Body: n. The entire material or physical structure of an organism, especially of a human or animal.
I keep getting stuck on this letter, with this idea of addressing my whole body. It's overwhelming - too much, I think. There are so many things I could focus on, but I keep coming back to my face. She deserves a letter. She has physical and psychic seniority over the extra 40 pounds, the wonky ankle, the aggravating stretch marks – especially so because there aren’t even any babies to attribute them too, just cheeseburgers. All of those things, as hard as they’ve been to face, along with all of the things about this form that I celebrate…well, they’re chump change compared to my face.
So my face, she gets the letter, although just writing "Dear Face" feels too awkward, so it's more of an address in her general direction, which I hope will do. She gets it because she’s worked overtime from that random genetic moment in the womb – about four weeks in, so I understand – where she didn’t fully fuse, leaving me shooting out into the world with a split lip and palate, to her daily grind since then. She, unlike any other part of this body, takes the really sharp turns. She reads the road signs and knows which line at the grocery store is better, right out of the gate. She picks the winners, or tries to. She finds the empty parking spaces and answers the tough questions. The arms and legs, they just fall in line.
There are no photos before the day at six weeks of age when I went into surgery for the first time, when my hippie plastic surgeon in the American flag shirt sewed my lip together. Hospitals didn’t take many if any photos of babies with facial differences then, although my mother said she wanted one. A nurse cried over her in her bed, for me, for my problems, giving birth to a rage in my mother that she told me she had trouble – at 20 years of age – understanding, much less responding to. This was still, she said, her baby, her baby's face. But in the days before digital cameras and immediate records, before blogs and communities where people could inevitably find someone to share their story, and more importantly, before differences were more acceptable, it was better to wait until I was – almost – whole to start snapping.
My face fends off strange looks when people notice the irregularities, the scar at the midline of the lip and nose, the asymmetry that little kids can see when they look up from beneath. She’s responsible for eye contact, important when you want people to see you for you, for the words you can say and the thoughts you think, and not focus on the scar tissue from a genetic fluke that really, when it comes down to it, is completely manageable. It doesn’t affect intellect, or humor, or skill of any sort. It just makes us snore pretty loud, which isn’t fun, and it also makes me whistle occasionally when I talk, which can be jarring, because I can't do it in tune.
It’s not easy being at the front of the pack when you look different from the average in this super looks-obsessed culture, according to the maddening scale that changes depending on location, time of day and who you’re talking to. Bars in college weren’t so fun. Just like fifth grade, remember? Except in fifth grade men weren’t yet coming up to me to ask for my best friend’s number, because surely it was my life’s dream to hook my girls up with unworthy partners.
My face still watches and hears people call it a cleft lip, call it a facial difference, praying they don’t call it a harelip, because that still sounds so ugly. Would they want me to call them a horsemouth? Kind of the same difference, just insert a different animal. It’s not politically correct – it’s just an old word, a word that doesn’t fit anymore, at least not for us.
My face became, all the same, a big talker, a hyper-verbal life of the party. For someone who didn’t like people looking at it much, she blabbed on and on from the time she could talk, encouraged by indulgent adults to share her thoughts, which didn’t need any help coming out in the first place. And only when a keyboard got involved did the flow of words pipe down just a bit.
As much as she talked, though, she listened, paid attention, watched for the oncoming cars, for the people who didn’t know better and for the many angels who’ve helped us along the road. She holds my head up every time I’ve turned her to the ground to avoid a straightaway glance – for the times I’ve begged silently for someone to just look me in my big brown eyes, anywhere but at my mouth. She watches people – subconsciously, I’m sure – trace their fingers over their upper lip absentmindedly while they’re talking to me, something that makes me smile now after years of self-consciousness. She likes half-n-half and red wine and has an unhealthy preoccupation with olives and brie.
She has trouble still sometimes, after all these years, working with my brain to respond, to defend, to fight back or to clarify.
When a friend recently asked if I knew that Joaquin Phoenix was rumored to have a cleft lip and put the subject out there, I should have felt more solid than I did in saying that it was just a thing, a personal thing, and more power to him for making it in a looks-driven industry, guarding his decision to talk about it or not, even if he is famous.
When the girl I worked with in college asked me why in the world I wasn’t going to have “ more work done” I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to make an appointment with a plastic surgeon immediately. Instead, I should have told her the truth – that I was tired of being cut into and reshaped, that anesthetic terrified me, that I needed nothing more than to relax into myself and love (or at least not hate) the face I already had.
Instead, I probably went in the back and smoked a couple of cigarettes and cried in the car on the way home. 19, you know.
When the client in graduate school – schizoaffective, no social filter, but still – walked up to me and said, “You had that THING. On your FACE,” I’m sorry. I didn’t really know what to say. Schizoaffective. No social filter. I reached out to her and calmed her because I knew she didn’t understand and was actually crying for me. But still…would everyone say it, if they didn’t know it wasn’t okay?
And when Connie said on the drive to Columbus that that young nurse who took care of her husband “had that problem” I had, so she married the first guy who asked, who turned out to be an alcoholic and wasn’t that terrible, but still? She had that problem? So she’d better marry the first guy who asked? Right?
And when the man who loved me and who I loved back, years later, told me that he wasn’t sure at first that he could date me because he had a thing for symmetry, and my face, she really didn’t fit the bill, I maybe shouldn’t have been so understanding. I maybe should have gotten us up off the couch and left the room, left the apartment and the state. But I didn’t. I cared too much and knew he did too, that he was trying really hard to put truth out there and it was time to either grab hold of it or stay stuck. So I put it in the bag I kept such things in inside, and instead made it an important conversation that somehow built a tenuous bridge between him and me, and managed somehow not to hate what I looked like and what I had to offer - much.
These experiences and the thoughts and feelings they cause aren’t so much carry-on baggage at this point as they are cargo for my body, my face and me, are they?
Say it with me: harelip. And then throw it away, that terrible, ugly, made-up word, that label, just like we throw away the other stuff, the worries about the pounds and the knee and the ankle. Just like we embrace the fact that we can stretch to the sky, we can move ourselves wholesale out of an old house and into a new one. We can walk the beach for miles. We can travel across a country 8000 miles from home and tell stories, even though there our face is still a bit more shocking than it is at home, something we can tell by the way eyes linger longer, why questions are asked more pointedly there than they are here. We can use our ears to hear foreign languages and try to reach across cultures anyway. We can answer questions that aren’t whispered and try to help people understand what it’s like for a little girl to go under repeatedly, be wheeled into operating rooms with her mom and dad just beyond the big green doors, where even though the kind reconstructive surgeon played classical music and sang to us while we went to sleep, it was still a lot like dying every time.
We can put all this aside and still get out there every day and try, at least try, to look people in the eye. We can smile, even if it’s a little crooked. We can use our mouth that's still so big even though it's long since been sewn together to yell when things aren't right, to speak the truth, and more frequently than ever these days, to defend principles and other people along with our own fragile selves.
And if we can never embrace it fully, this blip on the genetic screen that caused this problem for us, for my body and my face, we can still hold people in our arms like at one point we pushed them away with equal force. We can try not to be angry as a matter of course and try instead to be nice. We can thank the stars for every shallow person a facial scar sent away, just like we can thank them for every minute in the deep end with good people who don't just see the surface. We can be a little better about knowing when to talk and when to shut up. We’re so strong now that if anybody says “that which doesn’t kill you…” it’s just sort of comical, and we can tell them we've had enough, that it had better be all sunshine and roses from now on.
And always, always, completely on purpose, we will wear fabulous lipstick.
xo, laurie : )