The Wisdom in Teeth

(Liya Rechtman)– I am writing this post on Friday (4 AM), although I will only post on Tuesday because I fear that I will be stuck in an opiate cave then and will be unable to express any thoughts beyond the basest admiration of shiny colors and moving objects, not unlike an infant or someone suffering from serious brain trauma. Don’t laugh; don’t dismiss this perspective just yet. By “opium cave” I don’t mean that I’ll drop out of Amherst and embark on De Quincy’s all-revealing path. No, this route is mundane and, well, legally prescribed. Nonetheless, I find myself wracked by fear and paranoia at the prospect of dropping off into an endless, mindless abyss, even bounded by the ever-diminishing effects of percocet as it courses through my bloodstream.

Did I mention that I’m getting my wisdom teeth out today at 11AM?

It’s not that I’m a hypochondriac or have a munchausen-esque tendency towards pathological obsession. I’ve been to the nurse twice at Amherst: once because I was bleeding from my head and worried I might have another concussion, and another time for an annual check-up in lieu of my regular one at home. I keep Advil in my backpack for cramps (as I believe many women do), but other than on the first day of my period, I don’t regularly take any medicine. So one might imagine that a trip to an oral surgeon for a procedure as routine and widespread as the removal of two-to-four vestigial teeth would pose no major threat to my ego. Or perhaps it is the very banality of the exercise that allows me to experiment with this kind of existential terror.

It’s a procedure so commonplace and that people prepare for it by asking loved ones to videotape them as they come to and then they post the videos demonstrating the effects of anesthesia or laughing gas onto the Internet. “Wisdom teeth” is its own genre of youtube videos, wherein patients broadcast the absurd things they say. Highlights of the genre include a video entitled simply “Unicorn after Wisdom Teeth.” A young woman with an barely moving mouth proclaims to her mother, behind the video camera, that she is currently in “the land of the blueberries” and then proceeds to sing “who’s in the house? J.C.!” with a seemingly unnoticed monitoring cord still attached to her index finger. I have had the great displeasure of seeing this movie three times now (the third solely for your benefit, dearest readers) and I have almost cried each time.

As an Amherst College student and a Saint Ann’s High School graduate, much of my self-identification surrounds my belief that I am intelligent. I am hugely lucky. I went to an amazing and highly ranked private high school in New York and then had the great fortune of being accepted into Amherst. I have been the recipient of what I believe is the best of American liberal arts education throughout my entire life. Moreover, I have been had the words “best and brightest” ringing in my ears since before I could personally compose words that included the “ight” phoneme.

When I was 7, I got in a minor argument with my parents, took my scooter, and went on a scooter ride down the “big hill” to my great-grandfather’s house. Or that’s the story as my mother has explained it to me, in any case. According to the woman who found me, midway down the hill, I wasn’t sure which language (English or Hebrew) I was speaking in when talking to her, and I couldn’t remember my name or what country I was in. My father says that when their family friend took me to my grandparents’ house, all I wanted to do was sleep and the side of my head was covered in blood. I do remember coming to in the hospital with a doctor asking me questions I wasn’t sure I could answer, including but not limited to, which side was the left and could I count backwards from 10.

The concussion was considered Grade III on the Cantu scale, in the end, since it included amnesia and loss of consciousness. I recovered most of my memory from that day to the point at which I can now, looking back, faintly remember that the argument with my parents centered on whether or not a t-shirt was too small for me. While there were no major repercussions on my cognitive development, the concussion certainly had an impact. I can still remember, as if no time had passed in the intervening 13 years, that horror of being in the hospital and finally understanding fully what had happened. I can’t picture either of my parents’ or my grandparents’ faces, but I remember the doctor leaning into me to check my pupils. I remember the phrase pounding through my skull, more real to me than the pavement I can’t recall hitting:

Brain damage? IQ?
Brain damage?
IQ? Brain damage? Brain damage? Brain damage? Brain damage?

I was fine. It was a question that they could answer quickly and with confidence. And yet I’ve never been able to watch the Bourne series. I had to put down Flowers for Algernon after I skipped ahead and saw the kind of language the protagonist was forced to utilize during certain key moments in the book. When people ask me what scares me most, I will generally answer rats. Winston Smith and I share that deep fear of rats eating our faces off, and yet unlike Winston, I doubt that I will face that as a real problem in my life. When I tell you that my greatest fear is rats, I’m lying. I fear being inarticulate. What worse fate could there be than an inability to communicate?

The way I see it, there is nothing more integral to the very essence of my being than expression. Still it seems at times that I understand so, dysfunctionally, impossibly little about what the world looks like through the eyes of the Other. However, as every member of the conscious world knows, as writers especially know, we constantly attempt to bridge that great dividing chasm.

So on the eve (well, now morning) of my first ever surgery, you must see, through what you may view as over-wrought hyperbole, why I’m feeling a tad apocalyptic. Okay maybe more than a tad.

– Liya Rechtman

UPDATE: Of course, as any rational person would guess, I went through the surgery generally unscathed, except for the standard very puffy face and an inability to eat solid foods.