The following chapters conclude the autobiographical book, "The Gift."
On Google there are literally thousands of quotations of smart people giving advice to those who are different. In reality, “It’s not easy being green.”
Kermit the Frog & Me
To those of you who are different, like me:
I have to start this chapter by telling you I don’t trust people who have all the answers. Some people are always dispensing these tid-bits of how to live your life to the fullest. I wish I knew the answers, but unfortunately, I don’t. This book was my attempt to give you a little direction and to leave you not feeling so alone.
When I was growing up I wanted more than anything to have friends. For as far back as I can remember I couldn’t find my place or be with people who wanted me to be in their circle of friends. To escape my reality, I started reading. Books kept me company. I was also tired of people thinking because of my face I must be mentally impaired. This made me try even harder to prove they were wrong. The harder I tried to be accepted the weirder it looked to the others. How they perceived me reinforced my desire to try harder. For a large part of my life I was caught up in this never-ending downhill spiral trying and failing then trying and failing again. Why is it that we try to become friends with those who reject us again and again? Yet we pay little heed to those who love and accept us the way we are.
I’m sharing this because I know there are people who are different. I also know it's not easy. Many of you are keeping your struggle to yourself, because that is exactly what I did when I was your age. Please trust me, keeping your struggle to yourself is the worst thing you can do. Ask for help. Learn coping skills. We are born with a basic idea about life. After that everything is learned including how we respond to being mistreated by people or institutions. If you don’t know how to cope with a situation, please find professional help. I did, it made all the difference in the world to me.
Below is my idea of what your rights are simply because you are human. You don’t need people to confirm these thoughts. No institution is going to sanction their legitimacy. In my opinion these rights are common sense. This is my list that works for me, most of the time. There is an obligations list, too. We all have an obligation, as well, and that is to lead the way. We inherently have an obligation to set an example for others. Don’t just talk…do something! We must, to the best of our abilities, give a heads up to the people who’ve yet to travel down this path. I hope the ideas listed below give you something to consider.
You have the right to be happy however you define happiness.
You have the right to be whoever you want to be. No one can deny that right.
You have the right to feel good about yourself. No one can take it from you.
You have the right to live and let live. To honor and respect others if they honor and respect you for who you are.
You have the right to live in the moment and believe as you wish, that is your choice.
Your obligation is to try to be the best person you can be.
Your obligation is to be kind. If you find it difficult do it anyway.
Your obligation is to respect those who love you and want to see you succeed.
Your obligation is not to become a cynic. When you become cynical you demean yourself. The world is not and will never be, a perfect place. Becoming cynical is a waste of time.
Your obligation is to set an example for those in the future who will be different. Lead the way, set an example.
Your obligation is to defend who you are. To take a stand if a person or an institution says that who you are or how you look isn’t acceptable look elsewhere.
Regardless of what makes you different you have the absolute right to be who you are, no matter what. Learn to like yourself just the way you are regardless of what other people or institutions say.
To those who have a stake in making the world a better place:
I leave you with these thoughts. Excluding people from having a seat at the table has always been and will forever be a bad idea. It’s a belief whose time is long overdue to disappear. We are living in an era where old assumptions are being questioned. Are these assumptions still relevant? Were they ever relevant? Some of these ideas were the bedrock of our collective beliefs. Our world is struggling with dramatic changes never seen before in all human history.
People are redefining what it means to love another human being. The LGBT community has fought a long hard battle for equal rights. Gay and transgender people have always been part of any society that ever existed. Recognizing their basic human rights is long overdue.
We must start demanding basic human rights for all people regardless how society defines them. This new way of thinking has put enormous pressure on religious institutions around the world. The argument used today by religions to oppose gay marriage is nothing new. Sixty years ago, many religions used the same argument against interracial marriage.
We have used our religions to impose our ideas on how society in general should be. The Spanish Inquisition is a good example of how that is truly a bad idea.
As for our country’s racial divide we can’t ignore that things have gotten much better over the past fifty years. It does not mean our job is done. In fact, we still have a long way to go. The pace of change is much too slow.
This small book was my story and how I lived with a facial disfigurement. Many facially disfigured people of my generation have, in our own way, tried to set an example for future generations. The younger generations are redefining beauty, decency, and what it means to fully take part in our society.
People are challenging long-held institutional assumptions. People within organizations are forcing institutions around the globe to reevaluate long-held beliefs. How can we ignore the rights of others and expect equal rights for ourselves? If you belong to a group that holds to antiquated beliefs, you need to reevaluate your priorities. Either help to change your organization’s priorities and beliefs, or leave the group. There is no place or justification for bigotry in our institutions, our government, or anywhere in our country.
There is a troubling fact about America. People are tired of hearing about equal rights for this group or that group. It's old news and they're sick of it. To a certain degree, I kind of understand where they’re coming from. I’m not implying they’re right—in fact, those who are of that opinion are wrong. As I mentioned in the book, I couldn’t understand why my father wouldn’t quit smoking. I had a terrible dose of righteous indignation toward my father’s illness. I was young and naïve to the ways of the world. I had no empathy for my father until much later in my life. How could I not see what was happening to one of the most important people in my life?
Like my attitude toward my father we do the same thing with our fellow citizens. Some people, for various reasons are not given equal access to the benefits of all people. Every day these so-called outcasts put up with issues that are unimaginable. I realize people are tired of hearing about equal rights. I can tell you from firsthand experience it’s exhausting being the focal point of flat out discrimination.
There are thousands of people who are not being afforded basic decency and respect. In a conversation about this book a person became visibly upset over some of the content. They couldn’t understand what I was trying to do. Was I trying to get on the pity potty and wallow around in my own crap? They told me they didn’t believe most of the stories in this book. They insisted I was exaggerating to make a point.
Here’s the truth, every day in America police are pulling over Black and Latino people because of their color. Some fanatical Christian religious hate groups are targeting the LGBT community. Many people for all kinds of reasons are being denied basic human rights and full access to the benefits of our society.
As important as these issues are today, in the future they will be much more important. We will need an all-hands on deck approach to how we live in the future. We can no longer afford the philosophy that some people are less than others. We need everyone on board to help with the issues we have never dealt with in all human history. Everyone, without exception, needs a seat at the table.
My Grandfather’s shop…
My story ends in my grandfather’s woodworking shop in June of 1968. While recovering from surgery on my jaw I went to hang out with my grandparents at their home in Prescott, Arizona. As usual, the aftermath of the surgery left me an emotional wreck. I hurt all over and my jaw was wired shut.
We were in my grandfather’s woodworking shop when out of nowhere he asked, "What are you going to do when you grow up?”
“I don’t know,” I answered.
He thought for a second and said, "You're a creative kid. You should be a writer or a comedian. You have a knack for making people laugh.”
“You think so?”
"You'd be good at whatever you decide you want to do with your life.”
I heard and appreciated his kind words, but I realized at the same time it was a caring, yet empty gesture. I was recuperating from surgery and a long stay in Phoenix Crippled Children’s Hospital. I was entering the fourth year of my facial reconstruction. It seemed like a never-ending list of procedures and operations that left me drained.
My depression underscored the disbelief in what my grandfather was telling me. It wasn’t until I had lived most of my life that I realized the depth of his sincerity and decency.
“I do like to write stories,” I later said to my grandfather after a while of thinking.
“Good for you,” he said, before returning to work. A few minutes later he looked up at me, and said: “Then someday when you’re an old man like me you should tell your story. Help people understand what you went through during the course of your life. Honor those who helped you along the way. I think you would do a good job at helping others understand what your life was like.”
“Yeah, Grandpa, someday I’ll do that.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “You have to write your story, it’s important.”
Fifty years later I finally told my story, as I promised my grandfather I would.
Some final thoughts…
Polio has been with me in one form or another since July 5, 1951. Always just below the surface in the shadows haunting every day of my life. I suppose my uninvited companion will be with me until I die. I must confess it wasn’t until recently that I considered the aftereffects of polio a gift. To this day, the daily reminder by a few people that I don’t fit in troubles me. A slight twist of the lip and the eyes that say, “you can go now…goodbye.” I wish I appreciated human nature more, but frankly people are baffling to me. We are all too willing to set aside folks who are different, those who frighten us, make us feel uncomfortable. I’ll never understand.
I’ve been the recipient of the kindest acts of humanity you can imagine. Yet, because of my disfigured face I’ve been targeted by the most spiteful, despicable people. How can one person see those of us who are different with such contempt and yet another with so much kindness and possibility? I suppose all of us have much to learn about decency and kindness. All I know for sure about life is that it’s not a dress rehearsal; it’s short and we have to do the best we can with what we have. Like everyone on this planet, we’re all a work in progress. As individuals we must learn to put aside our own bigotries. As institutions we can no longer use the scriptures as a wholesale authorization of bigotry topped off with a condescending smile of piety. All people are flawed even those who profess to be above the fray. The time is at hand to include everyone, to let everyone fully participate in life. We are losing so much.
Ten Mini-vignettes to make you wonder
Richfield Gas Station ~ Gilbert, Arizona circa 1959
“Your face, what happened?”
“No, you’re too young.”
“That’s what my parents said”
“No, must be genetic.”
Barber Shop ~ Gilbert, Arizona circa 1961
“What did you say was the kind of polio you had?”
“I’ll be damned. No kidding. Are you normal?”
Safeway ~ Indianapolis, Indiana circa 1994
“Hello back to you. How are you today young lady?”
“What happened to your face?”
“A bear bit it.”
“Mom…Mom a bear bit this man’s face!”
“Is that true? Oh my God! Were you really bitten by a bear?”
“No, I was just messing with your daughter.”
“Why would you do that? What kind of person says that to a little girl? You’re sick!”
Maricopa County ~ 1968
Yavapai, County ~ 1971
“Do you have your license and registration?”
“Yeah, here you go.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“If you’re talking about alcohol, none.”
“Why are you slurring your words?”
“I had polio as a kid.”
“Oh yeah, my sister had polio her speech is okay.”
Capital Feed and Seed ~ Gilbert, Arizona circa 1960
“I heard you got some sort of polio.”
“Is that what screwed up your face?”
“Well…Yes, sir. I guess.”
“Who told you THAT?”
“Who told me what?”
“That you had some kind of special face polio?”
“My Mom and Dad. Why?”
“Noth’n just thought I’d ask.”
Jake’s Good Eats Dairy Bar ~ Gilbert, Arizona circa 1972
“You mean Bell’s Palsy.”
“What? Do you want to know if I have it?
“No. I had polio.”
“You got polio of the face? Seriously? Are you messing with me?”
Burger King ~ Kansas City ~ circa 1982
“Holy shit man…that has to hurt?”
“You were at the dentist, right? It looks like he just beat the crap out of you. Does it hurt?
“No, I’m fine.”
St. Louis, Missouri ~ circa 1987
Wichita, Kansas ~ circa 1989
Fort Wayne, Indiana ~ circa 1992
“Do you have your driver’s license, registration, and insurance card?”
“Sure do, officer! Here you go.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“If you’re talking about alcohol, none.”
“Why are you slurring your words?”
“I had polio as a kid.”
“Would you mind getting out of the car?”
Urgent Care ~ Phoenix circa ~ 2006
“Oh my God, what happened?”
“I have the worst cold that I’ve had in years.”
“A cold did that to your face?”
“What caused your face to look that way?”
“Are you a doctor? I came here because I have a bad cold. I had polio—that’s what happened to my face.”
“You had polio of the face? I never heard of that?”
“Are you a doctor?”
Home Depot – Phoenix, Arizona
“I beg your pardon?”
“When did you have the stroke?”
“I didn’t have a stroke.”
“Then what happened?”
“What’s going on? Are you writing a book?”
“Screw you, you old bastard. I was just trying to be nice!”