Mom was living alone with two kids when she found the lump. Dad had left us in a rented house in North Haledon, New Jersey, while he fled the unions up north for the booming textile plants in the south. Mom was pregnant when she arrived in snowy February, and Allan was placed in a Catholic school with more than usually ornery nuns. After I was born in August, my dad moved to Milledgeville, Georgia. It was a lonely time.
After just a few weeks, my mother started to notice that I had difficulty feeding. She slid her finger under my upper lip and found a pea-sized thickening. By the time she got to the doctor, the lump had grown. The doctor in Prospect Park gave her the news: her baby had a tumor in her lip that appeared to be benign, but would continue to grow and needed treatment. Soon it was a struggle to get nourishment into me, and my mother’s life became a battle to keep an infant healthy while giving her ten-year-old son a normal and happy childhood in their isolated home among strangers.
Finally, the day came that the family could live together again, but only by moving further than ever from everyone they knew and loved. Before my mother moved to Georgia, her doctor had cautioned her not to allow anyone to treat my tumor with radiation, since that would cause a hare lip. In those days, radiation was the most exciting new development available, and even shoe stores advertised that they could give you a perfect fit by making x-rays of your feet. The vast majority of people were completely ignorant of the dangers of radiation, and no precautions were taken to shield anyone from excess exposure. When my mother brought me to the doctor in the little town of Milledgeville, the very first suggestion was radiation. When she refused, they referred her to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where we endured years of torture, but with the best possible outcome at the end.
Every other week, my parents drove two hours to Atlanta, where I would start crying before they reached the parking lot of the hospital. They would carry their traumatized one- and then two-year-old daughter into the hospital, pull her clinging arms from around their necks, and hand me over to the hospital staff, who would wrap me tightly in sheets so that I could not move. I honestly have no memory of the treatments that continued until I was two and a half years old, but apparently, they were ineffective. I can only imagine the suffering my parents endured, knowing that we would all go through this again in two weeks, wishing that they could explain to me why they were delivering me over to be tortured, hoping that they were doing the right thing. My mother told me later that it affected my father so deeply that he spoke of it even decades later. In the end, the doctors decided that they would have to perform surgery.
Many people have negative opinions about plastic surgeons, thinking only of the high prices they charge to craft prettier noses or to make vain, rich women look younger than they are. I, however, thank the Lord for them, since the plastic surgeon at Emory University Hospital made it possible for me to live a normal life. By the time they operated, the tumor had disfigured the entire right side of my upper lip and extended into my nostrils. He decided to take as much as he could from underneath my lip, in order to cause as little scarring as possible. The oncologist warned my parents that I would probably need three more surgeries by the time I finished my teen years, two because of growth and one because of hormone changes in adolescence. I never needed another one.
When my son was a baby, he once threw his head back into my face while he was sitting on my lap, hitting hard enough to bring tears to my eyes. A few days later, my tongue found blisters right where my tumor scars were. I thought that perhaps pregnancy hormones had caused the tumor to grow back the way they had expected in my teen years. The oncologist read my medical record, examined me, and said no, there was nothing there but scar tissue. Then he said, “Hats off to your plastic surgeon. He did a spectacular job.”
So thank you, dear Dr. Kanthak and Dr. Wilkins, for giving me the ability to live a normal, happy life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that my upper lip has started to fold when I smile, creating a dark area where there is nothing underneath the skin. A small price to pay for avoiding a hare lip, and probably no one notices except me. It’s just a little reminder of the suffering we endured, my parents and me, when I was too young to remember.