Memoir: when I woke up from surgery, I looked like an entirely different person
I remember my old face. It was narrow and horsey, with a wide mouth that seemed unusually full of teeth. I looked prettiest when I was smiling and talking. When my face was at rest, my mouth hung slightly ajar. I didn’t notice at the time, nor did I think much of it when strangers asked what my “accent” was—they were hearing the beginning of a speech impediment, caused by trying to move my tongue in my increasingly oddly shaped mouth.
But I couldn’t ignore the pain—my jaw ached regularly. I figured it was caused by stress-induced grinding and went to the dentist in search of a night guard. Instead, he informed me that my mouth-related woes were the result of a severe jaw misalignment. Had the problem been caught when I was a kid, it would have been fixable with aggressive orthodontia. But now, in my late 20s, my whole mouth was pushed out of whack. If I didn’t do something immediately, the jaw joints would likely have to be replaced by the time I hit middle age. The pre-emptive solution: a surgeon would cut through my jaw, realign the bones and attach them with tiny titanium screws.
I didn’t realize how drastically my appearance was going to change until one of my pre-op visits, when my surgeon cheerfully announced how great I would look after his intervention. I was aghast and asked him to make sure my face stayed the same. I was being a little nuts, of course, but I wasn’t prepared for his response. He explained, not very patiently, that my appearance was one of the things it was his job to correct. “You don’t look normal,” he told me flatly, promising to create the ideal distances between my nose and upper lip, lower lip and chin. My face would be rounder, my chin more compact. In his opinion, I would look much better.
Yet we were talking about my face. After the surgeon said it was a symptom of dysfunction, I wept. I never thought I was gorgeous, but I was fond of my face—I had known it a long time. It was the face I saw in every mirror and clean window, the face I searched for in group photos, the face my girlfriends experimented on with makeup and the face in the photos my parents put up on the wall. I was going to miss it.
I went under the knife in January 2007. It took about four hours (the surgeon and I got along a lot better when I was unconscious), and I was out of the hospital the next day but swollen for months. The worst part of my codeine-hazed recovery period was knowing I had a new face but not how it looked. At first, I had a puffy, lumpy moon face with rainbow bruises around my eyes and mouth. I also had substantial temporary nerve damage that numbed swaths of my skin. Not only was I unable to see my new face, but I couldn’t feel it either. It was like wearing a mask.
At the time, I was going for my master’s at U of T while working three jobs—in a library, as a tutor and marking papers—none of which had sick pay, so I returned after a few weeks, before I was fully healed. Once I was back in the world, I found that old friends and colleagues didn’t recognize me on the street unless I flagged them down. I felt like a ghost. Until the swelling went down, and even for a while afterward, I was awkward about accepting compliments—I wanted so much to feel pretty but worried I was being disloyal to my former self.
My facial structure took so long to settle down that there was never any one point where I saw my resculpted face for the first time. Initially, it was impossible to tell the difference between the temporary effects of the surgery and the permanent changes, so I just avoided mirrors. It was only about six months after the surgery that I dared to look at a recent photo. I saw a beaming young woman with a pointy little chin and round cheeks. My whole face had changed from rectangular to heart-shaped. Now that it was smaller, my features seemed larger in the remaining space.
By late summer, I was finally ready to see my reflection in a mirror. With a lot of practice, I made my smile symmetrical again. I focused all my energy on that one task—when I thought about my new face as a whole, I would get confused, panicked about my inability to catalogue exactly what had changed. I even started to forget my old face. It’s only through photographs that I’m now able to chart the evolution of my appearance.
In the seven years since my surgery, I finished graduate school, started a new job in publishing and got married. It still seems weird to me that my new friends and my husband have never seen the face I was born with. Part of growing up is learning to value substance over surface, but another is integrating the two. I had to learn to love my new face. Objectively, I realized early on that I looked fine, even good, but it was only after this face appeared on the author pages of my books, and became the one my friends look for in a crowd and my husband kisses every morning, that it finally felt like mine.
Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of the short-story collections Once and The Big Dream. She lives in Toronto.
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