dad often left the house before 7 in the morning, and returned just before 6, when Mom would place dinner on the table.

When we were young, my dad’s job was to give Molly, Chuck and me baths after dinner while Cherie helped Mom clean up the kitchen. Bath time always meant lots of splashing, submarining and water on the floor. He loved to make us laugh. And he laughed just as heartily – until Mom would call up from downstairs and scold us for taking so long. He’d pull the towels off the racks and say, “Okay, out!” Once we were in our pajamas, he’d oversee our prayers and tuck us into bed.

When we were small, he’d snatch our noses and hold them behind his back, laughing as we pointed to his hidden arm. He would often get down on the floor in the living room and romp with us, laughing and letting us ride on his back. My mother would yell if things started to get out of hand. Then he would say: “Okay, kids. That’s enough. Go help your mother.” And we’d head off to the kitchen.

I have struggled to bring my dad to the page. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because he meant so much to me. He always was there, surrounding me with the sense that I mattered, that I was somebody worth loving. So many times since his death I’ve wished he was here to talk with, to discuss world events, or my job, or complain about one thing or another, to which he would always reply, “You have the power to choose how to see things, Marcia.”

He loved jelly beans, hard Christmas candies, and golf. He would stop on the street to pat the head of a stray dog. Would go out of his way to help an employee, lending money, advice, whatever was needed. He believed in God and Jesus and going to Mass every Sunday, and on that point he could be rigid.

He taught me to dance, though I could never get the hang of following his lead. To be honest, I never got the hang of following anyone’s lead, which some might regard as one of my many flaws.

He didn’t tolerate dishonesty. Once, when I was a teenager, he caught me in yet another lie about one thing or another. To my surprise, he told me to leave, to go away and not come back. We were standing in the driveway of our house near the lake, and I looked at him with disbelief. But then I realized he meant it. I turned, tears springing to my eyes, and I started to walk down the street away from the house. I had barely gotten a hundred feet away when I stopped and turned. He was standing in the driveway watching me. I ran back, sobbing: “Please let me stay. I promise I’ll never lie again.” He considered me for a moment, and finally said, “Okay.” I never told him an untruth again, until he was dying.

(To be continued...)

Discovering London and Ireland

Until two years ago, I had never been out of the United States beyond a sojourn to Ensenada, Mexico, and to parts of Canada, which in my mind don't really count. In 2012 I went to Costa Rica and stayed at my cousin's beautiful home on the northern Costa Rican coast for a month. It was there that I finished the first draft of my memoir, which I've been excerpting in posts on my blog (here is Part One, if you've missed them).

So I was literally giddy last fall when Rob and I traveled to London and then to Ireland for three weeks. Our transAtlantic flight felt like Christmas Eve to me, and the stewardesses and stewards must have sensed it because they presented us with a bottle of champagne upon our arrival at Heathrow. Everything seemed magical to me. I loved London. Loved its energy, its people, the Tube, the lovely little boutique hotel in which we stayed, the vintage double-decker bus tour we took, the theater district play we saw, the vast historical sweep of the buildings and monuments everywhere one looked. In just the few days we were there we shopped at Harrods, saw a Shakespearean play at the Globe Theatre, took a boat trip up the Thames, and visited the new Tate Museum. And it didn't rain a single time, despite all the rain gear we took along. We were in Europe from late September through mid-October; the weather was cooler, but the crowds were almost nonexistent. I would go back to London in a heartbeat, because there was so much we didn't get to see. But the purpose of our trip was to see Ireland.

The London Eye

The London Eye

The Cheesegrater

The Cheesegrater

When we flew to Dublin on the fourth day, it was sunny and in the low 60s, a harbinger of the weather we encountered throughout our time there. Dublin is much smaller than London, but has its own charms. Our hotel was on the edge of the Temple District, which is the hot nighttime place brimming with bars and music venues.

The most impressive thing about Ireland is every corner has a pub, and every pub (almost) has a live band singing traditional music. We LOVED the immersion into Irish culture and music, and relished it as we traveled south and then up the west coast of the country.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

At a pub listening to traditional Irish music.

At a pub listening to traditional Irish music.

On the Jameson whiskey tour.

On the Jameson whiskey tour.

Next, Waterford and Kinsale.


Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Seven

When my dad gave me the blue folder, I was surprised, dismayed, curious about why he waited until I was getting married to give me something so concrete, yet so powerfully mundane. Why did he save it? I don't know, but I'm grateful he did. It contained this list. (Read Face, A Memoir, from the beginning here.)

Part Seven

Week of 6/17/61

C. Jeanne Roslanic, special nurse 7 nights........................................ $126.00

Ruth Fairris, special nurse 7 days......................................................... $88.50

Mildred Tayor, special nurse 7 days..................................................... $126.00

Ambulance      ............................................................................................ $12.00

Clothes ruined, undershirt, t-shirt, shorts and pantie.................... $5.00

Mrs. Henry Medema, caring for children............................................ $10.00

Carol Black, caring for children............................................................. $5.00

Kathy Wirkutis, caring for children....................................................... $6.00

Housecleaning ............................................................................................ $5.00

Total               .............................................................................................. $384.00

 

Week of 6/24/61

C. Jeanne Roslanic, special nurse 4 nights......................................... $72.00

Mildred Tayor, special nurse 3 days...................................................... $54.00

Ruth Fairris, special nurse 4 days.......................................................... $54.00

Mrs. Medema, caring for children.......................................................... $10.00

Carol Black, caring for children.............................................................. $6.00

Kathy Wirkutis, caring for children........................................................ $7.00

Housecleaning ............................................................................................. $7.00

Total               .............................................................................................. $210.00

 

Week of 7/1/61

C. Jeanne Roslanic, special nurse 3 nights.......................................... $54.00

Mrs. McMann, special nurse 1 day........................................................... $18.00

Mrs. Medema, caring for children........................................................... $10.00

Carol Black, caring for children............................................................... $2.00

Kathy Wirkutis, caring for children........................................................ $4.00

Patty Wirkutis, caring for children......................................................... $1.50

Geraldine Green, caring for children..................................................... $3.00

Housecleaning ............................................................................................. $5.00

Total               ................................................................................................ $97.50

 

Week of 7/8/61

C. Jeanne Roslanic, special nurse 3 nights........................................... $54.00

Mrs. Medema, caring for children............................................................ $15.00

Carol Black, caring for children................................................................ $4.50

Kathy Wirkutis, caring for children......................................................... $2.50

Patty Wirkutis, caring for children.......................................................... $1.75

Barbara Green, caring for children......................................................... $1.50

Total               .................................................................................................. 79.25

 

Week of 7/15/61

Patty Wirkutis, caring for children......................................................... $13.00

Kathy Wirkutis, caring for children........................................................ $2.50

Geraldine Green, caring for children..................................................... $0.75

Carol Black, caring for children............................................................... $3.00

Total               ................................................................................................ $19.25

 

Discharged from Hospital 7/22/61

Dr. Kislov       .............................................................................................. $650.00

Dr. Crawford.............................................................................................. $195.00

Dr. Bond         .............................................................................................. $150.00

Dr. Askam      ................................................................................................ $65.00

Dr. Smith        .............................................................................................. $105.00

Hospital Expense .................................................................................... $1,302.92

Total               ........................................................................................... $2,467.92

Grand total      ........................................................................................ $3,257.92

 

John Hancock Insurance paid Hospital ........................................... $834.94

John Hancock Insurance paid Surgery............................................. $336.50

Total cost                    ........................................................................... $2,086.48

 

When I found Dad’s list, I thought, This is so like my dad. Meticulous, careful to record every expense and include everything, down to my blood-soaked panties. Oddly, one thing is glaringly missing: my mangled bicycle. I can’t imagine that he would leave that off. Maybe some kind soul got rid of it so my parents wouldn’t have to confront it, and he just overlooked it when he was making his tally. Perhaps it was just too painful to consider. I don’t know. But today I wonder about it. About whether he considered the cost versus the emotional toll. Whether in some way ignoring the bike allowed him to cope. I don’t think he would have blamed himself. That wasn’t like my dad. But he may have overlooked it if someone discarded it in an act of kindness. And when he realized it was gone, he might have decided it was too late to include in an insurance claim...

(Part Eight)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Six

This is Part Six of my memoir, Face. I was hit by a car and severely injured as a child--my left cheek and eyelid were scraped away, and I endured fifteen years of surgeries after. Many years later, as I was getting ready to be married, my dad gives me a folder containing photos that force me to confront a time I had stuffed deeply away...(Read Part Five here.)

Twenty-four years later, as I sat on the concrete floor of a rented storage space and once again leafed through the files, I was instantly transported back to childhood, to when I was five. My hands shook as I sifted through the papers. And then I saw them. The photos. They were close-ups, taken a few months after the accident.

The left side of my face was red and raw, with ridges of skin built up in the middle of the left cheek like the spine of a mountain range. A piece of thick skin bisected the left eye, connecting the top and lower lids. I wondered if my dad had looked at the photos before he gave me the folder. Certainly he had seen them before, but did he consider how it would make me feel to look at them now? Or had he just put them out of his mind and not realized the impact they would have on me? Or perhaps this was his way of giving me back a part of my life that he felt belonged only to me, that I had to be the keeper now, of the story and all its attendant heartaches. Today, I believe he was giving me a gift, the gift of a past that I didn’t want to look at then, didn’t intend to look at ever. In a way, it was a gift of great love. Though I wouldn’t realize it until after he was gone.

As I sat on the concrete floor, I stared at that face, and let the tears come. Great heaving sobs pulled at my lungs and shook my ribcage. It was as if those pictures had the power to hold me hostage—that they had held me hostage for forty-five years. And I was reduced to a quivering, fearful child once again.

A few days later I took the photos out again. I could barely stand to look at them. They represented all the hurt, all the taunts, all the pain I had spent years stuffing away, convinced if I didn’t think about the accident and how it made me look, it couldn’t hurt me anymore.

I lowered myself to the floor. I wanted to be as close to the ground as possible; I feared I might collapse if I wasn’t. I peered at the first photo. It was taken from the front, and that little girl was staring straight at the photographer. Her eyes appeared to be the eyes of an old soul, someone who has suffered and survived. There was something in the eyes of that child, that five-year-old, that was way beyond her years. Way beyond the pain and suffering, beyond the here and now, planted firmly in the Divine. Sure of herself and sure she would survive, no matter what. The second photo, taken from the left side, was entirely different. It was of a small child afraid, terrified of being hurt, of being abandoned to the nurses and doctors once again, of being left in the hands of people who didn’t care, or didn’t seem to. That child’s eyes reflected such a deep sadness, a grief so profound I wanted to hold her, reach out to her across the years and make her safe. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

(Part Seven)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Five

This is Part Five of Face, A Memoir. When I was five years old I was hit by a car and lost my left cheek and eyelid. It was the beginning of nearly two dozen surgeries over fifteen years. In this section, I decide to see a therapist when, as an adult, my life seems to be falling apart.

(Part Five)

I am sitting on a white overstuffed couch in the Santa Barbara office of a therapist a friend recommended. South-facing windows let in filtered light from the late morning sun. Japanese paintings hang on the cream-colored walls, creating a sense of serenity and intimacy. A box of tissues is tucked behind the lamp on the side table, within easy reach. Michael sits in a straight chair in front of me, his long legs tucked under. His square, tanned face framed by waves of blond curls. We are talking about self-esteem.

“I don’t have a problem with self-esteem.”

“Yes, you do,” Michael says.

I am stunned. “No, I don’t.” 

“Yes, you do,” he repeats, more emphatically.

I look out the window at the jacarandas in bloom, their graceful purple flowers nudged by a gentle offshore breeze.

I’d always thought of myself as confident, secure in my self-image, strong and independent. I was a successful journalist – had been editor of the editorial pages of a medium-sized daily newspaper and a recognized leader in the community. I did not lack confidence in my abilities.

But that wasn’t what he was talking about.

When I first went to Michael for help, it was because I suspected – and feared – my marriage of twenty-four years was over. After a month of weekly meetings, he suggested joint counseling with my husband. But after nearly six months, we were making little, if any, progress. So we stopped, and I returned to individual sessions with Michael.

Now here I was, sitting in Michael’s office wondering what had gone wrong. With my marriage. With my career. With my life.

“Talk to me about your scars,” Michael said.

“What do you mean?”

“How did you get them?”

I shrugged. Gave the rote response, something I had spent years perfecting: “I was hit by a car when I was five. I was nearly killed and lost my cheek and my eyelid. I underwent twenty surgeries over the next fifteen years.”

“How do you feel about that?”

How did I feel? I didn’t feel. I hadn’t felt about it in years. I hadn’t thought about it in years. But the more Michael and I talked, the more the memories flooded back. Then I remembered a folder my father had given me just before I got married.

My mom and dad were visiting me in Redding, where I was a reporter for the newspaper, and I was sorting through clothes in my bedroom when my dad knocked on my open bedroom door.

“Hi, Dad. Hot enough for you?” It had to be 102 already, and it was midmorning.

He smiled. “I have something for you.”

He sat down on the bed and patted the spot next to him. I plopped down.

“I am so proud of you,” he started. “Now you’re getting married, I guess it’s time I gave you this.”

He held out a thick, faded, dark-blue folder.

“What is it?”

I opened the folder and was surprised to see dozens of hospital invoices, insurance documents and doctors’ bills, all dated from the 1960s and ’70s and all carefully marked “paid” in his distinctive hand.

“Oh my gosh, Dad.”

He had saved and noted each bill, each surgical procedure, each hospital stay. As I leafed through, I came across a yellowed photo envelope and opened it. That was when I saw the photographs for the first time. I looked for only a moment, then shoved them back into the envelope and put it back into the blue folder.

There was an awkward silence.

I didn’t know what to say. Why had he saved all these things? And why did he feel it was important to give them to me now?

Finally, I mumbled, “Thanks, Dad.”

He patted my leg again, and stood to go.

“I think your mom’s waiting to go shopping,” he said as he walked out of my room.

“Okay.”

I sat alone for a few minutes. I felt confused and overwhelmed, as if he had shown me a film clip from my childhood, one I hadn’t expected and didn’t want to see.

Then I walked over to the dresser and put the folder in the bottom drawer, under some old jeans. I gathered my purse and my shopping list for the wedding and walked out to the kitchen where Mom was just finishing putting away the breakfast dishes.

“Ready to go?” she asked. I nodded, and as we left, I put the folder out of my mind.

(To be continued...)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Four

This is Part Four of Face, A Memoir. In Parts One, Two and Three, we find out I have been hit by a car at the age of five and have lost my left cheek and eyelid. After five weeks in the hospital, I come home, and my mom and dad prepare my sister and brother for a Marcia whose face was ravaged.

Part Four

“Marcia is coming home this afternoon, and she looks different than she did,” my mom explained. “You shouldn’t be afraid when you see her. She’s still your sister. She’s still the same Marcia.”

But I wasn’t.

I looked grotesque. A thick fleshy string connected my upper and lower eyelids. There was a gaping hole underneath my left eye where the skin had been torn away. A red ridge of scar tissue ran the length of my left cheek, with thinner spines spreading out like a spider web toward my nose and ear. A jagged pink scar jutted down from my lower lip toward my chin.

How did they respond to my face? Chuckie was so little, only three. But Cherie was ten, and had seen me on the street, my face torn away. She remembers that Mom told her she would have to help a lot, because I would need a lot of care. But she doesn’t recall being surprised or shocked at how I looked.

“I think I was sad,” Cherie said, “and I was prepared to help with whatever Mom needed.”

 

A few weeks after I came home, we went shopping downtown.

Mom didn’t often take us downtown. It meant putting Molly into a stroller and tethering Chuck to it with a harness. I was allowed to walk freely, but liked to go off exploring when mom wasn’t looking. That often led to frantic searches and stern scoldings once she found me. But off we went.

We were in Hardy-Herpelsheimers, then the nicest department store in Muskegon. Mom was looking at some dresses and I was uncharacteristically clinging to her. A woman came around one of the displays with her two children and stopped short.

“Oh, my God,” I heard her say. She turned and pulled her children away. “Kids, don’t look at that little girl.”

My mom didn’t say anything, just pulled my head in close to her and held me there, in the middle of the store. We left then, without buying anything, and walked home.

 

Now that I am a mother, I wonder at her ability to withstand it all. I look at photographs of myself after the accident, and I think, could I have done this? How did she feel, knowing her daughter would be disfigured probably for her entire life? Did she hope I might die and escape the cruelty, the stares, the laughter, the pointing? I can’t imagine. She had pushed the grief from the two lost babies deep within. When she was alone with her thoughts, when she kneeled beside her bed to pray every night, what did she pray for?

 

I walk on the beaches in Santa Barbara almost every day, watching the tides come in and go out, changing the landscape from one day to the next. Some days the beach is thick with sand stretching from the shoreline to the cliffs. Others the sand is washed away, exposing barnacle-encrusted rocks, sea anemones and an occasional starfish. My Australian shepherd frolics in the waves and plays with the other dogs on the beach. And I think, How is the self built? Like the changing beachscape, we are shaped and formed by forces outside of us. Surely the self is altered by experiences, by perceptions created out of circumstance. What happens to the self if face and body are transfigured by happenstance? If that self is in early formation, a young child of five, the self may be more radically affected. After the accident, my identity evolved into that of a scarred child, a child whose face repulsed people. It wasn’t long before I knew that I was someone to be avoided, that my face was a frightening visage, even for adults. And while I knew my family knew and loved me, I also was certain no one else could possibly see and appreciate the self I was within.

(Part Four)