LOVE ISN'T LOVE---"TIL YOU GIVE IT AWAY.
“When one door closes, another one opens.” For me, it didn’t take long.
Approximately three weeks after losing the race for Mayor of my hometown, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 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, including books, records, pictures, costume jewelry, furniture, and clothes. My father reached out to open the store’s front door at the exact time 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 some of the store’s used treasures. My father, knowing me as he did, 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 pained 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 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, and also known as Orofacial Cleft.
Riding home, I shared my thoughts with my father. We both wondered why doctors hadn’t corrected the stranger’s defect at birth. It was interesting to note, the stranger had a certain “presence”; what my grandmother often 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 the 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 having selected 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 Magazine was only circulated on Wednesdays and besides, this magazine was 3 weeks old! Why was an old, Wednesday-Only magazine stuck in today’s 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 instantly remembered the stranger from yesterday…and sat down to read the article.
Forced to wait until the next day to contact the Clinic, I initiated a plan that very day for locating my mysterious stranger. My father had 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 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 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, his mother named him Moses. She said a child with such a serious defect would need a strong name, a name blessed by God. Extremely poor, his family couldn’t afford to take Moses to the doctor; any surgery would be more than they could afford. 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 described how younger children called him Monster Man and threw rocks at him. What hurt most: Moses had never had a girlfriend. No woman wanted to be around him because of his deformity. In fact, he was sixty seven years old and had never been intimate with a woman.
Sitting in the Clinic’s waiting room, I noticed people staring at us. I sensed that something more sinister than Moses’s deformity was causing stares and critical looks. Maybe, for the first time, I realized how it felt to be White and seen, in public, with someone Black. Looking around at the adults holding babies, I noticed everyone was white. I wanted to speak out and say “Please stop staring. It should be no concern of yours that a white woman is sitting with a black man. My friend has been stared at all his life; he’s also been mistreated because of his severe birth defect.” But 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 ever been inside a hospital… had surgery. One day after the surgery, I visited Moses’s hospital room. Another man shared the room with Moses and, being white, seemed to resent being coupled with a black man. I attempted to be friendly but, in return, received a cold brush-off.
I focused on Moses, sitting-up tall, in his bed. I asked how he felt and Moses replied “I’m a little bit stiff and my mouth feels swollen. I think I sound better, though. When I hear myself talk, my words seem clearer.” I asked if he liked the way he looked and he 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. A few seconds later, Moses put the mirror back to his face and, in a quivering voice said “Hi, old Mo. I didn’t recognize you, fellow.”
When he said that, the man in the other bed began crying; I could no longer hold back my tears; and every nurse in the room burst out sobbing. Moses cried but he also praised God. He thanked God again and again, 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 newly-discovered pride.
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 mirror and sometimes crying but said--- “They are Happy Tears---My tears are Praise-the-Lord Tears!”
Follow-Up: The last time Moses and I talked, he was excited to tell me about his church 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 he’d met a woman at church and 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 and of course, I cried. It’s not everyday someone says Thank You and remembers you in prayer.
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 longer than usual, I hoped to, once again, reunite with Moses. I learned his church had closed, and every contact I had for him had died, including his best friend, L.E. Bradley. I take comfort in knowing where ever he is….. Moses Dixon is happy, at peace, and smiling in the mirror.
Because I believe, I can face tomorrow.