43: Once Upon a Smile

43: Once Upon a Smile

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Once Upon a Smile

We can let circumstances rule us, or we can take charge and rule our lives from within.

~Earl Nightingale

It was easy being pretty with my large blue-green-grey eyes. My wholesome smile was never fake. My face never had the camouflage of make-up. That was “me” since childhood.

One morning in February 2003, I woke up and the right half of my face was paralyzed.

My right eye couldn’t blink, my forehead was frozen, half my lips were in a set position, and my nose had one nostril pulled towards the non-paralyzed side. Without warning or understanding, my means of relating to people and the world was shut off.

My eye was taped shut to protect the cornea, and speech was difficult.

The neurologist said the longer the paralysis went on, the more permanent the problems.

An eye doctor suggested sewing the affected lid closed, and told me to get eye glasses because anything could fly into my eye, as I had no blink reflex.

I went for window-glass eyewear. On my nose, the frame looked crooked.

I pushed my straight blond hair behind my ears. My pretty face that had exhibited “me” with a constant and symmetrical smile now looked grotesque and reflected the stern-unmovable expression of people who show disdain toward others.

When I decided to take charge of this obstacle in my life, I first went to the supermarket. The stares were bad enough, but many people moved away from me as if I were contagious.

My speech was slow, as I had to think the words in my head and then decide on a synonym if a word began with a “b” or “p” because those required either use of cheek muscles or the ability to blow air.

I went out for dinner.

“You have a lot of courage to be out looking like that,” I was told.


Another woman told me she had “a case of paralysis that went on for two whole weeks.”

Contest; I’d rather not be the winner of longevity.

“Does it hurt?”

Curious, but not compassionate.

“How’d you get such a thing?”


A relative decided not to visit me, saying, “Your face might scare my children.”


I made others comfortable, because I, frankly, didn’t have a quick enough answer for what spewed from their mouths. I said pat phrases like, “Life is too good to waste it,” and “I’ll make lemonade from this lemon,” and wondered whether this would turn out to be permanent.

Eventually, some healing facial nerve fibers implanted themselves into the wrong muscles. The brain told the muscle to contract, assuming the nerve was connected to where it once belonged, only now that specific nerve was connected to a different muscle.

So when my brain thinks I’m smiling, my eye twitches, or when it thinks I’m blinking, the cheek muscle twitches with enough power that it’s visible. I cannot blink the eye that’s on the palsy side.

With nerve fibers rerouted, a whole new condition to live with opened up, and the communication shown by a face was permanently gone. The half-face paralysis with distortion and spasms was for the rest of my life, and I could expect added complications as years multiplied.

In the quiet of my room, the mirror heard my unspoken words as I commanded the eyebrow to lift, or lid to blink, or cheek to move, or lips to... Unresponsive commands... I realized that my face was a stranger.

I have dealt with this challenge, believing life is too valuable to have it dictated by others’ stares.

For these six years, and for the rest of my life, I’ll continue to go out among people and eat in restaurants. I make it seem less complicated, less uncomfortable, less awkward than it really is. I portray a person able to move in and out of circumstances without being encompassed by such, or even one bothered by, a face that is clueless regarding the “me” I am and had always shown.

For skin that never saw make-up to conceal even a pimple, I currently conceal my feelings and attitude under layers of jokes or distractions. I deal with humor, because the gift of life my parents gave me must be treasured as no other gift in my world.

The added gift of a caring and supportive family is beautiful, but I can give back with strength, courage, and being a consistent role model of a living-oriented person. Of course it isn’t easy, but time gone can never be retrieved.

I do insist on being photographed in profile so my smiling side is the only part that shows, because that’s how I still feel about myself. My family, in their memories, “see” the frozen part upturned as well.

~Lois Greene Stone

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