Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gail Godwin's Novel, Edgar Poe's Raven, and My Face


I've been reading some of Gail Godwin's earlier novels as I prepare to review her new one in about a month for the Plain Dealer.  And the other day, I was reading A Mother and Two Daughters, a novel set in North Carolina that begins with the death of the father of the eponymous two daughters.  The rest of the novel chronicles their lives in the aftermath, revisits their earlier lives a bit, and concludes six years later with a huge family gathering out in the country.

Anyway ... late in the novel, the three women have gone to the seashore, where they visit their family cottage for the first time since the funeral.  Through a series of odd events, the place burns down.  And when she is returning home alone, Cate--the older sister--begins to experience some unusual physiological changes.

Feeling a sharp pain near her jaw, she figures she's having some sort of severe dental problem, but at the dentist's office, she hears this:

"... I'd say you'd be a good candidate for Bell's palsy."

"What's that?"

"Paralysis of the facial nerves.  ... I'm going to arrange for you to see a neurologist.  ... Whatever it is, the sooner we catch it, the more chance there is of a full recovery."

Full recovery?

"Am I having a stroke?" asked Cate (476).

Well, she subsequently learns that she does have Bell's, and as the novel winds down, we learn that her case has been clearing up--though there are some lingering effects.

These passages hit me personally.  For it was not all that long ago that I, too, had a surprise visit from Bell's palsy--a visit with lingering consequences.  Here is a passage I wrote about my experience in my memoir Schoolboy, available on Amazon/Kindle:

Fall 2003.  Western Reserve AcademyHudson, Ohio.
Men, for the most part, are strange creatures, truly!
— Moliere, Tartuffe, 1.6

I’d always intended to memorize “The Raven,” but I’d just never gotten around to it.  I knew others by Poe—“Eldorado,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “Annabel Lee.”  Still, whenever I taught Poe, I told my students about this “Raven” ambition of mine.  They seemed mildly interested.  Polite.  One day I realized I was about to turn sixty and still hadn’t learned the lines.  Didn’t look as if I would.

Then in October, 2003, I was hit with the strangest damn thing.  I came home from school one afternoon, my mouth feeling dry.  So I rinsed it out, but when I tried to spit into the bathroom sink, water went everywhere. What the hell …?  I looked in the mirror.  The right side of my face appeared to be sagging.  I wasn’t sure what was wrong.  But I remembered I’d once had a sinus infection that had caused a similar distortion.  Perhaps another had arrived—though I didn’t feel ill at all.   Just some sharp soreness that was declaring itself behind my right ear and along my right jaw line.

That night Joyce and I went to the Ohio Theatre in downtown Cleveland to see a production of Tartuffe.  During the show Joyce noticed that my right eye was not blinking.  She was worried.  But afterwards—we stayed for all of it—I insisted on driving home.  (Sometimes I’m nothing if not a stereotypical, mulish American man.)  Still, privately, I was worried, too.  Why can’t I blink?  Every few seconds I had to use a finger to hold my eyelid shut.  If I didn’t, the eyeball dried quickly.  And hurt.

At home, Joyce wanted to take me to the ER.  I said it was probably just a sinus infection.  I’d wait till morning.

I slept well.  But I’m not sure how.  Was my eye open all night?  Or did I keep my hand on my eyelid the entire time?  In the morning my face was worse.  The entire right side would not obey a single command.  Frozen.  Dead.  While I was showering (and wondering if I’d had a mild stroke), Joyce called our doctor.  He quickly recognized the symptoms of Bell’s palsy—the paralysis of the facial nerve.  I’d never heard of it.  He told us it was not dangerous but sent us to the ER.  The physician there confirmed the diagnosis, prescribed Prednisone and an anti-viral.  He told me that no one is really sure what causes the condition (perhaps a virus?); there is no cure; it either goes away or it doesn’t.  It might take weeks.  Or months.  It’s like some surreal malady out of a Poe story, you know?  (“The Man with the Frozen Face”?)

The short course of Prednisone—intended to relieve the swelling and perhaps allow the facial nerve to function again—did nothing for my Bell’s.  But it did erase that Chilkoot-Pass pain in my left knee.  So I canceled the arthroscopic surgery I’d scheduled.  (The pain has not returned.)
My diary for those early weeks with Bell’s shows my continuing attempts to keep up with my normal activities.  Teaching.  Book-reviewing.  And it was not until a few days after my diagnosis that our family doctor told me I must keep my right eye taped shut, all day, all night, every day.  

This is not as easy as it sounds.  I bought gauze eye patches, but underneath I had to secure the eyelid with medical tape.  But the goddamn lid wanted to stay open, and if I didn’t tape it properly, it snapped back up like a disobedient window shade, and I had to re-do it.  I fussed with my eye many times per day.

We went to see a neurologist in Akron, a guy who didn’t seem too sure what to tell me.  He sent me to an ophthalmologist, who told me one of my options was to sew my eyelid shut.  I was getting frustrated.  Angry.  No one seemed to know what to tell me.  Tape the eye?  Don’t tape it?  Use eye drops?  Don’t use them?  Sew the damn thing shut?  In late October my diary was full of details about the successful or unsuccessful tapings of my eye.

And there were other nuisances.  I could no longer drive a car.  And because my lips were not cooperating with each other, I had to drink all liquids through a straw—even hot coffee, my constant morning companion.  Although I chewed mostly on the left side of my mouth, food oozed out on the right and chunks of chewings end up caught between my cheek and right jaw bone.  Kissing Joyce became awkward.  It was difficult to talk—my words beginning with f- didn’t sound right.  When I smiled, I looked freakish, and I considered whether it might be better just to put on a Phantom mask and be done with it.

By mid-November I realized I could not keep teaching.  Using my single eye to survey my class, to read papers, to keep up with the assignments—not to mention my book-reviewing.  (Feeling all day like an effete Polyphêmos.)  Talking remained difficult.  And some of my students were so uncomfortable with me that they avoided looking at me all period.  This was not good.   So I told the Academic Dean I was going to have to go on leave until I started recovering.  Most of my students professed sadness and regret, though I’m sure many were relieved that they didn’t have to look at my freaky face for a while.

Meanwhile, Joyce’s online research found the Facial Nerve Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, only about a hundred miles away.  She called a specialist there, Dr. Ernest K. Manders, who spoke with her at length.  He agreed to see me on 22 December.  He told me to fast the night before—just in case I elected to undergo a minor surgical procedure.

Dr. Manders, a wonderful man, was very encouraging.  He thought I would recover most if not all of my facial function.  But it would take time—maybe months, maybe more.  He believed I was a good candidate for an interesting surgery.  He would insert in my right eyelid a tiny gold weight that would permit me to blink properly, would end my daily battles with medical tape.  He performed the operation late that very afternoon.

It changed my life.  Within a day—once I removed the bandage, once the thick antiseptic ointment dissipated—I had both eyes back.  The world around me once again broadened and deepened.
But on our way home from the surgery, late in the evening, a mile or two from our house, a deer leapt into the side of our car.  We did not see her at all before the impact—there was no Oh, there’s a deer!  Look out!  Not until impact did we hear and feel her.  Then we saw her limp off into the woods.  Like that deer, our car would never again run just right.  And neither would I.

While I was recovering over Christmas vacation (now that I could use both eyes, I’d planned to return to teach in mid-January), I received a playful email from Suneil, one of my very fine students.  He was especially gifted in science and math (the other kids looked with awe upon him) but had been doing very strong work in English as well.  His email said something like this: I’ve learned about five stanzas of “The Raven.”  How many do you know?

Well, goddamn! I thought.  I wrote back to Suneil, told him I was going to start working on the poem, as well.  I promised myself that I would memorize one stanza per day until I’d learned all eighteen of them.  I kept the promise.  And on one of my first days back in class, Suneil and I recited the poem, alternating verses.  I made a couple of mistakes; he made none.  The students applauded.  And Suneil and I had a history.  The following year whenever I saw him on the campus, there was a current between us.  And later, when Joyce and I visited the Poe museum in Richmond, I bought and sent Suneil a necktie adorned with little ravens.

As I write this a few years later, I wonder: Why did Suneil do that?  Start on “The Raven”?  Tell me about it?  Did he know how I would respond?  That I would join him in the pursuit of the black bird?  And did Suneil—that bright, sensitive young man—somehow detect a way to heal me?

But I have not recovered completely.  I performed the facial exercises the therapist prescribed; I took monthly trips to Pittsburgh for tests on my progress.  Feeling and animation gradually returned to my face.  But during one trip in May 2004 I found that I had made only two percent improvement since the previous visit.  I was discouraged.  I’d been working hard, doing everything I was supposed to.  But I still had a total of just sixty-eight percent function.  I had an appointment for early July.  But, depressed, I canceled it; I have not gone back.

Today, I would guess I’m about at eighty to eighty-five percent.  It’s very unlikely that I will get any better.  I’ve learned to live with it.  To adapt.  People who’ve known me can see the difference, I’m sure, but people I’ve just met probably think I’ve just got a wry smile, a lazy eyelid.

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