Last summer, when we attended the Lighthouse Retreat in Seaside, Florida, we were inundated with a typical Lighthouse week of kindness and caring and tender loving care. Not only did the workers and volunteers of Lighthouse rise to the occasion to make it a fabulous vacation, as always, but the residents of Seaside helped out as well. We received free bike rentals for the week, coupons for food and ice cream from the sidewalk restaurants, souvenirs, etc. Also, a local photographer named Michael Belk offered to take pictures of all the families, donating both his time (in the bazillion degree heat; that man was working up a sweat!) and then donating the photos to the families.
The retreat was the first week of June, and I hoped to use the family portrait for our Christmas picture. Summer ended, fall came and went, and no pictures. A few of the Lighthouse families were talking behind the scenes …. “Do you have your pictures yet? No? Neither do we.” Then Christmas came and went and still no pictures. I called the Lighthouse to ask about it, but have to admit I felt embarrassed. Sort of like, “Hey, thanks for the great beach vacation and pampering our family like we’ve never been pampered …. But I want MORE! Where are my free pictures?!?”
See what I mean? It just seemed a little greedy.
Well, imagine my pleasure when they arrived in the mail today! Even though it was only nine months ago, Brayden and Kellen, and especially Kendrie, all look so young to me. Brayden still had her pre-braces on, and Kellen didn’t have the gap from missing teeth that he currently has. The family portrait we received is 11 x 13 and I had to cut some of it off to scan it and share …. But I couldn’t be happier with either picture and am thrilled to have finally received them.
In fact, I was admiring our family photo this afternoon when Blaine came in from outside. “What’s that you’re looking at?” he asked, and I eagerly held up the picture for him to see for the first time. And what came out of his mouth … can you guess? Was it, “Ah, what a great picture” or “Wow, I’d forgotten about those” or even “Hey, what a nice looking family” --- was it any of those things? Nope, the first thing that came out of his mouth was “God, I look bad.”
Have I mentioned how much I hate cancer?
You know how they say that people tend to marry their physical attractiveness equal? Like how the beautiful head cheerleader marries the hunky quarterback? Or two people who are say, fives, on a scale of one to ten, will wind up together? And when they don’t, for example, like Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovette, or Drew Barrymore and Tom Green, people sort of look around like, “Hmmm, that’s weird.” I don’t care how charismatic or filthy rich Donald Trump might be, those models did NOT marry him for his looks.
Well, I think Blaine and I did exactly that equivalent-attractiveness thing. Let’s be honest, neither of us are ever going to work as Calvin Klein models, but strangers have never thrown paper bags over our heads, either. We’re just kind of … well ….. average looking, I suppose. We’re sort of mainstream …. Not drop dead beautiful, but not butt-ugly either. At least I don’t think so. If you think I’m butt ugly, you are welcome to NOT leave your opinion in the comment section.
But despite the fact I imagine we’re considered average, to *me*, Blaine has always been a really handsome guy. Shorter than normal, but with fabulous shoulders and great legs, extremely smart and easy going, he’s always worked for me. And I think I’ve always worked for him, and neither one of us has really given it a whole lot of thought.
Until cancer, and the devastation it wreaked not only on Blaine’s face, but on his psyche.
Have I mentioned how much I hate cancer?
When the doctors are telling you that in order to remove a cancerous tumor and save your husband’s life, that they’re going to have to remove his soft palate and his hard palate and his cheekbone and all his upper teeth on that side of his head, it doesn’t matter. You know without a doubt that looks aren’t as important as his health. You don’t care that after the surgery, that side of his head will basically be a giant sinkhole, you’re just grateful the tumor can be removed. Heck, when they come out after surgery and say, “Good news! We were able to save his eye!” it feels like a real bonus.
Then, surgery after surgery after surgery to try and reconstruct his oral cavity ….. not because he is vain, but because it is necessary for his quality of life. Because he doesn’t like being able to look in his mouth and see his eyeball, because he doesn’t want to live the rest of his life on a soft foods and liquid diet, because he doesn’t enjoy having a forked lip, because he hates blowing his nose and having mashed potatoes come out of it.
Blaine has had approximately fifteen surgeries in the last five years. ONE has been cosmetic, which was done at the same time as another, necessary surgery. He has been cut from the outside edge of his eye, all along his bottom eyelid, down the side of his nose, under his nose, through his upper lip, and had his face peeled off more times than I can count. He has a permanent dent in his scalp where they’ve removed part of his skull. They removed both a lower leg bone and a lower arm bone in order to reconstruct his palate and gums, and he has enormous scars on that arm and leg to show for it. His original trach hole wouldn’t close. He has a v-shaped scar across his neck that seriously looks like someone tried to slit his throat.
Have I mentioned how much I hate cancer?
Then, radiation when the cancer came back. Radiation that left him permanently partially deaf in one ear. Radiation that fried his salivary glands so that eating is a constant aggravation, and not pleasant. Even swallowing is a hassle. Radiation that caused contraction of his facial muscles so his mouth doesn’t close normally, and radiation that has left him with constant pain. The cold weather hurts, the hot weather hurts, the humidity hurts, the wind hurts. Radiation which wiped out his endurance, and has left him with at least a fifteen pound muscle mass loss because the man who used to work out five times a week hasn’t been in a gym in over two years, yet still loses weight if he doesn’t watch out. Would you even like to guess how much money we’ve spent on Boost these past two years, in an effort to keep his weight up?
He is every bit as handsome to me as the day we stood across from one another in church, holding hands, saying our “I do’s”. The same day that I squeezed his hand much harder on the “for richer” part of our vows, something you can see me doing on the video, and then you can see both of us grin at one another right after that. Ah, to be young and a complete moron, huh?
But guess what? It worked. All those surgeries worked, and he is currently cancer-free. (Big, giant happy dance.) Although he had complication after complication, and it felt like his entire life was one big “two steps back” scenario there for awhile, for the most part, the reconstruction is done. The chronic pain is still an enormous, intimidating hurdle which we are struggling to resolve (see: the hassle of being forced to travel to south Texas next week to meet another pain doctor because NO ONE in Oklahoma will touch him … and although the Air Force has no qualms about sending him to San Antonio, they don’t see the logic in just sending him back to his Tricare-participating pain doctor in Georgia who worked so well with him and is already familiar with his case history.) The deafness has become an issue and he’ll be having outpatient surgery again next month to have another tube put in his ear. But actually, that seems minor compared to everything else he’s been through. As long as the cancer stays gone, the implanted tissue and bone in his face maintains a good blood supply and doesn’t die, and the new bone in his gum can support the implants for his teeth, he should be ok physically.
What is not minor OR ok is the beating that his self-esteem has taken because of the way he looks and the way he feels. It was funny the first time someone at the military hospital in Georgia, after he got the MRSA staph infection in his leg, asked him if he had stepped on a land mine …. Not so funny the second and third time. For most of the past five years he has not had many of his teeth. I can tell in family pictures over that period when he had teeth and when he didn’t, by whether or not he smiled with his lips apart. He HATES when he doesn’t have teeth. He doesn’t really like to go out in public because he says people stare at him. He understands it, but it still makes him feel self-conscious. He doesn’t care for socializing a whole lot because in a crowd, he can’t hear what people are saying. We have to make sure he is seated with his good ear to people if we go out to dinner, or to a party. And despite months and months of speech therapy, and a newly-reconstructed palate, he still has some speech issues and is sometimes self-conscious about talking to people, especially on a phone. Coming back here to Tinker and running into people he worked with twelve years ago has been …. Interesting at times, to see their reactions.
It’s easy for me to tell him that it doesn’t matter, that looks aren’t important, and that he’s just as handsome to me and the kids as he ever was. I even tell him, “So, your face looks funny … I’m fat! Neither one of us is perfect!” but I know it doesn’t make him feel better. I remind him those scars are proof of his bravery over the years, and that I will never love him any less. In fact, to be honest, I don’t even really notice anymore, the physical changes he has undergone. But he notices, every time he looks in a mirror, and it makes him unhappy. It makes him self-conscious.
Have I mentioned how much I hate cancer?
After the last surgery he had in Georgia, the doctors came in his room and told him about the next surgery they would like to do on him. This one, for cosmetic purposes only. It sounded pretty high-tech, truth be told. They would do all sorts of 3-D imaging of his face, and build a flip-opposite mold of the undamaged side of his face. It would be a mask of sorts, which would perfectly mimic the normal side of his face, but would be constructed completely backwards. (Am I even explaining that right?) Then, they would peel the dented side of his face off, yet again, and slip the mask into place right under the skin, from eyeball to jaw, securing it somehow, so that his affected half would be a mirror-image of his normal half.
Sounds pretty John-Travolta-Nicholas-Cage-Face-Off-ish, doesn’t it? In fact, I kept calling it a face transplant, much to Blaine’s annoyance. The doctors told him, this would be a huge deal. Major surgery, with a major recovery time. For purely cosmetic reasons. But they really thought he was a good candidate, and they would be willing to try if he would.
Laying in the hospital bed, recovering from his umpteenth surgery to finish the reconstruction work, Blaine paused, then simply looked up at the doctor and said, “Not now. I just don’t have it in me.” He had never – NEVER – balked at a surgery, because he knew they were all necessary. But he was beat down, and couldn’t begin to think about a surgery that wasn’t 100 percent necessary.
Yesterday, he mentioned it to me.
I don’t know how I feel about it. On the one hand, I want him to do whatever it takes to feel better about himself. To be able to go out in public without having people draw in a sympathetic breath and ask what happened to him. It doesn’t matter how handsome *I* think he is, his opinion of himself is low, and maybe this surgery could correct that. Sort of like how he tells me he loves me no matter what, too, but deep down, I *know* my ass is too big.
On the other hand ……… well ………… geesh. Again? I worry he’s not ready, or that he’s going through with it too soon. If he’s going to do it, it must be done while he’s still on active duty. He’s not retiring anytime soon, but the end is out there, looming. Should he do it now, just because he has the chance?
I feel like a protective mom, who hates to see her child endure any more than is totally necessary. I worry about what could go wrong. I worry that moving forward before we get his pain management issues under control is a mistake. I worry that he won’t be happy with the results and will regret doing it.
And I guess deep down, I worry that when he’s done he’ll be so handsome that I’ll be the Lyle Lovett in our relationship.