It’s hard to explain how much I miss that wonderful lady to my right. She turned me into a tough little fighter. I was damaged goods right from the start—with a piece of linguine for an upper lip and a heavy cleft down the middle of my palate. My understanding is that the defects are the result of the body failing to fully fuse in development at the lip and mouth. So in a true sense, I started less mature than I should have been and had a lot of catching up to do right out of the starting blocks. My favorite song growing up was on a Hans Christian Anderson record—The Ugly Duckling—about a scrappy little duck who dreamt of becoming a swan. Someday—maybe someday—I, too, would grow up to see a better reflection of myself in the lake.
The medical experts told my mom that I would never speak properly, but she just didn’t buy what they were selling. She worked closely with speech therapists and orthodontists who thought outside the boxes of the more pessimistic conventional wisdom. And so started the torture of extractions, caps, and braces. The follow-up surgeries came shortly thereafter. When the physical apparatus was in place, the real work began.
Every day after school she would have a little present waiting for me—a big toy truck or a plastic bowling pin set or something similar. And after the carrot came the stick – the hard lessons practicing the letter of the day. We would sit on the stairs in the foyer, retraining my tongue to swim laps in alphabet soup. I remember the D’s quite well. But the S’s proved the toughest challenge. I simply lacked the front palate and dentition to do anything but make S’s with the back of my tongue. Stu sounded like Shoo—to the endless taunts of my peers. Once my mouth was fixed, it took a major effort to reorient where my tongue went to form that simple sound. As a child, I couldn’t even speak my own name, and would avoid saying it as much as possible. Is it any wonder I liked “Lee” better?
My Bar Mitzvah was the unofficial culmination of my mother’s relentless work. Her efforts paved the way for my father’s work. He had me go over the passages I would sing acapella to the congregation. We practiced so many times that I would hear the memorized prayers in my dreams. When my big day came, people saw me stand on the podium by the ark. But I wasn’t just standing on a podium. I was standing on the shoulders of my parents. And when I looked out at the congregation, I saw a wonderful reflection in their smiles. I finally saw that swan.
Thank you, mom, for teaching me how to fight, how to speak—and most importantly through it all—how to be happy. Thank you for teaching me that the most intrinsic beauty is hidden in a smile. And thank you for showing me how to beam a smile right from the soul and share it with the world.
My mom. She gave me a middle name I could always say. Lee. And you can’t say Lee without smiling.
Photo courtesy of author. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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