I hate going to the dentist—especially when it's of the oral surgery variety. My mouth has had so much work done that if it were my face I'd look like a Joan Rivers wannabe (may she rest in peace).
And every time, minutes before my scheduled appointment, I'm tempted to call the dental office and say something like, "Sorry, but I can't make it today. My car got a flat and I'm stuck on the side of the highway."
But I never do it because I feel too guilty, and besides, I'm paranoid that they'll see right through that lie, not to mention be offended by the last-minute cancellation and get back at me by doing a root canal without novocaine. (I'll never forget that scene from the movie, Marathon Man, when they did that as a form of torture. Poor guy.)
But recently, just five minutes into my trip to the dreaded Devil, er, dentist (blame my rather insightful autocorrect for that word switch), I was forced to make that phone call. Only this time, the "lie" was not a lie but the truth—and nothing but the truth.
I'd just gotten on the highway. The sun shone sharply through the windows and made me feel hopeful. Not only was it finally feeling like spring, but maybe the appointment wouldn't be so bad after all. I'm tough. I can put up with a little cutting and stitching. I've been through worse, after all.
But suddenly my thoughts jolted from the comforting to the disheartening when my car began to move weirdly.
Was it the engine? I quickly glanced toward the dashboard—no "check engine" light was on. Had I put the car into the wrong gear? Nope, I had it in "drive." Maybe a window was open and the car was dragging due to the wind?
I lowered the windows and raised them again—then lowered them once more: Could it be that the odor that wafted in was actually burning rubber?
I groped around the dashboard, leaving fingerprints in my wake, searching clumsily for the hazard lights while the car waddled toward the next exit. I slowly made my way off the highway, stopping as soon as I saw a clearing on my right—which happened to be smack in front of an old, crumbling cemetery, of all places.
Where I live in New England, there are a lot of old, crumbling cemeteries popping up in the most unexpected places, sporting numbers that date all the way back to the 1800s. I hoped that wasn't a sign of some sort.
I unlocked the doors, gingerly stepped out of the driver's side onto the busy road, hugging my body along my car as I walked toward safety onto the sparse, yellowing grass of the cemetery.
Voila! There it was. Flat as a failed punch line.
I had to do something—and fast.
So, I took out my cell phone, dialed the Devil, dentist, and blurted out what I'd rehearsed so many times in my head: "I have to cancel my appointment. I have a flat."
When I was a girl, my father loved to tinker with cars. Each weekend, he'd drag me to all the neighboring junkyards to pick up spare parts for cars he was working on in our driveway. He took pride in those cars and tried to teach me practical lessons, especially as I approached driving age: Watch me change the oil; here's how to change a flat tire; now I'm going to teach you how to pump on the gas pedal while simultaneously turning the key so a cold car will start.
But I ignored most of these, bored by the entire ordeal. I might have looked like I was listening and paying attention but was secretly counting the minutes until he finished with his lesson so I could go back to riding my bike or talking on the phone with my friends or memorizing the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.
The only thing I did retain was how to pump on the gas pedal—that was easy. But I ended up flooding the engine and at that point the car wouldn't start, anyway. Then cars became modernized, got fuel-injection and keyless starters, so the one thing I picked up (or did I?) was soon useless. (And if I'm wrong about the fuel-injection fact, then it only goes to show you I really wasn't paying attention, after all.)
So now, as a nod to my now-deceased father and a lesson to the rest of you, I share my revelations from the other side of a flat tire:
Listen to your elders. When they want to teach you a skill, listen, pay attention and learn. You might be bored or disinterested. Or maybe you think it's just plain unnecessary. But trust me, one day, it'll come in handy.
Learn where your car hazard lights are located. Because you rarely use them, chances are you don't know where that important switch is. Find it and spend some time reaching your hand toward it to cement the memory in your mind. You never know when you'll need those lights to flash, and it's usually when something is wrong and you can't think straight or can't take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road to find out.
Respect your teeth. Take good care of them. Brush, floss and repeat. Maybe it'll save you a visit to the dentist. I'm not saying I didn't do all this … I just happened to inherit my mother's bad teeth.
Never leave home without it. Your AAA card, that is. I changed to a smaller wallet recently and neglected to put all my credit cards into my wallet, thinking it was smart to leave them behind, should I have a sudden impulse to shop. Little did I realize my AAA card, which resembles a credit card, was abandoned in my zeal. (All's well that ends well—when I called AAA, they told me I didn't need the card, but having it in my hand would have made the process way less stressful.)
Enjoy it while you can. Chances are, if I were 30 or 40 years younger, a zillion cars would have come to a screeching halt when they saw me standing beside my car, helplessly looking toward the highway (I was keeping an eye out for the tow truck, but they didn't know that). They probably would have thought I was searching for help, then stopped and acted chivalrous, offering to change my tire, fighting each other for the privilege (and slipping me their phone number while they were at it). And then I would have taken a selfie with that hunky and handy virile guy and posted it on my Facebook page.
Not that I really wanted anyone to stop. As I get older, I'm wary of those kinds of things. But I can't lie and say I didn't feel just a little bad that plain old compassion and empathy were gone.
And worse than the death of empathy and compassion, there was that other thing that made me think what many midlife women begin to think:
Am I invisible, dammit?
This post originally appeared on mysocalledmidlife.net.