Categorized | Light Lines

Sweet, bitter memories intertwined

Posted on 03 August 2017 by admin

My son turns 61 tomorrow. On a recent morning, as I wrapped his gift for mailing, I realized the nightgown I was wearing had a connection with his bar mitzvah 48 years ago, early in August 1969.  I had postponed vital surgery because of it, but would enter the hospital two days later — after the out-of-town family had left. I had told none of them about it.
The evening after the bar mitzvah was also Selichot. I excused myself from the ongoing conversation and went to my synagogue, to sing the start of the High Holy Days liturgy with our volunteer choir.  I’d been involved in choral work since elementary school and loved Jewish music best; I had no idea then that I would never sing with any choir again.
A tumor had grown around the facial nerve behind my right ear.  The surgeon cut a flap that enabled him to remove the entire parotid gland, reroute some salivary glands, and scrape the nerve clean.  I awakened with a Bell’s palsy that lasted for many weeks.  But even afterward, fully normal facial motion could never be restored.  I had bought that nightgown to take to the hospital with me…
My face was horribly deformed.  No one, including me, had been prepared for this. The children came to visit; my son was stoic; my daughter, at 9, was not: Tearfully, (sadness? fright? anger?) she averted her eyes, crying out “That’s not my mother! Take her away! Bring her back when she’s my mother again!”  The last thing I cared about then was a nightgown…
After weeks of daily electric shocks to my face, the damaged nerve finally responded — but only partially. To this day, my right eyebrow and eyelid cannot rise to the level of my left. If I’m not judicious about the spicy foods I love, I still salivate outside, on my right cheek.  I don’t smile much, and the old habit of keeping a Kleenex balled in my right fist, to quickly cover my crooked mouth when I laugh, still persists. My “revised” face is why I resist being photographed; when it’s in motion, most people notice nothing.  But a camera catches the whole truth, every time.
And the scraped nerve vibrates — so much that I cannot sustain a note when I try to sing.  This has stolen the joy of choral participation from me forever.
About that nightgown: like so much women’s personal wear then, it is made of pure nylon.  Garments like this — ankle-length, with delicate neckline floral embroidery — are long out of fashion. But they never wear out; they are the clothing equivalent of iron. I’ve worn and washed this nightgown so often all these years, and it still looks new; I’m sure it will outlast me!  And it’s forever locked into my memory of that bar mitzvah and that Selichot, my final songs with any choir…
People who didn’t know me before the surgery don’t know that this is a different face than I had for the first 35 years of my long life, while the others continue to remember me as I was. My daughter never got her same old mother back, but as she grew older herself, she accepted me as I was. As most others also did. However, my first husband dissolved our marriage soon afterward.
Fred, my dear second husband, was a “widowered” old friend from long before the operation. When we came back into each other’s’ lives so many years later, the first thing he did was touch my right cheek, ever so gently, and quietly say, “It must have been terrible for you.” That was when I knew I would marry him…
As I look backward, the bitter and the sweet mingle inextricably, as things in life so often do. This weekend, I will be remembering my son’s bar mitzvah, my last Selichot song…and Fred, while I observe his third yahrzeit on our forthcoming Shabbat.

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