The Gift, Chapter 5 | The New Engagement
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The Gift, Chapter 5

By Mark Elzey

Chapters

The following chapter is excerpted from the autobiographical book, "The Gift." We will be sharing a new chapter in each issue.

 

Chapter 5

Humiliation is about shame. Becoming humble is about being of use to others. It helps you get off the pity pot and stop wallowing around in your own crap.

Amy Hatvany ~ American author

 

I was fifteen years old in the spring of 1965 and like most fifteen year olds living in a whirlwind of contradictions. It started when a team of doctors began planning to repair the damage polio had done to my face.

I remember wanting more than anything to look like everybody else with all the parts of my face and upper body in perfect working order. Yet I had negative feelings about having to go through all the medical procedures to achieve that goal. The most difficult part was realizing the entire purpose was to make me a little easier on the eyes, as not to offend others.  

The damage to my face from a cosmetic point of view was a mess. The paralysis caused the left side of my face to droop. In comparison, the sagging skin was a small issue compared to the disfigured bone structure on the left side of my face. My face may not have looked functional, but I managed to get by. I was enunciating words well enough for people to understand in spite of a slight resonance to my voice.

The reconstructive surgeries the doctors planned were cosmetic. My hope was after the doctors completed everything I would be completely normal, at least on the surface. People would never stare at me again. All the issues that came with a facial disfigurement would be forever gone. I was a living contradiction. On one level, I couldn't wait to have the surgeries and have a "normal" face. On the other hand I resented having to go through the pain of reconstruction surgeries and procedures just to look more pleasing. That bitterness grew as the doctors worked through my high school years to reconstruct my disfigured face.

In the spring of 1965, my parents and I visited a plastic surgeon, in Phoenix. He examined my face then told my parents he could restore the bone structure and the tissue. Unfortunately he could do nothing to correct the paralysis or the atrophy that affected the upper left side of my body. The left side of my face would remain paralyzed. He also explained that repairing the damage would involve a team of doctors and would take several years. My parents learned their health insurance considered the procedures to repair my face elective. When I first contracted bulbar polio the taxpayers of California picked up the vast majority of the tab for the years I spent in the hospital in Los Angeles. Fifteen years later, the doctors, the hospital, and all the expenses were compliments of the taxpayers of Arizona. I began the three and a half year journey to repair the damage from polio.

Every Christmas vacation and summer break during the years I was in high school I spent in the hospital for surgery. I had all sorts of outpatient procedures some of which were painful and lasted for months at a time.

I never told any of my classmates or the few friends I had about the operations. Had I told them about my surgeries and no one came to visit I would have been devastated. Other than my parents I never had any visitors.

In the beginning there was a naive desire on my part. I would go back to school after one of these surgeries looking completely normal. Everyone would admire the astonishing difference the surgery made and they would see just how handsome I was. The truth was after every surgery my face looked like I had gone ten rounds with Mohammed Ali. It took forever for the swelling and the black and blue scars to go away.

Throughout my high school years, they restructured my left cheek, rebuilt my jaw, and repaired the tissue surrounding my left eye, and gave the left side of my face a lift. To those of you who have gone through facial surgery I don't have to tell you it hurts. I must admit one of the things that gave me great comfort was the dedication of the medical professionals.

What did all this rebuilding stuff do to me? For one thing it underscored that my face was unacceptable. In the end the doctors failed, which had more to do with my unattainable expectations than anything else. I wanted more than anything to be a regular-looking person that mattered. I considered myself less than and wanted the doctors to do whatever was necessary to make my life matter. I was young and didn’t realize it at the time, but no doctor, then or now, could make my life better. Becoming someone who mattered was solely a decision I had to make. The procedures were fantastic but for all the corrections they made to my appearance, on the inside I was the same miserable teenager. Being a teenager I thought no one would ever be able to look beyond my face and get to understand me as a person. What was going to become of me? Would I be able to live an ordinary life?

I would be remiss if I didn't take some time to talk about my parents. At the time, I resented having to go through all the procedures and surgeries. I took it out on my parents by causing them a never-ending series of problems. In retrospect when I was going through this period I wondered how my parents did it? They never gave up on me, and for that I will always be grateful.

My mom and dad were the yin and yang of married couples. My mother got excited while my father kept calm. His self-doubts were offset by my mom's confidence. Together they were supportive parents. At the end of my life, if I'm half the person either of my parents were, I would consider myself fortunate.

My last surgery was a minor operation during Christmas vacation of 1968. My facial reconstruction was over because I had had enough. I told my parents if people didn't like the way I looked they could turn their heads. I graduated from Gilbert High School the following May and with that my childhood in Gilbert was over. It was time to get on with the rest of my life. A couple of the guys I knew in my youth died in Vietnam. I became disillusioned with the way things were going in my life. Unlike my two friends, I still had the opportunity to change. Unfortunately, at the time my self-pity was all consuming.

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