Jul. 10, 2019




I grew up hearing the phrase, “When one door closes, another opens.”  For me, it didn’t take long.  Approximately three weeks after losing the Mayor’s race, I joined my father for a trip to the local Goodwill Store.There were always things to see and buy, including books, records, pictures, costume jewelry, furniture, and 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 gentleman insisted on holding the door open so we could walk inside.  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. My father, knowing me as he did, sensed my mind was elsewhere.  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...Orofacial 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 immediately remembered the stranger from yesterday and sat-down to read the article.

Forced to wait until the next day to call the Clinic, 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 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 9am 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 for surgery. If so, Moses would be the first adult to receive treatment 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?” 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.  A kind, well-mannered gentleman, Moses never had even one Boss who tried to help correct his birth defect.

 Moses described how, even today, younger children called him Monster Man and threw rocks at him. What really hurt to hear: Moses had never had a girlfriend.  No woman wanted to be around him because of his deformity. In fact, in all his sixty seven years, Moses Dixon had never been intimate with a woman.

Sitting in the Clinic’s waiting room, I felt the stares. Looking around the waiting room at men and women holding babies, I noticed everyone was white.  I wanted to tell everyone: “Please stop staring. Staring is rude for whatever reason. I’m sure my friend is accustomed to stares---he’s been stared at all his life. My friend, Moses, has known nothing but stares and emotional abuse since the day he was born. Are you critical because he’s a black man with a horrible disability, or because he’s the only black in a waiting room full of whites or, could it be you’re gawking because he’s sitting next to a white woman?!?!”  

Feeling very protective of my new friend, I wanted to speak out, make a point, but instead, I stayed quiet.  In a short time, the nurse took us to the examining room. 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 even 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 how he felt and Moses replied “I’m a little bit stiff and my mouth feels swollen.  I think I sound pretty good, though.  I hear myself talk and my words sound better.” I asked if he liked the way he looked and Moses said “I haven’t seen myself yet.”

 I handed a large hand-mirror to Moses and stepped back to watch his reaction. He stared into the mirror then put the mirror down and closed his eyes.  After a few seconds, Moses put the mirror back to his face, looked at himself, and, in a quivering voice whispered “Hi, old Mo. I didn’t even recognize you, fellow.”

When he said that, 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 but he also praised God.  He thanked God, promising to be a living testimony of God’s love.

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

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

Follow-Up: The last time I talked with Moses, he was excited to tell me about his ministry, the success he’d had in sharing his personal story, and his joy at being able to sing God’s praises through song.  He also mentioned meeting a woman at church, saying, they were now “best friends.”

Moses thanked me for being God’s messenger; for getting him the help he needed; and for being his friend. He said he prayed for me, day and night.  Of course, his words made me cry.  It’s not everyday someone says Thank You and remembers you in prayer.

Only two months after Moses miraculous surgery, St. Vincent’s Free Lip and Palate Clinic closed. As I always say, timing is everything.

Years later, after being away from Pine Bluff much longer than before, I searched for Moses.  His church had been torn down, and every contact I had for him was dead, including his best friend, L.E. Bradley. Eventually, without a trace of Moses, I ended my search.  I take comfort in knowing that where ever he is, Moses Dixon is happy, at peace, and… smiling in the mirror.

Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote beautiful lyrics to wonderful melodies, said it best: “A Bell isn’t a Bell until you ring it; A Song isn’t a Song, until you sing it.  And, Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay; Love isn’t Love---’til you give it away.”


PS...This story is one of many from my book: THE BEAUTY QUEEN.