Body Map: The Face Hole

Sabra Embury


When I was sixteen, sailing around a graveled corner on a back road in Tennessee, a white van leaned into my side of the road in the apex of a curve, sending me into a skid. The car 360’d into a fence made of 2X4s, sending one of the posts through my windshield; shattering it, taking with it a quarter of my face, missing my eye by a centimeter. When my car came to a stop, the horn was stuck sending a dense wail of noise: an SOS to a cavalcade of samaritans who ran from their homes to help me.

Still conscious, I reached to put the car in park. I turned the ignition off. Spat glass which filled my mouth and crunched between my grinding teeth. I was covered in glass. I asked my friends if they were ok. One of them told me I was hurt. Then a warm wet ran down my face, filling my mouth, mixing with an avalanche of glass. There was no pain but a tremendous pressure pushed my mind into a dimension of black weight. My shoulders felt buoyed, held by ropes harnessed twenty feet down in a lake of blood. “How do we turn this horn off?” I asked, craning my neck to avoid the post which had impaled my car.

Within minutes people were all around me. Concerned faces wondering how they were going to get me out of the crumpled mess of tin which had once been my car. Someone dismantled the horn, a mechanic. Another applied pressure to my face. A nurse. She said my name, “I’m so and so’s mother, an ambulance is on the way, sit tight, hon.” Sirens came, a team of emergency specialists with intricate hardware cut me out of my car, loud buzzing tools on the post which had mutilated me. The sparks and kicks tore my door away from my body. Hands lifted me through an opening and placed me on a stretcher. Inside the ambulance they asked my name. “Is there any pain?” I felt a prick. Went from numb to number following a black calm, but they wouldn’t let me sleep. Surrounded by the sound of beeps and shushing of equipment, riding the high-pitched scream of the siren, I began to cry ignoring requests for my name.

On the sidelines of the emergency room, waiting to receive treatment, my mother entered my corridor. The look of shock on her face impressed me. This stoic woman, in her unemotional perpetuity. She looked at me and gasped, covering her mouth. “Oh my god,” she said, then went limp in the arms of a nurse and began to cry. My aunt arrived moments later. She had the same reaction. She held my mother who continued to weep.

I had no idea the extent of the damage which had been done to me. Still numb, I continued to spit glass. The fountain of blood which had once poured warmth on my arms and ears was now a fat, heavy clump of damp glue which fixed my hair to my neck. “Mom,” I said, “I have glass in my mouth.” She came over with a tissue and daubed my tongue, the tinkle of shards falling softly to the floor from my shoulders and hair. “It doesn’t hurt,” I said, wanting to take her pain away.

Up until that moment I had never seen my mother cry. I was sixteen, and my mother, a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, had always been my rock of anti-wussery. My calm goddess of indifference. A source of unyielding strength. My teacher of how to be. Reminded of this, she quickly dried her tears and got to the business of saving my face. As far as I knew, had been knocked so hard, I might’ve lost sight in my left eye.

It was when I was under the reflection of the x-ray machine hovering above me when I saw myself for the first time in my present condition, hours after the accident. In a quiet room, chest wrapped in a vest of lead, I saw face in the polished equipment. The hole where my cheek used to be resembled a shallow canyon of bone and meat. My eyebrow dangled from my temple. My face and hair looked like it had been upside-down dipped in a bucket of coagulated blood. Like Carrie at prom before bursting a building filled with bullying classmates into flames. My face had been pulverized into pulp. Then there were the cuts criss-crossing my arms. A missing chunk from my bicep below a mutilated left hemisphere, my face and body shredded, I was a horror movie–the eyes of anyone who saw me: its victims.

I began to cry, “My face!” I said, “Oh no, oh no.” I began to flail in panic. I looked like a freak. My face, obliterated, gleaming with glass shrapnel. When the staff realized I could see myself in a reflection they shuffled nervously as this girl with raw meat for a complexion began to bawl and whimper. There was a kink in the program, and they had never even considered the possibility. “Don’t look, “said a nurse who stood to assist me, “It’s better if you don’t look.”

After the x-rays were taken revealing no broken bones, we waited for hours for the plastic surgeon on-call to reach the hospital. My clothes had been scissored off and replaced by a gown. The waiting game was rough since my wounds couldn’t be treated or dressed. They had to stay glistening fresh for stitching. All I could do was lie on my back and wait. It had been hours since the collision, by the time the surgeon arrived. It was long past midnight. The industrious bustle had slowed to a trickle of bodies. Bleary-eyed, the surgeon hovered above me to assess the damage.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to fix this,” he said. “You’re a very pretty girl and we need to keep it that way. But I’m gonna have to give you some shots to numb your face.” The shots local anesthesia felt like nails being hammered into my cheek. “Hold her still,” said the doctor. “I can’t do this if she’s kicking.”

“Hold her arms,” he said, as I screamed. As he continued to inject the numbing agents directly into my deepest cuts. The precise piercings of those needles close to the bone. I screamed and cried until the numbness found its way. Then stitch, clip, stitch, the doctor began, carefully reconstructing my face, sewing what was left of my cheek back in place. Tacking the meat flap above my eye with solemn regard for symmetry.

Hours later, when he was through, the doctor said, “It’ll look nice. You’ll still be pretty.” Then I showed him my shredded arm. “What about this?” I said. He gave a sigh of disgust when he saw it. “I can’t take my time with your arm like I did with your face but I’ll do what I can. I have to go. I’ve been here a long time. You’re just gonna have to have a gnarly scar on your arm, is that ok?” “It’s ok,” I said. “It’s all ok.”