Losing my father's smile: The devastation of Bell's palsy

Harrison and Robert Golden in fall 1999, a few months before Bell's palsy struck Robert.

Story highlights

  • Harrison Golden's father lost his smile to Bell's palsy in January 2001
  • Golden, then 9, vowed never to smile in solidarity with his dad
  • His father's condition has since improved, but is not totally cured
  • Have a personal essay to share with the world? Submit at CNN iReport
Dad and I love baseball and hate sleep. It only made sense that, one midsummer dawn when I was 9, we drove to the local park with our baseballs, gloves and Yankee caps. No time is too early for a father-son catch.
"If you thought night baseball was a thrill, just wait," Dad told me. "Morning air carries the ball like you've never seen."
Once we hit the dew-sprinkled field a few minutes later, I learned he was right. Our fastballs charged faster and landed lighter into each other's mitts. The echoes of our back-and-forth catches popped louder. And it was all as the sun rose and most of my suburban New York town slept.
The park was all ours for about two hours. Then a young mother pushed her stroller, complete with a kicking newborn, toward us. Dad paused our catch to sip from a nearby water fountain. When the mother and child neared, he politely leaned into the stroller, waved and gave the baby his best smile. But because the Bell's palsy still lingered, his grin looked more like a smirk. The mother found his smile condescending. She ogled at him for a second or two, then rushed her stroller away.
Dad hid his mouth in his hand and walked to the car. He wanted to go home.
"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 drooped his eyelid and left him slurring words. He could hardly drink from a cup or bottle without liquid spilling onto his neck and shirt. And his smile, which once eased the pain of playground cuts and burst at the mention of Mick Jagger's strut, Woody Allen's films or his very own Yankees, was gone.
As I slumped into the car, I began suspecting that our sunrise park visit wasn't about watching daylight lift beneath us. Dad had spent weeks lamenting the loss of his smile. This was his effort to avoid stares.
It was a solemn drive home. I killed time by curving my cap's brim and fidgeting between songs on the radio dial. We returned home and he went to bed. Lying down but unable to nod off, he simply spent a few hours sighing and groaning toward the ceiling.
After that morning, Dad and I didn't visit parks, nor did he want to play catch. He spent more time indoors. He left the shopping, driving and Little League games to Mom. Since being a freelance editor enabled him to work from home, he turned our dining room into his office and buried himself in manuscripts.
When Dad wasn't at his desk, he attended physical therapy. He obeyed the doctor's orders: "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 childhood memories were of Dad whistling to songs on the radio. He didn't care if the station was playing Frank Sinatra or Bobby McFerrin. He always whistled along. He taught me to whistle, too.
Of the roughly 40,000 Americans that the National Institutes of Health says are afflicted with Bell's palsy each year, most recover within several weeks. Other cases take a few months to heal. But after nine weeks of therapy, Dad's face hardly improved, and the doctor confessed she couldn't do much more to help.
"I've never seen anything like this," she told him after his final session. Then she handed him the bill.
Rather than calling another doctor or physical therapist, Dad stuck to humor. He occasionally grabbed washable markers and drew an even-sided grin across his face. Other times, he practiced his Elvis Presley impersonation. He joked that curled lips had already lent him a handicap, thereby giving him more time to perfect his renditions of "Hound Dog" and "Burning Love." The effort -- a regimen of shower-time vocal warmups and leg stretches -- paid off. He could soon don white jackets and swing his hips as if he lost himself in the King.
By the time I entered fourth grade that September, Dad's case of Bell's palsy had improved. He could blink his right eye and speak clearly again. But his smile still hadn't returned. I tried convincing myself that it didn't matter and that smiling was overrated. So I abstained from making grins of any kind.
Nothing about fourth grade made my no-smiling vow easy. Classmates were both old enough to laugh about pop culture and young enough to appreciate fart jokes, burped alphabets and straws in noses. Breaking the promise I made myself was tempting, but I couldn't let Dad not smile alone. I didn't care how hard I needed to bite my lip.
I had my critics. Kids would call me "Frowny the Dwarf." (It didn't help that I was merely 3-foot-10 at age nine.) Teachers would escort me into hallways, wondering what was wrong. When I asked my physical education coach, "What's so great about smiling?" he made me do pushups while the rest of the class played wiffle ball. Then he called Dad.
I never learned what Dad discussed with the coach. But when I got off the school bus that afternoon and saw him waiting for me, holding our mitts and ball, it didn't seem to matter. He tapped the brims of our matching Yankee caps. 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.
The park always bustled on Friday afternoons. When we arrived, young children dashed to the nearby ice cream stand. Mothers kissed boo-boos and gossiped. And roughly a half-dozen fathers and sons lined the field with mitted arms in the air. Even if Dad couldn't smile as widely as the others, he couldn't help but beam; neither could I.
Sundown came quickly. The field's white lights glowed and everyone else left the park. But Dad and I didn't tire. We threw everything from curveballs to folly floaters into the night. We had catching up to do.