My face ain’t what it used to be.
“Compared to what?” you may ask. Fair question. Compared to everything it’s ever been.
Faces are inordinately subjective, aren’t they? When we look at others, we see beautiful and handsome faces, ordinary and interesting faces, happy and sad faces, compelling and threatening faces, faces we’ll always remember and faces we’ll forget the second we look away.
But they’re just faces. Other people’s faces. They’re useful for identifying friends, family, acquaintances and famous people. All the other faces are pretty much wallpaper, which we rarely notice.
Then there are our faces. Your face and mine. We pay attention to our own faces. This helps explain why the U.S. cosmetics industry took in almost $62.5 billion last year. I don’t even know if that includes shaving cream and razors. Human nature compels most of us to pay close attention to our faces—the most recognizable representation of our selves.
I’ve been thinking about my own face. A lot. More about why in a moment.
The first time I recall even considering my face was the first time something bad happened to it. When I was in fourth grade—50 years ago last month—I got hit in the head with a baseball bat. My face resembled a raccoon’s. And I received my first facial scar, a tiny crater above my left temple.
A few years later, the onset of puberty delivered acne, and the number of scars multiplied to a number too traumatic to count. For the first time, acne made me ashamed of my face. But acne also made me resilient and funnier. If you can’t change your looks, you’ve got to compensate somehow.
For a couple of decades, my face changed peripherally—hairstyles, glasses, evolving moustache and beard and goatee.
A toll taken
Then, of course, came middle age, when gravity, genetics and exposure took their toll in approximately this sequence:
• Hair thinning
• Crow’s feet, which I prefer to call “laugh lines”
• Gray hair
• More hair thinning, which ultimately must be acknowledged as baldness
• Ear hair, to add insult to follicle injury
• A scar in the middle of my forehead, thanks to my dermatologist
• A little turkey-gobbler thingy
The word is “character”
So, by this time, my face already had plenty of “character,” which is what people who want to deny they’re getting older call the definite signs of getting older.
Then my face changed almost imperceptibly. A slight lump rose up on the top of my right jaw. I’ve told you about it before. Late last year, a surgeon saved my life by removing the lump, an acinic cell carcinoma—a tumor in my salivary gland. Two weeks later, another surgeon compensated for nerve damage from the first surgery by putting a weight in my right eyelid, so I can close that eye. And then a radiologist, working to secure my longevity, ran me through six weeks of radiation.
My ol’ face took quite a beating. On the up side, since I can’t raise one paralyzed eyebrow, I also can raise only one eyebrow. This is really cool; a mark of a true comedian. But now I’ve got a fading scar across my right temple, down the side of my ear and into my neck. The corners of my right eye have been cinched down to help that little weight close that eye. The shekinah glow of radiation has faded, and most of my hair has grown back. The right side of my face sags a bit, so people still ask if I’ve got Bell’s palsy. Two kinds of plastic surgeons have said, “Just wait,” for which I’m simultaneously deeply grateful and a little disappointed.
As you might imagine, I don’t like my face all that much right now. Sure, I’ve always known I look more like a hockey player than a movie star. But my mug was more or less symmetrical. I could eat a sandwich without contortions. And the name Quasimodo never crossed my mind when I looked in the mirror.
A good thing; really
Besides all that, I have to tell you getting this face is one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Unlike so many cancer patients, I never had to confront my near-term mortality. The first thing my surgeon, Dr. Steckler, told Joanna was, “Your husband is not going to die of this.” We trusted his experience and leaned into his comfort.
Still, we knew this was big and bad, although we could not comprehend how big or how bad. Two surgeries and 30 radiation treatments offered an ordeal. And frankly, I’ve never felt so bad and also so close to the Lord. Jo remained faithful and steadfast throughout the journey, and we felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of family, friends and strangers every day.
I can hold this paradox without question: I never would choose cancer, but I wouldn’t trade this experience. The richness of God’s infusion into our lives more than compensated for the agony.
And then there’s my face. Sure, it aggravates me. I don’t expect to look like George Clooney, but sometimes I’d like to look like I did before my first surgery. Now, those scars, and that divot beside my ear, and that droop on the right side of my face remind me of my blessings:
• A wife who loves me more than her next breath and really meant it when she said, “… until death do us part” almost four decades ago. She says she sees “the real” me, beyond the scars and contortion.
• Children and grandchildren who love me no matter what I look like and who—most of the time—think I’m funny.
• Parents and brother who have seen me in every phase of my life and know me so well they don’t even think about my appearance.
• My “little brother” whom I mentor, who never blinked or backed up, even when I looked more like Frankenstein than myself.
• Friends who love me and laugh with me and don’t give my face a second thought.
• A job in which I can get by with “a face for radio.”
• Honorable work, good books, wonderful music and deep breathing, all of which provided plenty of distraction when the pain was the worst.
• And most of all, a God who formed me and shaped every iteration of my life—this face included—who loves me beyond comprehension and who will go on loving me when I lay aside this earthly shell, face and all.
The contours of my face have provided me with a metaphor for God’s grace. Now I can’t—as if I ever could—be pretty enough to make my friends like me; they just do. And I can’t be whole enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, wise enough to make God love me; God just does.
Follow Marv on Twitter, @marvknoxbs