“How’d it go at the dentist?” I asked my seatmate, a regular customer. I was driving her home, from Pearl Street in Burlington to Pearl Street in Essex Junction — a minor coincidence that made me happy. Some days it doesn’t take much.
“It went about as well as a trip to the dentist,” she replied.
Great answer, I thought.
Pamela Peach is a short woman of 72 years and a Vermonter through and through. If you asked her if she’s lived here her whole life, she would probably reply, “Not yet,” with a twinkle in her eye. Her hair is brown — still natural, I think — and cut sensibly short. For this outing, she sported earrings that looked like two gum drops. Her cardigan sweater was a pastel color, as were her pants. The gal loves pastel.
Pamela said, “Jernigan, talking about the dentist, did I ever tell you I used to be a dental hygienist?”
“Yeeaah,” I replied, turning my head and looking up to think — like that’s really going to help my middle-aged brain. “Yup, I think you did once mention something about that.”
“Well, I was. My dad was a dentist and a lot of the family friends were dentists, as well. Growing up around all the dental talk, it was a natural career for me to take up.”
We breezed down Route 15, the sky threatening rain. It’s been raining, or threatening rain, nearly every afternoon so far this summer. For beach people, this has got to be depressing. I’m not a beach boy myself, but I can empathize.
As we motored along, I pondered my customer’s career choice. Not to diminish the noble calling of the dental hygienist, but if Pamela had come of age a mere 10 years later — during the feminist awakening of the late ’60s and early ’70s — there’s every possibility she would have become a dentist or another kind of doctor, given her smarts and savvy. Girls these days, I mused, should really give their props to Gloria Steinem, et al.
Pamela was married for years to an IBMer. There was a son, and a painful divorce. But a few years ago, when their only child faced a serious health crisis, she and the ex pulled together, and they remain close. Divorce, it occurs to me, is often an illusion; especially when there are children, the bonds can stay strong.
“Yup, I can tell you this,” Pamela began, apropos of nothing in particular beyond the natural urge to chat. “I just knew today would not be a good day for me to drive.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, “I forgot that you still drove.”
“I do, but only when I totally feel up to it. With the TBI, I have to be really careful. Luckily, I am blessed with a keen body awareness; I can always sense it when it’s affecting me.”
About a year ago, Pamela was in a horrific accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. In the immediate aftermath, she told me, her skull was oozing a dangerous amount of brain fluid, and the doctors gave her family slim hope for much beyond bare survival, if that. But somehow — perhaps owing to the prayers of her many loved ones in conjunction with her own indomitable spirit — she’s come much of the way back. Her short-term memory, however, she describes as “sketchy.” Her long-term memory, by contrast, is vivid. And, as she once told me, after 72 years, there’s a lot of long-term memory.
“Well,” I said, “it seems like you’re still making steady progress in your recovery. Isn’t it great to prove the doctors wrong?”
Pamela chuckled and said, “Yup — that is satisfying. But it bothers me when I miss something in the normal flow of conversation.”
“I don’t know, Pamela. You seem like a fine conversationalist to me.”
“Thanks for that, but I’ll give you an example. I was speaking the other day with Janet, an old, dear friend, and only after we parted I remembered that her husband had recently suffered a stroke. I hadn’t asked after him at all. Not one question. What kind of friend is that? I felt just terrible.”
I glanced over and smiled at my customer, this soulful Vermonter, who was down about a pint of brain fluid if the doctors were to be believed. The brain is overrated anyway, I thought. The accident never touched her heart and soul, and that’s what’s essential. I would bet that her friend Janet bears her not a shred of ill will.
As we eased to a stop in front of her home, she said, “Well, thank you, Jernigan. Maybe I’ll be able to drive myself the next time.”
I said, “Don’t get me wrong, Pamela, but I hope not. There’s just too many good stories you haven’t shared with me yet.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, “the long-term memories. I still got plenty of those.”