This is Part Four of Face, A Memoir. In Parts One, Two and Three, we find out I have been hit by a car at the age of five and have lost my left cheek and eyelid. After five weeks in the hospital, I come home, and my mom and dad prepare my sister and brother for a Marcia whose face was ravaged.
“Marcia is coming home this afternoon, and she looks different than she did,” my mom explained. “You shouldn’t be afraid when you see her. She’s still your sister. She’s still the same Marcia.”
But I wasn’t.
I looked grotesque. A thick fleshy string connected my upper and lower eyelids. There was a gaping hole underneath my left eye where the skin had been torn away. A red ridge of scar tissue ran the length of my left cheek, with thinner spines spreading out like a spider web toward my nose and ear. A jagged pink scar jutted down from my lower lip toward my chin.
How did they respond to my face? Chuckie was so little, only three. But Cherie was ten, and had seen me on the street, my face torn away. She remembers that Mom told her she would have to help a lot, because I would need a lot of care. But she doesn’t recall being surprised or shocked at how I looked.
“I think I was sad,” Cherie said, “and I was prepared to help with whatever Mom needed.”
A few weeks after I came home, we went shopping downtown.
Mom didn’t often take us downtown. It meant putting Molly into a stroller and tethering Chuck to it with a harness. I was allowed to walk freely, but liked to go off exploring when mom wasn’t looking. That often led to frantic searches and stern scoldings once she found me. But off we went.
We were in Hardy-Herpelsheimers, then the nicest department store in Muskegon. Mom was looking at some dresses and I was uncharacteristically clinging to her. A woman came around one of the displays with her two children and stopped short.
“Oh, my God,” I heard her say. She turned and pulled her children away. “Kids, don’t look at that little girl.”
My mom didn’t say anything, just pulled my head in close to her and held me there, in the middle of the store. We left then, without buying anything, and walked home.
Now that I am a mother, I wonder at her ability to withstand it all. I look at photographs of myself after the accident, and I think, could I have done this? How did she feel, knowing her daughter would be disfigured probably for her entire life? Did she hope I might die and escape the cruelty, the stares, the laughter, the pointing? I can’t imagine. She had pushed the grief from the two lost babies deep within. When she was alone with her thoughts, when she kneeled beside her bed to pray every night, what did she pray for?
I walk on the beaches in Santa Barbara almost every day, watching the tides come in and go out, changing the landscape from one day to the next. Some days the beach is thick with sand stretching from the shoreline to the cliffs. Others the sand is washed away, exposing barnacle-encrusted rocks, sea anemones and an occasional starfish. My Australian shepherd frolics in the waves and plays with the other dogs on the beach. And I think, How is the self built? Like the changing beachscape, we are shaped and formed by forces outside of us. Surely the self is altered by experiences, by perceptions created out of circumstance. What happens to the self if face and body are transfigured by happenstance? If that self is in early formation, a young child of five, the self may be more radically affected. After the accident, my identity evolved into that of a scarred child, a child whose face repulsed people. It wasn’t long before I knew that I was someone to be avoided, that my face was a frightening visage, even for adults. And while I knew my family knew and loved me, I also was certain no one else could possibly see and appreciate the self I was within.