Before I get into anything else, let me make the following premise: In no way am I comparing a measly two weeks with a swollen jaw and a liquid/pureed diet to a potentially terminal cancer, removal of one-third of the jaw, and a lifetime of pain and reconstructive surgery.
That story belongs to the late acclaimed poet and writer Lucy Grealy, and it is found in her remarkably candid memoir, Autobiography of a Face. I first read this for a nonfiction book workshop in my MFA program and of all the books I read for the course, this is one of the ones I could never forget.
Grealy writes about truth, sickness, suffering, beauty, perfection, and loneliness. The facial disfigurement she experienced after her tumor was removed and the endless rounds of hospitalizations, surgeries, and unmet expectations that followed are not rendered in strokes of sentimentality or self-pity. As a narrator, Grealy is at once irascible and inspiring, frustrating and courageous, determined yet jaded. She doesn’t hide her flaws, both the physical as well as the emotional.
I’ll be honest, some aspects of the book irritated me—why, for example, does her twin sister only come up once or twice in the whole story?—but even beyond the dramatic events and the soul-churning upheavals, the writing itself is beautiful and lyrical.
I was reminded of this book at several points during the last few weeks. For Lucy, opening her mouth wide was an excruciating ordeal, one made even more awful given how much dental and reconstructive work she needed. Eating was a daily exercise in futility; not only was it hard to open her mouth, but she lost many teeth to her various surgeries and complications. These things paled in comparison with the taunts of her schoolmates and the devastating impact looking different had on her psyche, but they had an impact nonetheless. Simple things like swallowing, chewing, laughing or yawning should not have to be conscious things.
Again, clearly two weeks of chicken broth and liquid food does not give me any rights to claim kinship or understanding. I know that. But if nothing else, recent events have rekindled my respect for a writer who died too young, whose words contain grace and eloquence even when they are baring unflattering truths, and whose perception is unsettling:
“I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. Society is no help. It tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else, only to leave our original faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably resent and haunt us…It suddenly occurred to me that it is no mistake when sometimes in films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof: they can no longer see themselves in the mirror,” (222).
Since we’re on the subject of pain (excuse the transparent segue here), How to Cope with Pain is now offering a monthly Pain-Blog Carnival during the last week of every month, to include each month's best posts. New bloggers are always welcome to contribute. Check out November’s edition here. You may just recognize someone here and there...