The Mouth Only a Mother Could Love

There’s an amusing old wordy definition of a kiss I learned as a kid. “The juxtaposition of two obricularis oris muscles in a state of contraction.” My upper obricularis oris muscle was once in two or three pieces, it seems. I was born with a condition that in the politically incorrect times of the early to mid 1960s was called a “hare-lip,” after the rabbit. In more civilized days like our own, we call it a “cleft lip.” Mine was an even rarer condition called a double cleft lip and palate. My nostrils weren’t bounded by that elegant dimpled layer of flesh most people have on their upper lip, but rather flared open across my mouth, with a small little fleshy protrusion in the middle between the nostrils, where Hitler had his notorious ‘stache. Not only did my lip have those gaping openings, they continued back into my mouth through the hard and soft palate, hence the word, “double.” If you reflexively shivered or winced at my description, I don’t take offence. After all, I’m a bit squeamish myself, though familiarity in this instance bred nonchalance.

I never saw what my mouth looked like exactly before the miracle of plastic surgery you can see today under my full-sized mustache, except in a fuzzy old black and white photo my mother has stored somewhere, no doubt. In the early 60s, breast-feeding was making a comeback, yet my disfigurement denied me that earliest bonding experience. Given that the majority of my peers were bottle-fed, that’s probably not why I often feel so different from them. There are a variety of stories to be told about this odd feature of my anatomy, some of them amusing, others decidedly less so. I’ve been told that I can often get bogged down in pain and trauma when I write my life story, and perhaps this physical condition is the root of my peculiar penchant for pitiful introspection. Perhaps not.

The doctors at my birth were curious about possible causes of my cleft lip and palate. While cleft lip is usually genetic, my parents didn’t know of any relatives with the condition. My father was taking medicine to control epileptic seizures at the time, so maybe that was the culprit. No real scientific investigation was ever done. My brother was born four years later perfectly unblemished, so perhaps it was a fluke? The tale takes some strange turns, though.

When my father first saw me with this shocking facial feature – and he may not have known I was listening as he told this – he describes himself slumping against the hospital wall as he moaned in agony and shame. I probably have to add the fact that he had been a Pentecostal preacher since the age of 14. The cause of his shame wasn’t so much my cleft lip, but the terrible secret sin he and my mother had been hiding. They’d only been married eight months when I was born, so if you do the math, something unchaste had occurred between them and I was the result! Even if his own family hadn’t cared to do the math, my father was now very sure that God had cared to! I’m told that my grandfather, also a Pentecostal preacher, quite soundly chastised my father for even hinting that my cleft lip was God’s punishment for his indiscretion.

It gets weirder, I promise! A cleft lip and soft palate can be sewn up quite nicely using techniques honed in the Korean War, I’m told. The hard palate is another matter. When my sister was born a few years later, she also had a single cleft lip and double cleft palate. When she was ready for her hard palate surgery, they had new techniques from the Vietnam War to completely close the palate. It was too late for them to benefit me, since they required the more impressive growth spurts of a young child’s first years. I am stuck to this day with a partially cleft palate, which at times caused fairly painful ear-aches, when I was younger.

So, the Pentecostal angle gets back in the story when I was nine years old. I was a rather intensely religious kid and loved the stories of Jesus healing the sick. My father took the whole family to a healing revival that went on for weeks, night after night, it seemed to me. On the very last night of this series, the healing evangelist offered to pray for everyone single person who had a desire for prayer. There seemed to be thousands of people there that night. I decided that I was going to get in the prayer line. After waiting patiently for who knows how long, I got to the front of the large church. The evangelist put his hand on my head, and I blurted out that I wanted God to heal my cleft palate. He said, with fervent solemnity, that over time my cleft would get smaller and Jesus would heal me over the next days and weeks. I believed completely.

My father and mother witnessed this interaction and by my gesturing to my mouth as the prayer began, they knew what I’d asked of Jesus. The next morning, I was awakened by my father sticking his fingers into my mouth. I giggled and said that Mom had been up there already. This all felt quite dream-like and my parents sincerely believed that my cleft had grown smaller during the night. Importantly, I never did really figure out how to look up in there myself. As the days went by and my parents continued to encourage my faith and theirs, the story grew in the telling. The cleft was getting a tiny bit smaller everyday.

Looking back on this whole story, I can remember how much I really believed in the miracle. So much so that I told this story proudly for most of my life. At some point, I “felt” Jesus stop closing the cleft. What does that feel like? Don’t ask the adult, the kid ain’t telling! The cleft is still there, it may be smaller than when the whole miracle started, but I wouldn’t bet on scientific verification.

My sister’s cleft lip and palate helped the family figure out that something genetic was involved, and we did turn up more family members with the condition. In fact, just last year, my brother’s youngest child was born with a single cleft lip and double cleft palate and he’s just had his first surgery. My brother continues my father’s business of being a Pentecostal preacher. They all still believe in my miracle. I still love the stories about Jesus healing people where he tells people they deserve love and forgiveness. I now imagine that some of the stories actually happened the way mine did.

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