My relationship with my Dad confused us both. Neither one of us knew what to do. This post is a little dark, but it exemplifies pretty much how my Dad and I got along.
For the summer, I returned to Gloucester. Luckily I found a summer job with a clinical laboratory, so I could make a little money. In 1970, my Dad turned 50 years old; I turned 25. I bought a bottle of 30-year-old Ballantine’s Scotch and called Dad at his new place. Connie answered, and we agreed to a date between the 21 July (his) and 31 July (mine). I arranged it as a date with Dana who worked in the lab with me. I picked her up at 6 PM, and we cruised north up the turnpike to Dad’s new condo in Lawrence, right off the Turnpike. It was a long commute for him – about 50 miles – but straight down the highway to his dental office.
I was actually in some pain from a tooth – another tooth – that had broken off, and I had a growing infection underneath the fragments. The swelling started being obvious that morning, and Dana had mentioned it when I picked her up. I loaded up on aspirin, so I could drive and function, but it was nagging me. Dad’s new apartment sat on the second floor of a nondescript box, one of several in a parking lot off the highway. They had furnished it nicely and greeted us warmly.
I broke out the Ballantine’s and Dad started a series of toasts. We slugged down several shots right off the bat. I think Connie and Dana drank other things but equally recklessly. Dinner was postponed again and again. Less than two hours later, the bottle was empty; Dad and I moved to another bottle of more mundane scotch. My tooth pain still throbbed, but tolerably. At one point, Dad noticed the swelling and asked about it. I told him that I had a bad tooth. When he looked at it, he said that tooth should come out of there. Let’s run down to Lawrence General, and I’ll see if I can get a place in the emergency room to take it out. I laughed; we continued drinking. Connie had started with sherry but had moved on to Black Russians. Dana had stuck to gin and tonic and had kept pace with the rest of us; I was impressed.
We mentioned dinner once or twice; they were serving spaghetti so we just had to boil the pasta and heat the sauce. We’d been nibbling hors d’oeuvres all along and were just getting into the groove for some hard drinking. About midnight, Dad caught me rubbing my jaw and started in about taking out the tooth again. The swelling had begun affecting my vision, so it must have been severe. But we were all shit-faced, and I didn’t feel a thing. At one point, Connie said, Why don’t we do it at your office? The next thing I knew, we had begun an expedition to Dad’s office 50 miles away. Connie had pulled it together, gotten all the appropriate keys, and most importantly had declared her intention to drive. The rest of us were relieved that we didn’t have to do it.
For this section of the adventure, we switched to Andre’s Cold Duck. Connie had put two bottles in the freezer to get them nice and cold. We staggered down to the parking lot, piled into Dad’s big Cadillac, and set off. The trip seemed quick and smooth, and suddenly we were turning on the lights and setting the scene. Coincidentally, Dana had worked for a dentist and knew her way around the office; again I was impressed. I sat in the patient’s chair. Connie and Dana assisted; Dad operated.
By this time, we had plunged into a bout of hilarity. Everything we said seemed hilarious. We were slapping thighs and wiping our eyes. Dad took a first look, scraped a little plaque, and nicked my gum with his probe causing a little blood to show. When he said rinse, I grabbed the Cold Duck, took a big slug, then swirled it in my mouth. I nearly drowned laughing along with the others. Dad decided to inject some pain killer – procaine – and we made joke after joke about not really needing it at this point. He said open wide, and I did. He took careful aim with the needle and pushed. When he pulled it out of my mouth, it was bent at a 90 angle. He missed. Hilarious. He tried again. Needle bent. Weeping with drunken laughter. After seven needles, we finally caught our breaths, rinsed and swallowed and decide to proceed without the damn anesthesia anyway.
The operation consisted in slicing the gum along the jawbone, reaching in and pulling out the tooth fragment, and sewing over the flap of skin. He started tugging and slicing and digging. I really couldn’t feel much, but every once in while an electric jolt of pain in the gigawatts range would blaze into my brain – a harbinger, maybe. We laughed but got tired of laughing, and Dad was plain getting tired. Finally he said OK let’s sew it up. He got out the sutures with their little curved needles and he bent maybe five or six before he got one to catch. I could feel the sensation of some pressure and then tugging, so I guessed that the sewing was going on, and we’d soon leave.
And so we did. Once again, Connie drove beautifully. Dana and I were still rinsing with the Cold Duck, and Dad started losing it, muttering to himself, his chin plunging to his chest every few minutes. We made it home safe and sound. When we all got settled inside the apartment again, Connie and Dana announced that we were about to have dinner. Sure enough, they disappeared into the kitchen and in a few minutes, some delicious smells filled the place. Dad and I took our places at the heads of the long dining room table. Connie and Dana took the sides, and we sat down to eat. First, though, I stood and made a toast to the interval of 25 years. We all cheered and drank down our glasses. Connie had brought out a bottle of chianti to go with the spaghetti. Dad looked at me down the length of that table and solemnly — with a sheepish, cockeyed smile — raised his hands palm up in a shrug of surrender. The momentum of his arms carried his weight against the back of the chair which tilted back slowly and inexorably. Then the center of gravity passed the midpoint, and his head snapped back, and he and the chair went straight back over and hit the floor. He rolled over on his side, curled into a fetal position, and passed out. The rest of us turned to the Chianti. It was 4:30AM.
I remember the meal better than the operation, very pleasant chit chatting and homemade sauce. We helped Connie clean up, helped her decide to leave Dad right there on the floor, and we left. The sun glowed on the horizon and when we hit the turnpike, it ran thick with commuter traffic. Dana had to go to work at the lab, so driving carefully, I dropped her and headed home. I definitely had to sleep with one foot on the floor that time to keep from getting sick. But I soon tumbled into blackness.
I woke in hell. The pain filled my entire life, shoving everything else — all other consideration of anything — aside. My whole being was filled with pain, and it came from the middle of my head, my very being. It throbbed relentlessly, demanding every iota of strength not to scream out in agony. This hangover had achieved monumental proportions. I realized then, that my teeth chattered uncontrollably and I was shivering.
I tried a mix of pain relievers, Tylenol and aspirin but vomited them back up instantly. This time, I drank some water, slowly chewed a few slices of moldy white bread. This time the pills stayed down, and I waited impatiently for them to take effect. They never did, and I began to worry. The pain had gotten worse even though I thought I had exceeded the maximum threshold long ago. I took more pills. I waited for the pain to blow me into ten million tiny pieces. I hated to bother Dad, so I set a deadline: if I didn’t feel better by noon the next day, I’d call him.
Even now thinking about that pain, I can’t imagine that I even tried to sleep. I may have dozed off twice. At 11 AM, I called Dad’s office. When he came on the line, I told him sorry about the bother, but I’m having quite a bit of pain. OK he said, I’ll call in a prescription of codeine. And that was it. A few hours later I sailed on codeine. All that aspirin kept my fever down, so I wasn’t having chills anymore. Finally got some sleep, but when I woke, I was right back inside that cloud of pain. Two days later, I called Dad back. Explained that the codeine worked, but the pain wasn’t diminishing and I felt really sick. He said he’d renew the codeine and cut me off. He must have felt bad.
I was still trying to find ways to survive from minute to minute the crush of that pain. I hadn’t eaten much – just Campbell’s soups. Once in a while, I ate some powdered eggs. Somehow I managed to keep drinking water. My chills were coming back and my alarm was mounting. Finally, I called my friend, Tom Foley, the dentist that Hawley had worked for when I’d looked up from his chair into her beautiful face. It was Saturday, nine days since the birthdays. He was off-duty, but he heard something in my voice and said to meet him at the office. I got there somehow, but I remember hanging limply over the steering wheel on the ride there. I don’t know how I made it.
He was there ahead of me, and the office stood open. He looked at me with concern when I entered. I felt flushed and giddy and really sick. With some concern, he moved us quickly into the room with the chair, flicked on the light, started the water in the tiny deep sink next to me, and slipped into a green dental gown. Then he held out the pick and told me to lean back and relax. He adjusted the chair back a little and repositioned the large light that hung just over my face. Open wide he said as his face moved very close to mine from the side, so the light would still shine in. I watched his eyes move from the tray of instruments to my mouth, and he froze. Instantly his face turned completely white. I saw him sway forward and he used his hand to brace himself. “Jesus,” he gasped. After a few seconds, he stood quickly and stepped to the door of the office. He took several deep breaths then returned.
He told me later that his head spun so fast that he knew he’d pass out. It was the worst wound he had ever seen; the jawbone was completely exposed with infection and inflammation everywhere. Dad had managed to slice open the gum, but never did get out the tooth fragments or even sew back the edges. It was like a leg bone that breaks and one of the ends pokes through the skin and lies exposed – except it had happened in my mouth. If the infection had spread to the bloodstream (as it could have easily done), I would have died.
Over the next few weeks, Tom Foley fixed me up. I saw him three times, and each appointment took at least two hours, but he never charged me. I don’t think he ever recovered from our monument to fathers and sons. As for Dad, three years passed before I saw him again. By then, many things had changed.