From the Ashes: When the Unthinkable Happens to Your Child
After months of caring for a bizarre little figure in a clear plastic mask (worn to keep her original facial grafts tight and smooth), I stood by as plastic surgeons began to reconstruct her appearance. In more than 20 operations over six years, the surgeons implanted eyebrows, gave her more skin on her neck so that it would stretch upward, tried unsuccessfully to save her right ear (though she could still hear), formed her lips, and repaired her nose. They also shaped the fingers on both hands to make them fully flexible.
On the day of each operation, I left work to be with her. For the two hours or so before surgery, I was father, friend, humorist (by then Siân was known as Crispy Critter or French Fry), source of information and reassurance, and translator of medical terminology. One time she panicked and tried to climb off the gurney. I convinced her to face her fears and held her hand all the way to the swinging doors that swallowed her for the next several hours. After her surgeries, whenever the bandages came off to reveal a new face or a repaired hand, I took the first look at what had been done, describing it to prepare her for the sometimes unpleasant sight of raw grafts.
In the midst of all these procedures, and only six months after the accident, Siân enrolled at the local college, then, almost immediately, became a premed student at what is now the University of North Texas. She had decided she wanted to become a surgeon. Courage allowed her to endure the stares and tactless questions when she appeared in class after each hospitalization wearing a mask or bandages.
Soon she was living in her own apartment, and every time I visited she would pour out her feelings about the difficulties of being mutilated in a culture that reveres beauty. "Will anyone ever find me attractive again?" she asked more than once. I was uncomfortable with the question, and at first I told her that I didn't know. But then it occurred to me that in avoiding an answer I was saying that the way she looked was of the utmost importance. How dumb—and cruel!
It took me a few days to find an answer. "From what I know of most men," I said, "they are attracted first by appearance, and I am sure that you will meet many who won't bother to get to know you because they will not see past your scars. But the essence of you hasn't changed, and there are men out there who will be attracted to you for your personality and your brain."
"Those answers," Siân said years later, "helped me look in the mirror and see myself destroyed, more horrible than anyone I had ever seen. But they also helped me to get past that and to keep motivated to do my therapy and use my brain to keep myself mentally okay."
Siân graduated from North Texas magna cum laude and was accepted by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. With that news, Siân and I knew that we had done what we set out to do in 1981: She had survived a terrible accident and worked to overcome its terrible effects; I had stuck with her all the way. In 1992 she received her MD and was accepted as an intern at Emory University Affiliated Hospitals program in Atlanta, where she later became a surgical resident. One marvelous day in 1999, I accompanied my daughter on her hospital rounds and talked with a man whose new liver had been transplanted into his abdomen by Siân's scarred but skillful hands.
On the way to learning the skills she now practices, Siân also learned to accept her own scars. One day while in medical school, she was working out in the gym when an observer asked, "What happened to your face?"
Without thinking, Siân turned to the mirrored wall to see if her makeup was smeared. It took her a few beats to realize the stranger was asking about her accident.
In the years since she'd spelled "I want to die," Siân discovered how much courage, strength, and determination she possessed. And I now understand in a way I never did before that loving another human being is not just an emotion; it is a behavior, a series of acts by which you demonstrate your love. That realization freed me from the emotional silence I had maintained since childhood, and I began to express more and more clearly how I felt, in all my relationships.
The connection I reestablished with Siân paid enormous dividends for both of us in 1993, when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and had to undergo six months of chemotherapy. I called upon my daughter time and time again to talk to my doctors and to advise me on decisions I had to make. I trusted her implicitly, and she gave back to me what I had given her all those years before.
Stunned to silence for two months after his brother's death by drowning, the great poet William Wordsworth recovered to write some of his most flawless poetry, including this line: "A deep distress hath humanized my soul." And so this experience with my daughter has me.
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