While thumbing through Forensics for Dummies in search of a suitable demise for an arrogant psychiatrist in my new novel, I compiled a list of distinctly unpleasant experiences that might befall my victim should he ingest a lethal dose of say, strychnine: pain, lockjaw, twitching of the muscles, cyanosis (bluish skin), agitation and a fixed death grin known as risus sardonicus.
I grimaced in the mirror and imagined my facial features locked in a hideous smirk. At least the dead don’t suffer embarrassment. A wry smile (even frozen) would give a needed lift to these sagging jowls. After several years of deep denial, I’ve got to admit that life is taking me places I never dreamed I'd go. As a nod to the inevitable consequences of hanging around Earth this long, I've replaced my pasta and potato diet with low-carb shakes and protein bars--with dwindling results. I've even begun a half-hearted regime of sit-ups--I refuse to call them crunches. Recently I've added an afternoon heart-pounding walk around Lake Merritt and am at last seeing some action, although it's not what I intended. I’ve literally walked my butt off. Once akin to the ample bottom of R. Crumb's hip hottie, Angelfood McSpade, my caboose now hangs flat, looking less like a candidate for a pair of crotch-less panties than an adult diaper.
In the 13th century, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi postulated that a body of matter is able to change, but is not able to disappear. Through my own experiments I’ve proved his theory true--the 3 pounds of fat I dropped off my derrière last week now hangs underneath my chin. Like a Krispy Kreme Doughnut, the excess skin wrapped itself around my neck like a scarf, falling into rippled furrows that add a centerpiece to the necklace of fat now anchored by my drooping jowls. Never at a loss for words, I’ve begun to keep my opinions to myself, unless I happen to be wearing a turtleneck sweater or am back lit in a dark restaurant. I barely speak for fear of calling attention to my neck. The life is being strangled out of me as surely as any victim of foul play.
Going against the hippie grain of my life-long philosophy--to grow old naturally--I started to think about the compromises I’d made over the years in the hopes of attracting a lover: make-up, shaved legs, cosmetic veneers for my front teeth. Lately, I’ve streaked my hair in an attempt to camouflage the gray. After so many minor accommodations, isn’t it now just a matter of degrees? Among my peers, I'd never considered my appearance a problem. In our diminishing circle we are all “of a certain age” as the French so aptly put it. Emphasis is placed on getting one’s “look” together with dramatic flair. Costuming is one of the main threads weaving together this skin tight circle of aging drama queens. I had one brief moment of concern that I might be taking unfair advantage. I didn’t want to upset any of my friends who were probably feeling badly about their own chins. And what about the karma? Maybe I’d become a victim of a horrible facial injury in some future life. Being a risk-taker, I pressed on in my quest for a personal fountain of youth.
None too soon I had a moment of clarity, remembering the referrals for plastic surgeons that I begged from my dermatologist over a year ago. Hoping against hope that I’d lost or misplaced them, the minute I opened my overstuffed change purse, two crisp, medical business cards shot to the surface. I googled both of the doctors listed on the cards as well as a host of others I found surfing the growing lists of Board Certified F.A.C.S. surgeons. One website offered free champagne and an hour-and-a-half schmooze with a wide-eyed bald-headed likeness of Marshall Applewhite (suicide cult leader who convinced 38 space cadets to join him for an extraterrestrial journey on the 1997 comet Hale-Bopp). Other doctors resembled snooty charlatans or lecherous old creeps. Each site mentioned the same catch phrases like “enhancement” or “minor discomfort”. I never saw the word pain, not even on the endless consent and disclaimer forms I signed before I began the procedure. All of the plastic surgery sites boasted before and after photographs. I wondered what would induce me to allow my face to appear in this context. Perhaps free surgery? Not even then. After an evening of face-studying, soul searching, and number crunching, I zeroed in on my target. There was nothing left but to do the deed.
I met with Dr. Robert A. Harvey, an amiable fellow who jovially pointed out a series of facial imperfections I never knew I had. He told me that my nose was too large for my face. That was no surprise. I had long accepted a prominent proboscis as part of my family heritage. It seemed excessive for my five foot stature, but I liked my nose and I shared it with my father, with whom I remain close. A few days after our consultation, I received a package from Dr. Harvey containing a series of photographs--color close-ups--taken of my face from unusual angles. (My sister in Detroit begged me to scan them to her but I aborted that idea before it had a chance to take root.)
“I don’t feel like these photos really resemble be very much,” I explained at my next appointment. “When I look at myself in the mirror I don't see these flaws.”
“But how often does someone ever look you directly in the face?” he asked, prepared to back up his opinion with some dismaying statistics.
“People only look you in the eyes about 15% of the time. They are nearly always viewing you from one of the angles shown here,” he said referring to the dreaded pictures on my lap. “This is the way people really see you.”
That statement was hard to swallow. How had I gotten as far as I had in life without realizing what an ugly duckling I was? And how come nobody ever told me? I thought back over the years to some of the hot numbers with whom I’d carried on protracted affairs. They must’ve seen something in me—certainly not this chinless woman with the big nose featured here. But it was hard to argue with the altered image I now saw in the hand mirror Dr. Harvey presented to me. Youth was on the run and had taken my sexuality as hostage.
Dr. Harvey gently persuaded me to consider a short list of add-ons to attain the most bang for my buck. Since I'd already be under sedation, he could remove 58 years of excess under eye baggage in another half-an-hour's time. And for the piece de resistance (an additional 45 minutes) a modest chin implant could be inserted to balance out my nose. His assistant, Mamie, joined me in the office to go over the cost of the various procedures. Woozy with sudden revelation, I was open to suggestion and it seemed no price was too high to pay. As was explained to me, my Blue Cross insurance policy came pre-shrunk as far as cosmetic surgery, so there was no sense in entertaining any notion of compensation, whatsoever. I would have to cover all of the bills, including the six hour fee for the operating room, the preoperative tests, an EKG, a blood analysis called a CBS, and finally, an overnight stay at St. Francis Memorial Hospital. Even the anesthetist was to receive a check for more than my monthly Bay Area mortgage payment. While in the admitting department filling out forms, I was assisted by a friendly staffer, a man in his sixties wearing a rhinestone earring. My life and embarrassment lay on his desk. He looked me straight in the eye.
“When I lost my looks, I left town,” he said.
I admired his honesty but didn’t like the implication, although I’ll admit the idea of leaving town was one I’d yet to consider. I prepaid, preregistered, then sat back in a vinyl chair to read through the rest of my paperwork. According to my doctor, who personally filled out the hospital medical records, my diagnosis read: Deformed Chin. Oh really!
The thick folder I took home spouted a series of not-so-subtle disclaimers to protect the doctor against lawsuits and to prepare foolish clients who might harbor unrealistic expectations--plastic surgery would not change your life or solve your problems. The literature advised in bold type, that in addition to a frightening list of possible complications, there was the appalling prospect that you could end up looking less pleasing than you did now. No wonder my initial consultation with Dr. Harvey seemed to be half examination, half psychiatric evaluation. I wondered how many middle-aged women turned on their doctors when they didn’t end up looking like Sophia Loren.
The packet also contained exhaustive pages of dos and donts. I must avoid prescription medications for a period of a month. That would be easy—I rarely took them. The second list banned every nutritional supplement I’d ever heard of, including my elixirs of life, health and sleep: Melatonin, Echinacea, and Vitamin E. I was further advised that a sore throat or onset of a cold must be reported to the doctor at once so the procedure could be postponed. As the rainy season had started early this year and my surgery was not scheduled until the 26th of October, I would have to meet the flu season head on—armed with nothing but will power.
Despite the restrictions I was elated and eagerly looked forward to the surgery as if I were being admitted into a secret club. This idea was only half fantasy. Ever since I’d mentioned my upcoming neck/jowl lift, extraordinarily good-looking individuals confessed to me that they’d had work done on their faces. It was a conspiracy of the beautiful people and the best kept secret I’d ever stumbled upon. A life-long friend and choreographer from New York was the first to admit to a full face lift. Within a week, my hair dresser acknowledged a rhinoplasty and an editor sent his regards along with a similar tale of success. The ultimate testimonial came gushing out during my pre-op EKG at the hospital from a medical technician who’d not only had her chin and forehead lifted, but her upper arms liposuctioned as well—all on her “Katrina” money. I was a convert.
The night before the operation I barely slept, giddy with anxiety, convinced that I was coming down with a sore throat. By 5:45 am I was sitting in the Come and Go Unit at St. Francis Hospital. Ushered into a ward filled with beds and a half dozen curtained partitions, I was issued an insulated paper gown that plugged into a hose, like a hair dryer and filled with warm air as needed. I was left to control the temperature, which pleased me as I staunchly attempted to micromanage the entire situation, asking endless questions and worrying over every detail, until I was sedated. Wheeled into surgery, a nurse wound vinyl wraps around both of my lower limbs--from thigh to ankle. This anti-thrombosis device alternately pumped and released air, massaging the legs in a synchronized motion. It was heaven-sent and an apparatus that I would gladly use nightly if I could find it at Target, or maybe Hammacher Schlemmer.
While I remained barely conscious for most of the following day and night, nurses scuttled in and out of my room to replace cool wet cotton patches on my eyelids and lay heavy ice packs on my lower face. My head was poised awkwardly. I later found out that the back of my neck rested on a rolled up bath towel, which kept my chin and lower face jutting into the air. The nurses constantly fussed over the position of my head and when it fell off the towel someone hurried over to correct my posture. Even through my narcotic haze, I realized that it was in my best interest to cooperate fully with this uncomfortable rigmarole. Morphine was administered intravenously and that, along with the whooshing of the leg-massagers, lulled me into a state of tolerable discomfort.
By the following morning I was still sick to my stomach from the anesthetic and irritated with the endless changing of ice packs and cotton balls. I kept trying to sit up to alleviate the nausea but was pushed back down on my neck towel. I also couldn't see. My eyelids were stuck shut. I felt a tremendous urge to go to the bathroom but was told it wasn't necessary--I'd been fitted with a catheter. Stifling a scream, I mustered the strength to force myself upright and fling my legs over the side of the bed. I had to get out of there! The day-nurse appeared immediately and scolded me. I couldn't be released until I was able to urinate, walk around the entire floor and hold down water. Although it was time for my pain medication I refused any more drugs, which had done nothing whatsoever to curb the mal de mer.
Dr. Harvey was a sliver of sunshine, showing up midday to swab open my eyes and to tell me how great I looked. He also signed my release papers. Sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway, I managed to mush some crumpled Saltine Crackers into my swollen mouth and wash them down with a swig of 7-Up. Pharmaceuticals are no match for Mom's stomachache remedies.
I planned to enjoy my recovery during the 2-1/2 weeks of vacation time away from my accounting job. I'd have nothing to do but relax and putter around with my novel. Unfortunately, I was experiencing a little more discomfort than I expected, and there was something else that I hadn't considered--I couldn't see to write. My glasses were too painful to wear. They rubbed against the stitches above my ears. I took a pair of needle-nose pliers and cut the stems off. Now technically a pince nez, the device continually slipped down my nose until I used surgical tape to adhere it to my forehead. It would have worked out but for my peripheral vision and a pounding headache that drove me back to bed.
I slept a lot of the time and food was not much of a problem. I couldn't really accommodate it. Dr. Harvey's taut stitch-work had left the lower third of my face with a slit where my mouth used to be. It was large enough to slip in a quarter--sideways. I took nourishment through a flattened straw and sliced or mashed everything else to paper thickness. I used a razor blade to cut the Vicodin. My hairdresser sternly warned me not to look in the bathroom mirror for the first few days. Since I didn't have much to eliminate it made it easier to stay out of there altogether. However, there were now two elephants in the room. Driven by a compulsive nature, I broke both taboos at once. First I glanced in the bathroom mirror. The Cinderella Man (after a bout with Max Baer) squinted back. I could take it. Besides, what had I expected? Then I gingerly stepped on the scale. There it was--I'd lost another 2-1/2 lbs. Oh God! Where would the extra skin go? With my neck as tight as a drum, it would have to be the belly. Perhaps I'd approach Dr. Harvey about a tummy tuck after my recovery.
By the middle of the following week I wanted to get off the pain killers and was forced to leave the house to seek a non-prescription remedy at the pharmacy. This wasn't just any Wednesday-it was October 31st. Since I was on medication and couldn't turn my head, I'd been advised not to drive my car. (Fortunately, I only slightly dented the Miata on the way home when I overshot the driveway and hit the garage door handle.) I headed out to Lakeshore Boulevard, parked, then walked a short distance to the shopping district. My head swathed in a white head-to-chin strap, every inch of exposed skin was bloated and multi hued. My muzzle was distended and the color of a bruised banana and underneath my eyes I sported lines of purple stitches. The jowl lift and chin implant were anchored with twine-like mattress sutures extending around the perimeter (and inside of) both ears. I walked straight ahead. I didn't try to make eye contact nor did I look away.
The sidewalks were crawling with witches with warts and gruesome teenage mutants--still I held my own in the crowd. I overheard speculation and comments about me as shoppers snickered to each other in passing. A nattily dressed foreigner, standing at a crosswalk, uttered a sympathetic gasp and asked if there were anything he could do. I felt a twinge of guilt at wasting this man's compassion on such narcissistic folly. That was soon replaced with incredulity when a middle-aged African American woman, carrying a bag of groceries, walked straight up to me and stuck her face four inches from my own.
"I sure hope you didn't do all that for Halloween!" She declared emphatically.
I assured her that I hadn't and she seemed relieved, although I'm not sure why.
Acquaintances took the news along the lines they felt most comfortable. One sent out a reproachful email asking a mutual friend if she'd seen what I'd done to myself. Another wickedly announced that I'd decided to lop off one chin for each of my ex-husbands.
"Actually two of her chins only count as one," he quipped, "Since she married one of those guys twice."
I was determined to stay out of the fray until tongues wearied and I could appear at the next public gathering to speak for myself.
Way too soon I had to return to work. I felt little more than half-healed, and hardly robust. I was not quite ready for my close-up. I had peripheral nerve pain covering one side of the back of my head, making it too sensitive to touch. Also my ears were the size of small cauliflowers so sleeping continued to be a real problem. I was more than a little concerned as the pain lasted well into my second month of healing. (Online, I found out that Occipital Neuralgia has some nasty cures. One of which is to stick needles into the skull to locate and freeze nerve endings.) Despite enthusiasm for my new face, the prospect of trading a baggy neck and sagging jowls for a headache everyday for the rest of my life, was not a happy one. Dr. Harvey predicted that the nerve pain would go away and most likely was the effect of the placement of my head during and after surgery (that towel business in the hospital).
Despite the minor discomfort, I forged out to the mall to purchase some new necklines. With two weeks of recovery time under my belt, the puffiness was receding. My features appeared crisp as if a sculptor had chiseled his way through the mass of old flesh to reveal a svelte 25-year-old neck--I was definitely going to feature it. On Monday morning, I was as prepared as I could be to bear the scrutiny of the office clique. Wisely, I'd blabbed the news of the upcoming surgery myself, to avoid the inevitable whispering.
All present took a gander at the new face and profile. A few were reticent to acknowledge the procedure at all, but others couldn't wait to register an opinion. An aging lumber salesman pulled a chunk of skin away from his ample neck and said:
"I'm going to have this removed and see if the doctor can reattach it someplace else."
Another coworker had a whole new look planned for me, including among other procedures, a Brazilian butt tuck. "You'll love it," he claimed. "It's real 70s!"
The best comment came from a hardware clerk and nearly floored me.
"You have that after-sex glow," he beamed. (I should be so lucky.)
By lunchtime I drove downtown and gave in to a craving for fast-food. A bum on the street stopped me.
"Have you lost weight? You look 15 years younger," he said.
That was it. When rummies on the street notice--you know its money well spent.
The new reflection definitely put ideas into my head. In the days to come I started to feel like a teenager again, teetering on the verge of something exciting, just about to happen. I dug out my Motown Cd's and blared them full blast as I zoomed around town in my car. Driven by the desire to make up for lost time, I searched faces, wondering if a new interest might emerge. Put yourself out there, I thought, and he will come. Other than the fact that there were no instant takers, I was held back by doctor's orders. I was on the DL for another three weeks and any blood-pressure raising activities were forbidden--no power walking, no barbells, no vacuuming and above all, no sex!
A friend pulled me aside on Thursday.
"We've got to have that sex talk soon."
"What sex talk?" I asked
"The one I was supposed to have with my daughters before it got too late. There are a lot of sexually transmitted diseases out there now--you've got no idea," he warned.
Oddly enough there was enough truth to his jest to give me pause. As a drug-addled baby boomer, my sexual explorations--although legion--were ancient history. Dating was a whole new world now filled with the possibility of catching creepy sores and conditions that didn't ever go away. I needn't have worried. No such encounters were forthcoming, although a surge of mental hormones kept me titillated for weeks. I marveled at the fact that I might be one of those unrealistic women who expected her life to change. The only thing that seemed different was that I no longer worried about my neck and I'd become more opinionated than ever. I seemed to be making up for lost time and all but talked my head off.
When the pain finally receded I was left with the new me, which looked exactly like the old me, only younger. Now I could stop buying clothes. Everything I wore suddenly looked good. After all of the fuss--and a couple of month's time--people seemed to forget what I used to look like. I did too, until I held Dr. Harvey's "before" photos next to my new face.
I started walking around the lake again, enjoying the chipmunks and the Canadian geese. I worried a little because I hadn't seen a lone pair of wild turkeys I'd been watching, since Christmas Eve. I hoped they escaped the holiday table. As my life wound down to 33-1/3 rpm, I realized the drama had all been in my head. I began to tire of the self-absorption and turned back to my crime novel. As I thumbed through the first draft, I wondered how psyche nurse, Cookie Styles, would look with a face lift.
Causes Pam Tent Supports
Hopalong Animal Rescue Tibetan Aid Project