Halfway through my junior year at Stanford, I was hit by a car while walking across the street. The injuries I sustained from the accident were substantial. I fractured my skull, suffered from an intracerebral hemorrhage, dislocated bones within my one good-hearing ear, and lost nerve function to the left side of my face which resulted in complete left-side facial paralysis. The experience of recovery has been rich and multifaceted and the following piece is written about a particularly difficult evening a few weeks after returning home from the hospital.
My dad came into the room to help me prepare for bed, a ritual which began the night after I left the hospital. He always double-checked the instructions, peering at crinkled paper through cheap reading glasses, eyebrows raised, mouth pursed. While waiting, I smoothed my pillow, carefully placing it such that my head would rest exactly in the center when my body lay flat. My sense of balance was hypersensitive. The slightest tilt of a pillow was enough to keep me awake—a lesson I learned the hard way.
My dad asked if I was ready. I was. I lowered myself onto the mattress slowly, making sure my orientation felt steady. When I felt secure, I swung my feet up and, cradling my head with my arms, lowered myself onto the carefully placed pillow.
"Eardrops?" he asked lightly, trying to keep the mood casual. At 11:30 p.m., it was well past his bedtime and it showed. His eyelids drooped slightly and his movements were getting progressively more sluggish. Tonight I had pushed bedtime back a bit and the guilt I now felt wasn't worth the extra time on the computer.
"Yep," I replied, mirroring his tone as best I could. In keeping with ritual, I turned on my side to expose my left ear. The force of the crash had ruptured my eardrum; antibiotics were a preventative measure to protect what remained of my hearing.
My face was now turned towards the bright white wall. I felt my dad's callous fingers tugging on my earlobe. My body tensed as the drops crawled down my ear canal. Today I was lucky—the drops were warming quickly. My dad started the clock: ten minutes.
"Done now?" I asked impatiently, fidgeting my sheets with my fingers while counting sheep in my head.
"Not yet," he said loudly, chuckling a little. Patience was never one of my virtues.
"How about now?" I asked again.
"Yeah, you can turn over."
I turned on my back once more, the drops draining out of my canal and soaking my hair as I moved. The next step was applying lubricating eye gel to keep my unblinking eye moisturized throughout the night. My dad lowered a small tube of it over my face, tugging on my lower left lid to make room. Squeezing the tube, he drew a wide arch into the open fold. With my fingers, I forced my upper lid shut a few times, warming the gel and spreading it until my vision was completely obscured.
As I did this, my dad reached for the gauze beside my bed which would prevent my cornea from being scratched while I slept. The piece was a limp, asymmetric square covered with yesterday's medical tape. He touched the tape to see if it was still sticky. Despite my small, silent hope for a fresh piece, the tape, which had turned gray with use, still had some mileage left. I held my left eyelid closed while he covered it with the gauze. His hands were clumsy, pressing on the two ends of the tape, one near my eyebrow, one near my cheekbone, with more force than necessary. We waited for it to fall off.
"Looks good," he said, slightly surprised, while I fidgeted with the gauze. I always rearranged and re-taped, smoothing over his coarse work with gentler, more agile fingers. But even with my small improvements, the material made my skin itch. I fought the urge to rip it off. Despite our best efforts I could still see the light from my room out of my left eye. Our work was far from perfect. But if it ever was, what would that mean? Would that mean my face never recovered? The light gave our ineptitudes an optimistic twist.
My dad patted my head twice before quickly kissing my forehead. His thin lips always cracked a small smile before he left, as though to remind me that this is no inconvenience, that he couldn't be more happy to help. That look, that love, was why I humored him—why I pretended that our ritual was but a trivial necessity for the short-term. Any other response, being snarky or sad, seemed petty and selfish. I was not the only one suffering.
"Love you," he said loudly from the door, flicking the light switch.
"Love you, too."
I used to be afraid of the dark, scared of what might be lurking just beyond my perception. Those nights I couldn't have been less afraid. Whatever horrors the future held were lurking within my body—the damaged ear, the paralyzed face. The outside world seemed calm, serene even, in comparison. I closed the one eye I could.
Falling asleep had become a constant struggle. The force of the impact had dislocated my malleus and incus in my inner ear, so my perception of internal sounds was hugely exacerbated, while my ability to process external sounds was greatly diminished. The sounds of the world were muffled by a blanket I could never uncover, shallow and distant. I pined for the quality of sound I once knew, for the inflections and tones I could no longer hear, and denied myself music I once loved, afraid of confronting the extent of my own bitterness. My companionship through the silence was my body, its range of acoustics—the cracking of my spine, the rhythm of my heart. The nuances of my new perception were most evident at night, in my quiet room, where there was nothing else but me, me listening to myself, coaxing my body to say less, to listen less. I had been a light sleeper even before anything had happened, easily awakened by sounds from the outside, a door creaking or footsteps, even. Now rest was foiled from within.
That night the first sound to come was the ringing. It began softly, so softly that I wondered if it had been there all along and I had simply been too distracted to notice. Amid the silence of the room, the ringing grew louder and louder, as though goading me, never changing frequency, never ceasing. I wanted to get away from it but I couldn't. There was nowhere to go, no radio to turn down or earplugs to put in. I could feel my frustration rise and with it, came my blood pressure, and with that, came a second sound—my heartbeat. The lub-dub of my heart gave rhythm and shape to the ringing. I was listening to a Philip Glass piece written just for me. I hate Philip Glass. More than anything, I wanted to roll around and shout at my body to turn down the volume. But what good would that do? The thudding of my heart grew stronger. I could feel my anger and I could hear it too, the quickening pace of a rhythm, the deepening quality of its sound. I tried to rationalize. No one could save me from this, no one could make this better or easier. I thought that if I could just lower my blood pressure, the sound of my heartbeat would fade and I would be left with ringing. I took a deep breath, forcing my body to relax. The volume of the beat seemed to ease. Was it working? Amid my concentration, my jaw instinctively clenched and I heard it: a crack of muscle or bone. And I cracked. Something within me snapped when two sounds became three: ringing, beating, cracking. And I surrendered, to my frustration and to my sadness.
I felt half my face begin to convulse. My shoulders began to tremble. Tears began to fall from my right eye and my right eye only. I was mourning sound, its loss and its gain, outside, inside. But that wasn't enough. The tears, the expression of loss, reminded me of my inability to express. My left hand gently grazed the motionless skin of my left cheek before resting there, waiting to feel something. I wanted to touch my sadness. Here was half a face, half a mask that didn't belong to me but was mine. I cried harder, feeling my asymmetry from above and below, from my hand, from the muscles beneath skin.
I gave myself a moment, a few minutes to cry before trying to wrestle my grief into submission. Someone, my mom, my dad, could walk in and find me broken—this was not the girl they needed me to be. Being discovered in the midst of my grieving frightened me more than the prospect of a sleepless night. My mom had a habit of sneaking in to make sure I was still breathing, a small gesture that brought her great comfort. What if she did that now? I tried to bury my sorrow, to exert a force over my body through sheer will that would calm it and bring it silence. But I'd never experienced anything like this. Here was a grief richer, fuller than anything I'd ever felt. I didn't know how to get above it, how to wrap myself around it. For all my concentration, I could only slow the tears, dampen the tremor of my shoulders—and not for very long, either. I needed to try something different. I sat up and wiped my eyes. Resigned to my submission, I tried to further the distance between them and me, retreating into my bathroom, my barricade.
After pulling the sliding door closed, I walked the length of the room until I stood before the sink. The marble around the faucet was beautiful, a two-inch deep single slab, extremely expensive. I splashed cold water over my skin, careful to work around my left eye, and looked up. In the background of the image before me was my bathroom, my shower directly behind me, the bathtub just adjacent to the shower. Everything was made of the highest quality material, floor-to-ceiling glass, more pearl marble of exceptional thickness. Even the lighting was romantic. But in the foreground of this image stood the outline of a girl in baggy pajamas, shoulders slouched and quivering, hair a tousled mess, one eye covered with gauze. Here was a girl who had previously never been afraid to meet anybody's gaze now afraid to meet her own— a girl I could hardly recognize. I watched her cry, watched either side of her face stand in stark opposition with the other, one side wrecked by sadness and encased with the most absolute kind of vulnerability, the other expressionless and utterly apathetic. I could identify neither side—neither expression—as me. She—I—didn't deserve to be here. I knew I was more than this and sobbed even harder.
I needed to calm myself but I wasn't sure what to do. I knew what I could do—call someone, attempt to read or listen to music, try harder to sleep. But I didn't want any of those things. I considered calling someone, but that wasn't quite what I needed. I wanted company, but not the kind that would ask questions. Words seemed too inadequate to express what I was feeling, and in all honesty, who could understand? I wanted relief from loneliness without being reminded of my isolation. I wanted to see outside myself, to draw my thoughts away from my body and observe something else. I knew then that what I wanted was to see my puppy Pooh, but visiting her was not without risks. In fetching her, I'd likely wake my parents as the alarm emits a number of high frequency beeps when it disarms. Would I risk them seeing me this way just to feel a little better? To my surprise, before my mind had fully registered a choice, my body was already moving towards the door. I had chosen to satisfy my own needs, my yearning for a moment's peace overpowering any sense of consideration I had for my parents' need to rest.
When I reached the door to the backyard, I paused at the keypad of the alarm system. Once I entered the passcode, the control module on the other side of the house—in my parent's bedroom—would beep. I entered the code anyway.
The door squeaked as I opened it—the door fit too tightly in the frame. The fresh air, the distant chirp of insects, the still water in the pool beside me, brought quiet to my shallow whimpering as I walked towards Pooh's cage. In the cool night air, I realized that my heightened sensitivity could also be projected outward, allowing me to appreciate small subtleties that previously went unnoticed. As I neared the cage, I saw her, laying straight as a log, in the style of the excrement that was the true inspiration of her name. I had added the "h" after the fact, more for the comfort of others than anything else. The three of us knew the truth.
Pooh was a small Cockapoo, just a puppy, the last of her litter to be sold. I'd been wanting a dog for ages, but my mom always resisted—too messy. For reference, she regularly wipes the cabinet walls in our rarely-used kitchen with a ferocious conviction, individually punishing every speckle. Now she couldn't be more supportive, a true testament to her willingness to sacrifice for the sake of my recovery. As I got closer, Pooh retreated, pressing her back against the far side of her cage. She was afraid, and while I could hardly blame her, it still stung. I knew she didn't know me, had hardly played with me. My mom had forbidden it since I was highly susceptible to infection. But I knew her, having watched her all day every day through the glass walls facing the back of the house, unable to touch her. I'd spent hours watching her play, cooing inconsequentially while she amused herself with nothing more than a stick or a bug. Our relationship was defined by distance, her outside, me inside. I opened the cage latches.
"Come here, Pooh," I cooed, my voice cracking beneath the weight of my longing.
I scooped her with my damp hands and held her tightly. Her tense muscles slackened with the strength of my grip. She felt even smaller than she looked. Her touch, my grief—they all felt unreal. I knew I was wandering into forbidden territory, into areas from which I'd been physically banned by my mother and emotionally banned by myself, by my own unrelenting desire to prove my resilience. Together, we re-entered the house and made our way to my room. Through the long hallways and below high ceilings, Pooh never made a sound. She was still too young to bark or cry.
As we moved from the bedroom to the bathroom, I could feel myself beginning to relax. The repetition of stroking, of drawing a long gentle line down Pooh's back, one after another, was calming. After flicking on the light, I closed the door behind me and knelt with my back toward the corner of the room closest to the door. If I was going to be found, I'd like a little time to pull myself together. My transition into a squatting position forced Pooh to rearranged herself. The brunt of her body now resided in my lap, her neck resting neatly on my forearm. I continued to pet her. The rise and fall of her chest, the heat exchange between my thin cotton pajamas and her skin, made me feel less alone. She never asked for an explanation for how I looked, not now, not ever. As she drifted in and out of sleep, she hardly noticed me.
"It'll be okay," I told her reassuringly, repeating the phrase over and over. "I love you," I said quietly, scratching her behind the ears.
Soon my affection was returned. Pooh turned to look at me, her hazel-green eyes filled with a tired curiosity. She seemed determined to stay awake. A chubby red tongue emerged from her mouth and started to lick my pants. It was a small gesture which I held tightly to. I loved that she didn't know what I was before, had not witnessed my fall from grace, high-achieving university student turned helpless sickly child. Whatever sweetness she showed me held no pity. What did she know of how my life had changed? My shoulders stood steady. Tears still fell from my eye, but the action was gentle, as though they had merely spilled from my lid onto my cheek.
I had been with her a few minutes when I heard the screech of wood sliding past wood. My bathroom door was opening. Both my parents stood in the doorway. The contrast between the blackness of my room and the brightness of my bathroom caused their eyes to squint. They frowned at the late hour. My dad looked the almost same as he had earlier, just a little older and a lot more tired. I had not, however, seen my mom before her nightly beauty ritual and her finished face startled me. Specific regions of her taut skin—the area around her eyes, small sections of her cheeks, the entirety of her lips—were encased in a combination of anti-aging cream and moisturizer. She looked two to three decades younger than my dad, a by-product of both good genes and an obsessively strict discipline. She spoke first.
"Why are you crying?" she asked, her tone accusatory. She knelt a few feet beside me, by the toilet. I didn't want to look at her. I didn't want to talk. I knew she was surprised. Whatever breakdowns I'd had prior to this, I had managed to hide. As far as she knew, I was beyond grieving. In fact, she saw me as quite the opposite, proactive and compliant. What she didn't know was that much of what she saw was a facet of myself exaggerated for her benefit, intentionally performed to soothe her worries. "Of course I'll go back to school," I'd tell her. "I'm still going to be a doctor. I'm still going to do all the things I planned on doing before. It'll just take a little more time and I might have to do things a little differently." I'd spoon-fed her this speech frequently, while she folded my laundry or made my favorite soup in a giant pot. I'd say all these things with the full awareness that, despite my conviction, I struggled to consecutively subtract 7 from numbers starting at 100. I knew my injuries weighed more heavily on her heart than they did on mine.
"Because I can't sleep," I replied, surprised by the bitterness in my voice. I never spoke rudely to my parents. My tone was grazing the upper bound of some invisible threshold. "My ears are too loud."
My mother continued on her initial trajectory, not catching the subtext of my tone. "You can't change that. You have to accept it. You're already so lucky you weren't injured more," she said matter-of-factly, her frown unrelenting and off-putting. I wanted to see an expression of empathy in her face but all I found was a bright-eyed resilience, a hardened look which hinted at a spirit that could have been supporting me all along, instead of constantly asking for my reassurance. I grew angrier. "You're recovering so well, you should be grateful."
"Can't I be sad for a little?" I snapped back, my frustration getting the best of me. My mother was trying to bolster me, to fill me with her own truth and lend me strength, but I didn't want it. I was sick of being told things could be worse. Things could always be worse, but that hardly makes them better. I felt as though my facade was being irrevocably damaged. All I wanted was to be left alone.
My dad put up a hand, signally my mom to stop. Then he too, bent to my level. "Of course you can be sad," he said, the creases around his eyes coming into sharper focus. "But it'll only get better. It'll only keep getting better." His words were honest and sincere but I doubted their truthfulness. You could not wish nor hope something into existence. From where I sat, I could see them both clearly. My dad, his skin tan, littered with moles and age spots. My mom, a painted porcelain doll. And I imagined myself, a scornful child clutching desperately to her toy.
"You don't know anything," I seethed. "My hearing is gone forever. My face might be too. You don't know that anything is going to get better. It might get better, it might not. I might have to live like this." I rubbed my eyes once more. I hated feeling so helpless. Even if I was more sad than angry, I'd rather appear angry. I buried my face in Pooh's fur. She was silent but alert, afraid even.
"God will help us," my mom said simply, unfazed, as steady as I'd ever seen her. A few feet in front of me, she clasped her hands together as though in prayer. "I'm praying for you. God will help us, God has always helped us."
I didn't want to argue. I thought if I stopped making eye contact, stopped talking, they might leave. I focused the appearance of my attention on Pooh hoping they would take notice. My fingers tugged haphazardly at Pooh's tight curls, occasionally making their way to her head where they pulled gently on her ears.
After a few half-hearted hugs and excessive nodding on my part, they thought I had recovered. In truth, I was simply taking the path of least resistance. "You need to change before you sleep," my mom reminded me as we all stood to leave. "You touched the dog, you need to change. Auntie Margaret said the most important thing is staying clean."
My dad reached to lift Pooh by her two front shoulders and she went gladly. He was most familiar to her. I watched her as she left, imagining her spending the night beside me in my bed. My mom brought me a fresh set of pajamas nearly identical to what I was wearing. As I changed, I became aware of just how heavy my body felt. It was as though I'd doubled my body weight. Small movements seemed to require considerably more effort.
I realized I was exhausted, but in an unpleasant way. I felt as though a hard-earned catharsis had been snatched from me. Right when something—sadness, grief, something—had nearly risen to the surface, it had been compressed, buried under an even greater pressure. As I laid my head on my bed, my skull resting squarely in the center of my pillow, I was silent. My parents had blessed me with quiet. Not that one I yearned for so deeply, but a quiet nonetheless. In the darkness of night, nestled in the faint trace of ringing, I slept.