I was in the first grade with the purple-faced Mrs. Reagan when my mother had the first operation on her face to remove a tumor. This wasn’t the one that took the facial nerve; that came later. Still, it was difficult for a little boy to see his mother’s fine, beautiful face all sunken in and scarred. It was not the same face, possibly not even the same person. Surgery fifty years ago was mean and rough; no refinement. I can’t remember how much explanation I got about all this, probably not much. My oldest sister, Ann, knew that Ma was facing possible death. I remember she mentioned this but it didn’t sink in, at least not on the conscious level. During that operation, during the ones that followed, and even during the mastectomies that happened during my twenties, I never let myself think that my mother might die. And she didn’t, not until a long time later. We just didn’t go there consciously.
But I was conscious of that messed-up face. At that time I was in the first-grade play. I was grandfather rabbit on the big proscenium stage of that old gothic elementary school, Prospect Hill in Pelham Manor, New York. And there was a certain importance and prestige connected with this. I didn’t want my mother with that ugly, sunken, messed-up-half a face to go to the play to see me in my magnificence. She would be an embarrassment and a source of shame. These were not feelings I could express because I loved my mother more than anything in the world. So I just started crying and kept on crying. Somehow she got it out of me by asking me questions- warmer, warmer, that’s it. I still remember the relief I felt to get this off my chest without, apparently, hurting her. This was the first time I saw my mother’s real strength, those clear gray eyes looking reality square on, straight up, unflinching. If it hurt her she never let me know. She went to the play but with a babushka around her face and it was ok.
From that time on I never let my mother see in my eyes that I saw her disfigurement. It was like a spiritual practice for me. I just looked to who she was as a person, a very great person. And her face got worse. The facial nerve was taken. Plastic surgery was tried and failed due to a massive staph infection. That ate up the pound of flesh they took from her leg to put in her cheek. How long did it take for that thigh excavation to fill in? A long long time. We saw all that. My mother was not a modest person and was half dressed or completely naked in front of her four children a lot of times. And the breasts were taken later, first one and then the other. We called her the “patchwork girl” from one of the Oz books.
There were unpleasant things about her face. An eye would water since she couldn’t blink. Her mouth would not stay shut all the time when she was eating, things like that. If I saw those things I never let her see that I was seeing them. I never slipped up, never.
One day when I was twenty or twenty-one and my mother was driving me to yet another doctor to find out why I seemed to have lost my life force, we stopped at the gas station to fill up. I got out quickly to go to the bathroom and came out into the office when my mother approached from outside. She knew the people at the station for years. I was standing behind one of the attendants, a man of about sixty, an Irish working class guy. And he was standing in front of the glass door, inside with me, as my mother approached to enter the station. For the first time in my life I saw my mother’s face the way other people saw it and at exactly that moment he said “What in the hell is that ?” In other words, “Who’s that freak?” All the blood drained out of my face and the pain and anger were so intense I thought I would faint. My mother must have changed her mind because she didn’t come in, but went back to the car and then he turned around and saw me and realized immediately what he had done. He moved away from me and said something lame like “I’ve known Mrs. Winsor for years.” I was looking right through him. I hate to think what my face looked like. It’s never been that way again. Then he said, “Hit me if it will make you feel better.” I thought about it, but just shook my head, turned and left. Back at the car my mother could see that something had happened. I didn’t say much and she didn’t press it.