Losing My Father’s Smile
DAD and I loved baseball and hated sleep. One midsummer dawn when I was nine, we drove to the local park with our baseballs, gloves, and Yankees caps.
“If you thought night baseball was a thrill, just wait,” Dad told me. “Morning air carries the ball like you’ve never seen.”
He was right. Our fastballs charged faster and landed more lightly. The echoes of our catches popped as the sun rose over the dew-sprinkled fields.
The park was all ours for about two hours. Then a young mother pushed her stroller toward us. When she neared, Dad politely leaned over the stroller, waved, and gave the baby his best smile.
The mother ogled at him for a second, then rushed away.
Dad covered his mouth with his hand and walked to the car. “Let’s go, bud,” he said. “I’m not feeling well.”
A month earlier, Bell’s palsy had struck Dad, paralyzing the right side of his face. It left him slurring words and with a droopy eyelid. He could hardly drink from a cup without spilling onto his shirt. And his smile, which once eased the pain of playground cuts and burst forth at the mention of Mick Jagger, Woody Allen, or his very own Yankees, was gone.
As I slumped in the car, I began suspecting that our sunrise park visit wasn’t about watching daylight lift around us. This was his effort to avoid stares.
It was a solemn drive home.
After that day, Dad spent more time indoors. He left the shopping, driving, and Little League games to Mom. A freelance editor, he turned our dining room into his office and buried himself in manuscripts. He no longer wanted to play catch.
At physical therapy, Dad obeyed the doctor: “Now smile as wide as you can. Now lift your right cheek with your hand. Now try to whistle.”
Only the sound of blowing air came out. My earliest memories were of Dad whistling to Frank Sinatra or Bobby McFerrin. He always whistled. He had taught me to whistle too.
Of the roughly 40,000 Americans afflicted with Bell’s palsy every year, most recover in several weeks. Other cases take a few months to heal. But after nine weeks of therapy, the doctor confessed she couldn’t help Dad.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she told him after his final session. Then she handed him the bill.
Dad coped through humor. He occasionally grabbed erasable markers and drew an even-sided grin across his face. Other times, he practiced his Elvis impersonation, joking that his curled lips allowed him to perfect his rendition of “Hound Dog.”
By the time I entered fourth grade that September, Dad could blink his right eye and speak clearly again. But his smile still hadn’t returned. So I made a secret vow: I would abstain from grins of any kind.
Nothing about fourth grade made this easy. Classmates were both old enough to laugh about pop culture and young enough to appreciate fart jokes. Kids called me Frowny the Dwarf. (I was three foot ten.) Teachers escorted me into hallways, asking what was wrong.
Breaking the promise I had made myself was tempting, but I couldn’t let Dad not smile alone.
When I asked my PE coach, “What’s so great about smiling?” he made me do push-ups while the rest of the class played Wiffle ball. Then he called Dad.
I never learned what they discussed. But when I got off the school bus that afternoon, I saw Dad waiting for me, holding our mitts and ball. For the first time in months, we got in the family sedan and went to the park for a catch.
“It’s been too long,” he said.
Roughly a half-dozen fathers and sons lined the field with mitted arms in the air. Dad couldn’t smile, but he beamed, and so did I. Sundown came quickly. The field’s white lights glowed, and everyone else left. But Dad and I threw everything from curve balls to folly floaters into the night. We had catching up to do.