Sep. 26, 2017

WHAT COLOR IS YOUR HEART?

I grew up in a world divided by rich and poor... black and white. Our small town didn't have fences or wall to separate its residents....only railroad tracks, country clubs, schools, stores, and neighborhoods. Interesting how well-trained most of us were; how we "knew better" than venture into  "forbidden" territory but.....

Years later, life experiences outside my hometown, expanded my thinking. I felt so strongly-about what I'd learned that I wanted to "go home" and inspire change. And....how did that work out?  Well, you might say "I lost the war BUT won the battle".  This chapter from my book THE BEAUTY QUEEN says it all:

" Approximately three weeks after losing the Mayor’s race, my father joined me for a trip to the local Goodwill Store. We often went there together, referring to our visits as “Goodwill-Hunting.” There were always things to see and buy, like books, records, pictures,furniture, even clothes.

My father reached out to open the store’s front door just as it was being pushed-open from the other side. Leaving the store, the black gentleman insisted on holding the door open for us.  The man smiled, said "Good Morning" and closed the door behind him. It was a short encounter, maybe five seconds, but the stranger made a lasting impression.

My father and I spent less than an hour searching through the store’s used treasures. Knowing me as he did, my father sensed my mind was elsewhere; that I’d found a new challenge. I couldn’t stop thinking about the polite stranger who’d opened the door for us, the nicely-dressed older gentleman—so well-groomed and mannerly—with soft brown eyes, graying temples, proud posture and—half-a-face. Where his mouth should have been was a gaping hole, split all the way into his nostrils. Two long teeth—like tusks—were on either side the hole and it hurt me to look at him.

All those Saturdays at the Public Library, reading and looking at medical books, I knew the stranger had a severe case of what was, at the time, called hare lip/cleft palate. It was called that because it resembled the upper lip of a hare or rabbit. Today, that term is considered offensive. In medical terms, the congenital birth defect is referred to as: Cleft Lip and Palate or Orofacila Cleft.

Riding home, I shared my thoughts with my father. We both wondered why doctors had failed to correct the stranger’s defect at birth. It was interesting to note—the stranger had a certain “presence”; what my grandmother referred to as “good breeding.” I was curious why the stranger hadn’t sought corrective surgery during his lifetime. The man had opened a door I couldn’t close, without answers.

The next morning was Sunday. Before leaving for my daily run,I grabbed exact change to buy a newspaper from the corner vending machine. When I got home with my newspaper, I was a little irritated with myself for impulsively selecting the Democrat Paper rather than my usual Gazette. Opening the large paper, a section fell from between the pages and hit the floor. Picking it up, I was surprised to see it was Midweek Magazine. How absurd!  Midweek Magazines were only circulated on Wednesdays and besides, this magazine was dated 3 weeks earlier. Why was an old, Wednesday-Only magazine stuck in a current Sunday Newspaper?!?!? Posed to throw it in the trash, I glanced at the cover article’s headlines, “St. Vincent Free Lip and Palate Clinic.” I remembered the stranger from yesterday and sat down to read the article.

 I needed a quick plan to locate my mysterious stranger. My father suggested I call a local bus driver, L.E. Bradley, a retired city busy driver, who seemed to know everyone in the  black community. I contacted Mr. Bradley and described the man I’d seen two days earlier. Without any hesitation, Mr. Bradley said “You’re talking about my best friend, Moses Dixon. Just say the word and I’ll bring Mo to my house so you can talk with him!”

At 9 a.m. the next day, I contacted the clinic. After hearing a little of my story, the receptionist suggested I speak with Dr. Robert Vogel. Although the Free Lip and Palate Clinic had been specifically designed for babies, the Doctor was interested in hearing Moses story. He made an appointment to meet Moses, to see if he qualified fo the surgery. If so, Moses would be the first adult to receive treatment--for free-- at that particular Clinic.

When Moses and I officially met at Mr. Bradley’s house, his first question was “How much would the surgery cost me?” At times, especially when he spoke fast, Moses was almost impossible to understand. Several times, Mr. Bradley stepped in to “translate” for Moses as I learned more about Moses’s background. 

One of nine children born on a farm in Sherrill, Arkansas, Moses was named by his mother. She said a child with such a serious defect would need a powerful name like Moses, a name blessed by God. Extremely poor, his family didn’t have money to take Moses to the doctor; the cost of any surgery would have been more than they could have afforded. Moses attended school through the fifth grade then quit to help his father on the farm. He talked about not having friends because everyone laughed at his ugly face. He’d worked for construction companies most of his life and prided himself on always mixing the perfect batch of mortar for brick-layers. Moses never had one Boss, all white, who offered to help correct his birth defect.

Moses described how, even today, young children called him Monster Man and threw rocks at him. What really hurt to hear: For all of his 67 years, Moses had never had a girlfriend.

Several days passed before all the arrangements were finalized and I was able to drive Moses to the LIttle Rock Clinic.   After checking Moses and his vital signs, the doctor approved him for surgery.

Five days later, Moses Dixon, a man who’d never seen a doctor or been inside a hospital, had surgery. One day after the surgery, I visited Moses’s hospital room. Another patient shared the room with Moses and, being a white man, seemed to resent sharing a room with someone of color. I attempted to be friendly but, in return, received a cool reception.

I focused on Moses, sitting-up tall, in his hospital bed.  I asked if he liked the way he looked and Moses said “I haven’t seen myself yet.” I handed Moses the large hand-mirror I was holding, then stepped back to watch his reaction. He stared into the mirror for only a second before putting the mirror down and closing his eyes. After a few moments, Moses put the mirror back to his face and, in a quivering voice whispered “Hi, old Mo. I didn’t even recognize you, fellow.” Hearing those words, the man in the other bed began crying; I could no longer hold back tears; and every nurse in the room burst out sobbing. Moses cried too,  but he also praised God. He thanked God out-loud, promising to be a living testimony to God’s love.

Months later, looking at Moses Dixon, it was difficult to imagine that for 67 years, this handsome and proud man lived with a severe cleft lip/ palate. His new look gave him confidence and he walked the streets of Pine Bluff like a man, re-born.

Because he sometimes had trouble believing the change in his appearance, Moses hung mirrors in every room of his tiny house. He admitted looking in the mirrors and sometimes crying but said—“They’re Happy Tears; My Tears Are Praise-the-Lord Tears!”

In my opinion, This World will cease to exist when there's no more Love; no more Caring for each other, no more "Thankful" men like Moses Dixon.  No.....we aren't defined by our skin color. We are defined by our hearts.

Sally Miller