This is Part One of a two part story about the time I was in a car accident.
By the age of nine, I knew I was different. When I got into a car crash, I started realizing why.
Mom asked my sister Cheri to go to Penny’s to get some shirts for my Dad’s Birthday. Mom had to stay home, take care of my baby sister, bake a cake, and prepare a fancy dinner. Dad would say, “Beverly, now don’t make a fuss over my Birthday,” but she would always make a fuss.
“Stop at the Arctic Circle on your way home, and get me a Coke,” she told my sister.
“Mom,” I said, “Sister Calhoun says that Mormons aren’t supposed to drink Coke.”
Mom handed Cheri a ten-dollar bill and the keys to our white Mercury Comet.
“Get me a Large,” She said.
“Can I go?” I begged.
“I don’t care,” my sister said.
I jumped in the car and bounced up and down on the seat, excited at the chance to tag along.
While Cheri was purchasing the shirts, I browsed through records. Rock stars all had long hair in 1969. I wanted long hair too. I stepped in front of a three-way mirror in the men’s department, and cringed when I saw my reflection. My ears stuck out, fanning wide from my head. I pushed them back, as if somehow they would magically stay put. My father was a barber; hiding them under long hair would never be an option for me. I’d been self-conscious about my ears ever since Doreen Duncan and Edna Bird, from church, were visiting my Mom one day, after school. Sister Duncan stopped me and examined me like I was an unruly houseplant that needed pruning. “You know Beverly,” she said to Mom. “You should get him some glasses, they would distract from the unevenness of his ears and, you know, give him some symmetry.”
“Oh, he’d look sophisticated too, just like his Father,” Sister Bird added sweetly, in a high pitched voice.
I ran and locked myself in the bathroom. I held a comb in front of my reflection to measure, and sure enough, my ears didn’t quite line up, and they stuck out. “I’m a freak,” I told my myself. All my insecurities and feelings of being different were now concentrated on the two flaps of skin and cartilage protruding from either side of my head. For weeks, I slept with one of my Mothers nylon stockings over my head in hopes that my ears would flatten. Now, forlorned at the three-way mirror at Penny’s, I realized that plastic surgery might me my only hope.
My sister brushed by me with the shirts.
“Let’s go,” she said.
At the Arctic Circle, Cheri ordered two large Cokes and a small orange soda for me. She put the drinks next to the shirts on the front seat. With the windows rolled down, the dry summer air blew in our faces and tousled our hair as we drove off with the radio blasting.
I don’t remember the drinks spilling. I don’t remember the car crashing into the telephone pole or my head hitting the dashboard. I don’t remember the neighbourhood kids gathered around the car, gawking, peering in, and pointing while my sister screamed for help. I was covered in blood, Coke, and ice. My eyes were open and glazed over. Cheri thought I was dead. I remember sounds. My sister crying. She never cried in front of me; always hid in her room. A man’s voice: “Wake up, wake up!” And my own voice, disconnected, crying, “Please God! Please,” and then the howl of the siren devoured everything.
After being unconscious for two days, I emerged into a world of beeping noises and a throbbing pain. In a spinning room, nurses darted back and forth in streaks of white. I noticed a girl with short brown hair in a bed across me. Was it Cheri? Everything was blurry.
A nurse with a soft voice said, “Hi sweetie, you’re at Primary Children’s Hospital. You’ve been in an accident, understand?” I nodded and realized that the brown-haired girl across the room wasn’t my sister. My right eye and head were bandaged up and there were tubes sticking my arm.
“Where’s my Mom?”
“She just left.” Said the nurse. “She’s been sitting here by your side all day. Your Dad will be here soon.”
I wanted my Mom and cried out for her. The nurse gave me a shot.
I woke up in a different room, away from the beeps, with light coming only from the hallway. Drifting in and out, I was relieved that Mom was sitting beside me. She held an open magazine on her lap, but wasn’t reading it.
“Stay with me,” I said.
She put the magazine down and held my hand. “Daddy, Grandpa and Uncle Mel gave you a blessing last night. The doctors are going to operate on your eye. It’s going to be okay. We’ll be right here.”
Silhouetted figures hovered over me. I was lifted onto a gurney and pushed down a corridor. I heard footsteps on either side as oblong lights passed over me. We burst into a very bright room. I had to squint. That’s when I saw him, the surgeon, standing over me. His eyes were aquamarine blue, like the shallow end of a swimming pool. He had long dark eyelashes and dense eyebrows. A mask covered his mouth and nose. The bright lights behind him radiated out from his back like an angel in a painting. His ears didn’t stick out like mine; they elegantly hugged his head as if they had been sculpted out of marble.
“We’re going to make you sleep.” He said in a deep gentle voice. He put something over my mouth and nose. “Now, count backwards from ten, like this, ten, nine, eight, seven, six”. I didn’t say anything. I just dissolved.
I awoke in a room with a big window and what looked like an oversized baby crib. A skinny boy with a plaster cast on his head, like a motorcycle helmet, peered through the bars and waved. “Hi, “he said.
I responded with a, raspy, “Hi.”
“I’m Bobby,” he said.
“Um,” I was drowsy.
“You’re Billy. They told me.”
“Oh,” I said. “What happened to your head?”
He was quiet, then after a few minutes he said, “You like to shoot?”
“No,” I said.
“You like to Fish?”
“Don’t know, I’ve never tried,” I said.
“Oh,” he said walking his legs up and down the bars at the foot of his bed. “ You like football?”
“No,” I said.
“Not really,” I said.
I shook my head.
“Hmm,” he said. “What do you like?”
“Setting off firecrackers in tomatoes and watching them explode,” I lied. Mom never let me have firecrackers.
“I blew up a peach once,” he said.
“Did it look like brains?” I asked. He started laughing and then we both laughed.
“I sleepwalk,” Bobby said, thumping his fingers across the bars. “That’s why I’m in this stupid bed.”
I kicked my leg out from under the covers to expose the jagged gash on my leg, all stitched up, looking like a clutter of spiders.
“Wow!” Bobby said. How did that happen?”
“Ouch!” Bobby said.
“I don’t remember anything.”
I became acquainted with bedpans, awkward sponge baths, ugly hospital pajamas, nasty hospital food, and the nurses waking me up in the middle of the night to take my temperature. Some nurses were nice. Some were cranky, but they were all just nameless faces that would come and go.
One day chubby orderly with curly red hair showed up and pushed Bobby and his bed out of the room. He looked like a clown with a circus animal. Bobby fired his finger-laser at me through the bars. I faked getting hit and fell back on my pillow. When I closed my good eye and opened my bloody eye, Bobby said I made a pretty convincing corpse.
“Where’re you going?” I said.
“It’s movie day,” said the orderly. “I’ll be back.”
I lowered myself off the bed for the first time and walked over to the window. The entire Salt Lake Valley stretched out in front of me. The rocky granite peaks extended far into the distance. Dotted with buildings, the valley was bursting with shades of mossy green, and the sky was that kind of vibrant blue that you only see in summer. Summer wait for me, I need to catch up.
The orderly showed up with a wheelchair and pushed me to the hospital cafeteria, which was set up like a theatre. He positioned my chair on the front row, just as the lights went out. A nurse was passing out ice cream sandwiches. I looked behind me and saw the room full of sick kids, some in wheelchairs, some in beds, some all hooked up to machines, looking up to the screen. Next to me, a little girl without any hair, held a stuffed elephant in her lap. A cartoon lit up the screen and a chorus of cheers erupted. After a few minutes I had to close my eyes because my head hurt, but I didn’t care, I just listened to the kids laughing, reacting and eating their ice cream. With my eyes closed, it sounded like we were all normal, healthy kids. It sounded like hope.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.