I was the first child born to my parents, entering the world in 1972 during a full moon which made for an extremely popular labor date in my small town hospital My mother spent time alone on a hallway gurney in those days before birth coaches. It was the time when mothers-to-be disappeared behind swinging doors while fathers-to-be spent time in dark-paneled waiting areas.
My three siblings and I all emerged with remarkably large heads. The trait was captured on film, our four very distinct personalities indistinguishable via cranium size.
All the better to hold in those smart brains, according to my mother.
Some months later, she placed me in the center of the double bed she shared with my father. As she returned clean laundry to the drawers in the bedroom she was right there, just a few steps away, and had never once seen me roll over. I was safe in a cocoon of bedding. Moments later, she heard a dull thud as I struck the floor, the brain inside that big head having suddenly mastered the nerve signals for rolling multiple times.
My parents tell me of taking me for surgery at a larger hospital several towns over. I needed treatment with more sophisticated surgical apparatus than what was in-town. They watched me being rolled away on a stretcher, singing softly to myself. I had what was called a ping-pong fracture — a dent in my head — something not entirely uncommon in babies whose skull growth plates have not yet closed. To fix the dent, I needed an operation to pop it out. This involved some sort of drill, a small flashlight device, and another instrument that would lift the skull area back into place.
When they refer to this incident, my father tells me how I kept repeating “oh-dee-doe-dee-doe” over and over as I was wheeled off to the operating room. I am glad I was able to project calm; I hope that helped my parents. Years after it happened, my mother mentioned her fear that my lifelong history of headaches was somehow the result of the fall and its aftermath. I assured her there is no connection. (And, if trepanning enthusiasts in previous centuries were onto something, the surgery may even have helped.)
With no memory of the this incident, I found it fascinating that someone had drilled into the bone covering my brain. As time passed, I relegated the episode to a dusty storage unit in a rarely-accessed area of memory. The surgeon retired some time ago and now lives in Florida. My father occasionally sees this man’s brother and, each time, relays the story of the operation and his gratitude for a job well done. As a graduate student, I read that even into the 1980s, some hospitals in the U.S. were operating on preemies and other infants without anesthesia, due to now-discredited ideas about side effects of sedation and diminished sensations of pain in babies.
In recent years, I have wondered if I was one of the innumerable children unknowingly subjected to surgery that caused intense pain, unremembered consciously, but encoded somehow at a cellular level. I do not pretend to understand the scientific details, and I am certain that surgeons were doing the very best they could to help their youngest patients based on the knowledge they had. From what I gather, however, such experiences can force the central nervous system into overdrive and have lasting effects. I now suffer from a series of chronic pain conditions, possibly caused from upregulation of the central nervous system.
Perhaps my mother was right, after all. But I harbor no resentment, no regret. I was a much-loved child, and still am. I am so very grateful to have parents who have taken care of me for over 40 years. And I know that no matter what, the incident caused my mother more pain than it ever did me. I suspect she will remember that thud until her last breath, but I simply consider it part of who I am and what made me the person I am today. In middle age, the creativity that long lived inside, patiently waiting for the right time to hatch, has made its appearance in a tidal wave.
That drill may have been a gift.
Last month, I was absent-mindedly running my fingers very slowly through my now gray-tinged hair when my index finger landed on a small depression on the right corner of my skull. Was this the spot? Never before had I located it, mainly because it had not occurred to me to seek it out. As I gently probed the indentation, the area radiated a deep, inward pull and the skin around the notch began to ache, a feeling that stayed with me for hours. Whether it was visceral or emotional or spiritual I do not know, but something was activated. Our bodies remember pain, apparently, even when our retrievable memories have purged it.
I have purposely searched for the spot several times since then, but am often unsuccessful. Perhaps the portal can be temporarily disabled, but I know it is not permanently closed. Occasionally, the small groove nearly rises up to my fingers, and I can almost hear the drill.
Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Bacopa, Entropy, Fourth & Sycamore, Rabbit, and elsewhere. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.