To hear my mother tell it, it looked like a bomb exploded in my face. I entered life in this world with a defect that occurs once in approximately 700 births; a cleft lip and palate. By kindergarten, I had undergone three reconstructive surgeries that eventually totaled seven by graduation from college. Not to mention the years of extensive dental work required to replace teeth that never really grew where they should have.
The years during which my face was slowly being reconstructed were challenging to say the least. The schoolyard is a tough enough place without adding a highly visible physical deformity into the mix. As a child, I remember feeling paralyzed with fear when facing a new environment where I was certain to encounter children I did not know. I never knew if I would be met with jeers and teasing, or if I would find a brave soul who could see beyond my appearance to notice the regular girl who just wanted to play with a new friend. Even though it was extremely painful, navigating playground politics was building my character stone by stone. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning to be a person of substance. My capacity for empathy was expanding even through self-consciousness and fear.
Once, when I was about nine, a shopping trip with my mother sparked an epiphany. A boy about my age was shopping nearby. He was making fun of the way my lip pulled up on one side by mimicking my signature look. He would then follow-up that lovely performance by using his fingers to re-create the way my left nostril was, what I used to call, “squished.” Distraught, I told my mother what was happening. What followed was the most beautiful display of motherly love a kid could ask for. I watched in both horror and pride as my mother coolly employed a strategy to position our shopping cart directly behind the perpetrator and thump the boy on the head with a flick of her fingers! Yes, I understand the legal ramifications of her behavior, and perhaps some would argue her physical aggression was not setting a proper example to her young daughter, but all I knew, and all I cared about, was that in that single gesture my mom unequivocally and undeniably made a statement: I did not deserve to be mocked and I am worthy of respect. Legalities aside, as a kid, this was pretty much the coolest thing I’d ever seen my mom do! She totally rocked my world! Here was a woman who went to great, almost unhealthy lengths, to make sure she was liked and approved of by others (a character trait inherited by me that I still wrestle with) throwing caution to the wind in defense of her daughter. I’d never felt more loved.
After that, things started to change for me. I started understanding the difference between honest curiosity and blatant rudeness when other kids asked questions. I was learning how to be authentic and transparent. I found my voice. I was learning how to talk openly about the things that made me less than perfect and I discovered that authenticity builds strong and meaningful friendships.
As the years progressed, the traces of this birth defect diminished with each reconstructive surgery. All my adolescent fears of sitting alone on Saturday nights and never being lovely enough to love because I was not picture perfect, never came to fruition. My high school and college years were full of wonderful friendships and unforgettable moments. I believe if you polled any other American teenage girl, you would find that my neurosis was on par with everyone else’s, and birth defect or no, the playing field was level.
Knowing what I know now about the high value I tend to place on making a “good appearance,” reveals that living through those challenges in my formative years was absolutely vital to the development of good character. I believe the tumultuous playground experiences cured me of chronic self-centeredness and gave me the gift of compassion, humility and authenticity.
I have recently observed that having never known what it feels like to have the perfect face is making the aging process much easier. I’m not afraid of a few lines across my brow or smile lines on my face. I learned ages ago that people who are worth my time notice the beauty that radiates from within, and time maintaining that kind of beauty is well spent (not to mention cheaper)! I embrace my imperfections as part of my uniqueness and view my birth defect as the catalyst by which I’ve learned to live a richer, more authentic life.
Having a cleft palate taught me courage in the midst of adversity, that strength of character trumps power or popularity, that kindness makes the unbecoming beautiful, that truth breeds lasting relationships, and that too much drama is misspent energy. Oh, and I also learned that sometimes you just gotta thump the bully on the head!
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