Friday afternoon, Greenwich Village. Al and I squeeze into two remaining back row seats of a tiny, darkened theatre at the IFC Center just as the previews end. The acclaimed documentary is Manakamana, a mesmerizing character study of pilgrims traveling to and from a Hindu temple in Nepal via cable car. This is first on my list of things to do on our big weekend celebration of my 60th birthday and Mother’s Day. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for weeks. And I have a toothache.
I have a rare complication of scleroderma: The roots of some of my teeth are resorbing. So far, I’ve had a couple of back molars extracted and a front molar replaced with an implant. My dentist and periodontist have been monitoring the relentless deterioration of several other molars, since. The worst one, lower left, has been hanging on for five years, occasionally oversensitive to cold, but manageable. If it had a name, it would be Grumpy. But it only has a number, 19.
A few days before our trip, 19 was acting up. I assumed it would calm down with careful tending, per usual. But as we drove closer to NYC Friday afternoon, the twinges were becoming more persistent. I tried to ignore it.
A couple sits shoulder to shoulder in the cable car. He wears a traditional peaked cap, shirt and vest, and carries a live rooster. She wears a red blouse and necklace of green beads. Her face is shriveled. She leans with her arm over the back of the seat, exhausted. He checks his watch. As the car rides higher and higher above terraced corn fields and sal forests, she brightens. It’s fun to go to the temple, she says. It’s good to go out when you can.
As we leave the theatre, I realize that not only is 19 aching, but the pain is also traveling into my left ear. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve come prepared with my pharmacopia of meds, but I don’t want to deal with a rotten tooth on my birthday weekend. It’s drizzling. We sit on a bench outside a bakery to sort out options. I don’t want to ruin everything we have planned, and I certainly don’t want to waste time in an ER or try to find a dentist who may not take our insurance. So we agree that I’ll try to manage the pain with my meds, wait and see.
Later that night, after a great meal (despite 19) of wine and risotto, enhanced by Al’s magical ability to find interesting people (across from the cafe, at an artist’s opening in a church gallery, we shared Shabbat candle lighting and kiddush), I lay awake, unable to sleep in strange surroundings. My mind travels back to the film.
Three young long-haired men, all dressed in black, joke and fiddle with their digital cameras and cellphones as the cable car travels up to the temple. It feels like we’re going up steps, says the one in the middle. My ears keep popping. They pose for each other’s selfies and play with a scrawny kitten. People ski on hills like this in other countries, says another. What if the cable broke and we fell, laughs the third.
Despite a fitful night, I get just enough sleep to go ahead with our plans for the day. So far, 19 is achey but manageable. It’s warm and the sun is shining. We attend Shabbat services at B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, then take a long stroll through Central Park, watch turtles sunning by a pond and wander through the Shakespeare Garden. I lie down on a bench while Al explores. People row on the lake, others play softball. Horse-drawn carriages clop along the road. The skies open up and we take refuge in the Museum of Modern Art–Al’s first-ever visit. I’m weary but elated to view these stunning works once again and watch Al’s enthusiastic response.
It’s still raining when MoMA closes, but we find a great restaurant right next to the Broadway theatre that is our final stop for the evening. I’m revived by the meal and we finish just in time to pick up our tickets for After Midnight, a revue of Cotton Club jazz from the ‘30s, starring Vanessa Williams. The music, singing, tap dancing, costumes are spectacular. Even from the very last row of the rear mezzanine, we can see everything perfectly. Exhausted, I sleep through the night, grateful that 19 has not gained the upper hand.
Three women sit in the cable car, dressed in bright colors and beads, their hair white, their faces gnarled like the bark of ancient trees. They talk about how their husband couldn’t come because he twisted his ankle while carrying a bucket of water he had drawn. They nod and look out the glass windows of the cable car, admiring the view. Life is so much easier than it used to be, one says. We had to struggle to survive.
Sunday is warm, beautiful. We enjoy a hearty breakfast in a little cafe, a stroll to the East River, and then head to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden for a glorious walk beneath blossoming cherry trees. Next door, at the Brooklyn Museum, we immerse in the works of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and so much more. I make sure to take my pain meds on time, to keep 19 in check. We reluctantly depart for home when the Museum closes its doors at six.
On Monday, I call my dentist and get a late afternoon appointment. The x-ray tells the story: There is a round gray shadow over the molar’s left-branching nerve. The resorption has exposed it. Nineteen has to go. It will take six to nine months after the extraction to complete the implant. Not surprised, I accept the bad news reluctantly, rub my achey jaw and drive home. At least the procedure will get split between this year’s remaining dental insurance and the next.
Two men sit in the cable car, each holding a stringed instrument and a bow. The older one looks out the window and recalls walking over the hills below to get to the temple, before there were even paths. We should tune up, he says to his younger companion. As the cable car descends, they watch treetops pass while playing a rhythmic folk melody, round and round and round.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.