This week, Baylor University women's basketball head coach, Kim Mulkey, arrived in Denver for the NCAA Final Four with an unexpected companion: a broken face.
Mulkey's suffering from Bell's Palsy, a temporary paralysis of the facial muscles which can have long-term effects if not treated early. Also, it's scary as hell.
I know. I've had it. One morning several years ago I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for work, when something felt very wrong in my mouth. It was as if the entire mechanism was out of alignment, all the squishy oral parts slightly off kilter, not working together as they should.
I chalked it up to my half-awake condition. It was 3:00 in the morning, and I was operating on autopilot after years of working an early shift. Still, my cheeks were acting oddly, and when I offered the tube of Chapstick to my lips, well, they couldn't quite figure out what to do with it.
I started playing tricks with my face: clown smiles, scrunchy noses, up-and-down eyebrows, jawbone shimmy side-to-side. Everything seemed a bit out of whack, off somehow by a few degrees. When I smiled, the right side of my mouth felt as if it would just keep going, that it would manage to fly right off my face. What was wrong?
And then I realized I'd been focusing on the incorrect side! The right half was winging out of control because its partner on the left was just sitting there, inert, like a kid defeated by a homework problem. I'd been paying attention to all the things my face was doing and not to what it wasn't doing. The right side was taking flight, and the left wasn't doing a jot to stop it.
I went to work.* It was 4:00 a.m., and by the time I got to the doctor's office at 10:00, the left side of my face had melted like a Dali clock.
And one of the best things that's ever happened to me.
In the span of six hours, I went from a person who could slip blissfully unnoticed through her day to the object of neck-snap and double-take. The teller at the bank turned quickly away, then glanced back up at me again. The grocery checker cocked her head, her brain trying to register what her eyes were seeing. An unexpected encounter with an acquaintance brought the relief of candor: What happened to you? she asked.
I pouted for a day over my sorry plight: the eyelid that could not blink, needing tape to keep it closed at night and a hand to operate it during the day; the tongue that no longer knew how to hold things in my mouth; the jaw-sag and drool; the lax and broken face. And then the word came bubbling into my consciousness: temporary. Temporary. As in: of short duration. As in: not permanent.
The worst was over in a couple of weeks. Recovery took, oh, 10 more beyond that. A hint of the paralysis lingers, but it's no bigger deal than the scar on my palm, souvenir of a bee sting I got when I was five. What a gift I was given, this view of the world from the interior of disfigurement. And what luxury it was, to know the condition would not last.
The forward-focused Mulkey isn't going to let a little palsy keep her from coaching her team to a national championship. "This is just a little bump in the road. I can assure you the spit that will fly out of my face in a timeout won't faze them . . . It aggravates me, but there are worse things in life. And you just deal with it."
*This is exactly the sort of stupid thing I'm capable of, but that's another blog for another time.