This excerpt from my book, Face, A Memoir—is Part Two of many parts to come. You can read Part One here. It is about my struggle to come to terms with a childhood trauma that haunted me well into middle life. It has taken me many years to write this, and I am revising it as I post pieces of it online. I welcome your thoughts and feedback.
Chapter One, Part Two
As Muriel and Roscoe approached the stop sign, my ten-year-old sister, Cherie, was walking home from her friend Marilyn Green’s house. Just as she turned the corner toward our house, she noticed a car driving slowly, and heard a distinct scraping noise, as if something were being dragged underneath. People on the sidewalk started to scream, “Stop! Stop!” As she watched, Cherie realized my new bike was trapped under the car. When the sedan stopped it was nearly in front of our house. I had been dragged, caught with my bike under the car, for nearly two hundred feet.
Cherie ran to the front of the car and looked underneath. I was lying on the street under the driver’s side. The bike was stuck under the carriage; I was still holding the handlebars. The left side of my face was missing.
Cherie ran into our house. Mom was in the front hallway, talking on the phone with my grandmother, Mimi.
“Marcia’s been hit by a car!” Cherie screamed. Mom dropped the phone and ran out to the street. My sister picked up the phone and shouted, “Marcia’s been hit by a car and she’s dead!” She hung up the phone and ran after Mom.
Mom’s morning had begun early. Dad was gone by 6:30. Mom woke three-year-old Chuck and Molly, the baby. She helped Chuckie get dressed and brush his teeth. She got a bottle for Molly, and cereal for Chuck. With four children and two adults in the house, our cramped kitchen often seemed like Grand Central Station. A large chrome table with a marbled yellow top crowded one corner, surrounded by five chrome chairs with padded yellow vinyl seats and a highchair. The cupboards were dark, the appliances spare. A small window above the sink, decorated by a frilly white lace curtain, looked out onto the side yard. Once we were all fed, Mom sent us out to play and cleaned up. She was petite, though thick around the middle with the pudgy remnant of six pregnancies. Her dark-brown hair was clipped short and styled, and her deep-brown eyes were accented with thick, black brows. Mom put Molly down for a morning nap and started some laundry in the basement. The telephone rang. It was my grandma, calling to check in, as she did every day. They fell into an easy conversation.
Suddenly, Mom heard yelling outside, people screaming. She was about to tell my grandmother to hold on when Cherie burst through the front door.
“Mom, Marcia’s been hit by a car…”
She didn’t hear any more. She dropped the phone and ran to the street. As she drew near the car she saw the blood. She saw my bicycle. She felt her chest tighten, and thought, “not again, not again….dear Lord, don’t let it happen again…”
By midmorning, Dad had made his rounds of the dry cleaning plant and stores and was pressing pants in a back room where one of his workers, Carl, was operating the dry cleaning machines. Hot pipes and machinery hissed and moaned. Dad was wearing shirtsleeves; but Carl was wearing a tank top already wet with perspiration. It was insufferably hot, and big fans droned and blew stagnant air from above. The smell of cleaning solvents permeated the plant. When the phone rang, it was Judith, a longtime Meier Cleaners employee, who brought Dad the news.
“Bob, there’s been an accident,” she said. “It’s Marcia. Go to Mercy. They’re taking her there.”
He dropped the pressed trousers and rushed through the plant, careful to duck under the pipes and conveyer racks that hung low from the ceiling. His Ford station wagon was parked in the back alley. On the way to the hospital, all he could think was, “Please God, not another baby. Not Marcia.”
What is a face? Eyes. Nose. Mouth. Cheeks. Chin. Forehead. An invitation. Or a warning. A reflection. Or a misrepresentation. The surface of a still pool, or a raging creek. Does a face say anything about a person? Or everything? If a face is destroyed, does that person change? If you rebuild a face, can you rebuild a life?
When mom got out to the street, the car had been backed away. Someone had lifted the mangled bike off of me and laid it aside. Mom cradled my bleeding head until the ambulance arrived. A neighbor took Cherie and Chuck inside to comfort them and check on Molly. After the ambulance left, Mrs. Medema took her garden hose and washed the blood from the street.
At the hospital, the family prayed silently in the stark white waiting room, sprawled on avocado-green couches and chairs.
I have often thought of my mom in those hours, drenched in my blood, holding vigil with my dad, reeling from the realization she may lose another child to an unspeakable tragedy.
When our family physician, Dr. William Bond, saw me in the emergency room, he doubted I’d survive. My cheek was scraped to the bone, my left eyelid was missing, and the bottom lid was carved away from the eyeball, though the eyeball was intact. There were deep cuts and scrapes on the rest of my face and upper chest. I had lost a lot of blood. Emergency room doctors worked feverishly to stem the bleeding. They inserted intravenous lines into my arms as they frantically tried to keep my heart rate and breathing stable enough to take me into surgery.
One of the three doctors who worked on me was a thirty-nine-year-old plastic surgeon who happened to be at Mercy when I was brought in. Dr. Bond asked him to see me as a personal favor. Dr. Richard Kislov was a brilliant surgeon who immigrated to the United States from Germany. He was known best for re-attaching severed limbs, a particularly handy skill in Western Michigan where automotive factories were common. Dr. Kislov and the other doctors worked for hours, pulling skin together to fill the vast hole that had been my left cheek. Somehow, they formed a bridge of skin to cover my left eye, sutured the wounds on my chest and bandaged my head. They kept me alive
There is a place one can go, a dream state where it is easy to imagine that whatever your five senses may be telling you, whatever sounds you hear of oxygen tanks or rustling uniforms, whatever piercings of your skin, or peeling of gauze from your torn face, whatever smells of alcohol or ether you sense, they are not to be trusted. The only true thing, in that liquid place, is the comfort of remembering, of feeling the warm encirclement of your dad’s arms, of knowing the drone of the box fan in the window down the hall means there will be at least a slight breeze to offer relief from the sticky heat, that your mom’s voice will always be there, softly assuring, so satisfying, so deeply resonant. All reality fades into that place, and holds you suspended and safe.
Was that deep-water suspension induced? Or does the mind take over, knowing the psyche may not be strong enough to comprehend, and so it protects by obfuscating, by creating a separate reality? How long did I lie there, blissfully unconscious? Days, weeks – it could have been a heartbeat. But when I awoke, all that amniotic protection evaporated into the harsh whiteness of a hospital room.
I didn’t know where I was. My head and eyes were wrapped in bandages. My hands tied to the sides of the bed. I did not feel any pain, but my head was heavy and I felt woozy. I was afraid. People around me smelled of antiseptic and starched clothing.
I heard my mom’s voice. She said, “We told you never to cross the street without looking.”
But I did. I looked both ways.