This is not the first time I’ve sat down to write about this, but it’s the first time I feel ready to publish it because I’ve finally told my parents what happened. It’s not the easiest thing to write about – and I didn’t want them to find out about it by reading it here.
Last April I experienced what we think was a mild case of Bell’s Palsy. If you don’t know what that is, the Mayo clinic’s brief description is, “Bell's palsy causes sudden weakness in your facial muscles. This makes half of your face appear to droop. Your smile is one-sided, and your eye on that side resists closing.”
They don’t really know what causes it though some believe it could be a virus. I didn’t have any other symptoms. So who knows. All I do know is one day last April I woke up and the left side of my face was paralyzed. I couldn’t close my eye completely, I couldn’t lift my eyebrow, I couldn’t suck on a straw or even chew very well, my speech was impacted, my p’s and b’s…and…I couldn’t smile on the left side.
Of course I totally panicked. It wasn’t so bad that my face actually looked very droopy, but the second I started talking or tried to smile it was plainly obvious. And very weird. And terrifying.
The musician was really cool about it. He said, well, Ellen Barkin (the actress) has a crooked smile and she’s hot. Ha. Ok thanks for that. He didn’t seem bothered by it other than how upset I was. When I told her this week, my mom commented how she was glad I had someone around when I was going through it. She immediately recognized the trauma of experiencing something like this on my own – she understood why I didn’t tell them (they couldn’t have done anything, so why worry them?) but also understood how deeply I would miss Mike being around to help. Not only was he a wonderful healer, but the unconditional support and understanding of your loving husband just means everything in a time like that. So yeah. Grateful for the musician. But it still totally, totally sucked going through it without Mike. You all out there will know what I mean.
The first week or two I didn’t want to leave the house, but that got very lonely and depressing. Eventually when I realized this was going to take a long time to get better I said to heck with it, I’m going out and just telling my friends why I suddenly look like Quasimodo. And of course everyone was nice about it and didn’t seem to mind that my smile was crooked for a couple of months. I mean what are people going to say anyway, right? Shit happens, and it can happen to any of us.
There isn’t really any standard treatment for Bell’s Palsy. My MD wanted a CT scan to rule out a tumor or a stroke which made it even more terrifying at first. It wasn’t that, thank God. So I did a lot of facial exercises and acupuncture and something called microcurrent therapy which was this kind of amazing treatment I found out about and had just arrived in Kona when I needed it.
I’m about 95% healed at this point. My left eye is still a little droopy and slow and tends to water a lot, and sometimes the muscles on the left side of my face will twitch. Nothing much noticeable to anyone else. But even though the entire experience was horrible, it has sure taught me a lot.
First, I was shocked how often I wanted to smile, when I couldn’t. Like a hundred times a day. Maybe more. Was it possible that despite losing my beautiful husband I could be in a place of wanting to smile so often? Was it a fake or superficial smile? Was I smiling even when I was sad? Was I smiling because I was happy? Because of a joke someone told? Because the day was lovely, or in response to a stranger’s smile on the street? Suddenly I was hyper aware of my smile; of smiling, or not smiling, when I wanted to smile and why and with whom, and the frustration and extreme self-consciousness of my face not responding in those moments.
Secondly I realized how fortunate I really am. Life is FRIGGING SHORT, man. I mean really, it is. Mike’s death made me realize that – and that my own days are numbered, something I didn’t think about much before. But it’s also about the quality of life while we are still here. You can live a long life but if you are incapacitated or unable to experience it full throttle, well, that sucks too. And Bell’s Palsy is nothing compared with the illnesses, conditions and limitations faced by so many more people out there. Oh, you can’t smile? Poor baby. At least you can walk.
I’m not afraid to die – not even a little. But I am afraid of not treasuring my life, and my relative good health, while I have it. Even though I know my grief is going to be a constant passenger on this ride from now on, I’m going to go anyway. For as long as I can walk, I will walk. For as long as I can run, I will run. As long as I can travel, I will travel. I will drink wine with friends, call my family often, take a drive, watch my favorite movies again and again if I want, and whatever else I have energy and desire and funds to do in this world. I might also cry and scream at the heavens …but I will also smile, dammit. I will smile, if I can, even amidst the tears and the pain, and will never take it for granted.
If I have to smile a crooked smile, that’s ok too, I think. On this journey of grief, perhaps all our smiles are a little crooked, on the inside anyway.