When the World Looks

By Emma Christoff

The kids and I were driving over an hour each way from the homeless shelter to my eye doctor appointment. This was the third visit this week; they were tired, and I was tired too. I was tired a lot in the 6 years since moving into that wretched house. My muscles ached when I moved them, and my energy had dwindled to the point where I could no longer climb stairs or even walk across the room.

Since fleeing the mold-ridden house at the advice of my doctors, and losing everything in the process, I tried to make at least one fun thing happen during the week so at least something could feel normal. When the kids asked me if they could go to the park that day, I took the focus off my painful skin, failing vision and my own exhaustion, and easily conceded. This seemed unbearable for all of us at times, especially the kids. My youngest were only 7 and 10 years old, but they all had taken on the position of caregiver for me. The fear of losing their mom had started to show on their faces.

I began to relax a little as the GPS on my phone directed us to the somewhat familiar park entrance. I was nervous driving because I still couldn't quite see clearly. Earlier that summer, an ER doctor had been testing the pressure in my bloodshot eyes and had accidentally torn my cornea. This caused an infection that may have taken my vision permanently, if not for the grace of God and a very diligent ophthalmologist. The facial swelling put pressure on my eyes to the point where the whites were completely red, and they needed to be sure the eyes themselves were not swollen too, I guess. At this point, everyone was guessing, including the doctors. I was grateful for the 15 mile-per-hour speed limit, and the lack of people visiting right then, as we headed to the nearest playground. It was an enormous beautiful wooden fort. The gleeful anticipation I heard in their voices motivated me to push past the pain and rise from the car seat where my aching muscles and tired body had found respite. I parked as close as I could, but there were still an agonizing 100 yards to walk to reach the nearest resting place. I was grateful when I got to a fence that I could lean on. The view was splendid. It was good to watch them act like kids again for a little while.

It was a hot, muggy, late July day, which made us the sole queens of the wooden castle. For a whole 20 minutes, I delighted in my children's playtime, uninterrupted. I watched them throw off the cares of having no home and losing all their belongings. The screams from the shower when the water hit my broken skin echoed in their ears, but in this blissful moment, all of that was forgotten. At that moment we were just a mom and her two kids at the playground.

I heard footsteps on the pavement behind me, and the bliss was interrupted. A man and his two young children walked up, passing the fence I was leaning on to hold myself upright. When the two boys turned back to tell their father of the treasure they'd discovered, their eyes caught a glimpse of my face. One boy did a double-take, there was a look of sheer terror when his eyes met mine. He looked as if he'd seen the villain from a horror movie, and my eyes sunk to the ground in shame.

He asked a question with a tone of shocked terror- "Daddy! What is wrong with his face!?"

I was tired, and in pain, but inside my head, I felt like anyone else. In my head, I was still the same young woman that flashed a cheeky, squinty-eyed smile into the camera on my wedding day. To this young boy, though, I was a monster. He couldn't even tell that I was a woman. The most painful thing was he asked a question that, despite everyone’s best efforts, had no answer.

Many people assumed I had been burned, others guessed I had a reaction to something. I was usually bent on getting facts straight, but I was tired of having to clarify so many details. I began to let some people believe that I had been burned. I was compelled to find words that would ease their mind so they, at least, could find peace. Some strangers who approached were concerned for themselves, understandably. They thought I might be contagious. When I assured them I wasn't, that it was a "reaction" to something, their words were only, "Oh good, good." Others showed genuine concern, asking if they could help with anything. There was nothing they could do, of course, but I was encouraged by their kindness. The strangers who showed compassion and understanding, the people who took the time to chat for a while to get to know the woman locked behind the hideous face, had helped more than any useless prescriptions the doctors had given.

Others were like the dad at the park. He quickly got between me and his children and shooed them away, softly whispering, "shhh, they heard you, don't say things like that." I pushed back tears, tears that would burn like acid as soon as they hit my swollen cheeks. Part of me wanted to flee to avoid the torment of ignorance, but deep within myself, I wanted something more. I wanted them to see that not only wasn't I a man, I wasn't a monster either. I shuffled off to get our lunch from the car and when I returned I sat down with my daughters in spite of their stares, and we ate our lunch like queens next to our large wooden castle fort.

Another mom approached and we chatted about nothing important like strangers do at first. She then asked politely about my "burn." I told her the short version of the truth, and we parted ways. Her tone and manners were one of concern and understanding, instead of fear and distance. I knew the young boy had not meant to be cruel, and his father may have not had the capacity to ask a stranger for clarification. I was not upset at either of them for their response. Even though their reaction was humiliating, it was understandable.

If I was mad at anyone, it was me for letting it happen in the first place. I was the one who wanted the moldy house. I was the one who felt God’s call as we crossed the bridge into the new town. At this moment, I blamed myself for putting my family into this situation, as if I knew our house would try to kill us.

Soon we moved from the shelter into our rental house, and the unsettled feeling of being homeless began to dissipate. My eye infection had mostly healed, and I could see well. My 10-year-old and I finally had the opportunity to go shopping by ourselves for the first time in over a year. We were glad to spend some quality time together, just the two of us, even if it was just to buy necessities.

We went for one of our favorite treats, frozen blueberries, near the end of our trip. As I rolled the cart towards the freezer section for this final item, I tried to maneuver around two women chatting. As I moved left, they did as well. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but when I moved right to go around on the other side, one of the women wedged her cart in front of mine. Between the two they blocked the entire aisle. The short dark-haired woman laughed out loud, making it absolutely clear this was some sort of game.

I backed my cart up and went down another aisle, with a mixture of hurt and disappointment then, gaining confidence, I determined that no one would spoil this outing with my daughter. I made a comment under my breath. My daughter asked me what I said, and I shared that she was more mature than some adults.

After I got our blueberries, I was glad to have the episode behind us. We made our way up to the register when I felt a heavy uneasiness in the air. The laughing dark-haired woman got right behind me in the checkout line. Chuckling, she spoke just a little too loudly to be ignored.

"So… what's wrong with your face?" she said smugly, then chuckled to make sure I knew her intent. It was the same question the little boy asked, but instead of innocent shock, the delivery was like that of a teasing bully in a grade school hallway.

"Excuse me!” I almost shouted. Then continuing with a mixture of indignation and satisfaction, “You are a complete stranger to me ma'am, and I'm not going to tell you." I then turned to my daughter and remarked how it is necessary sometimes to be both respectful and direct.

She muttered something about how she was "just asking.” My response seemed to somehow quiet her fun, and she no longer felt the need to chuckle or smirk. After my embarrassment and indignation cooled somewhat, I found myself glad that the whole thing had happened. It was a chance to show my daughter that you don't have to answer everyone's questions, especially those coming from a stranger. It taught us both how to treat someone with respect even if they don’t return the favor. It also taught me that the face I wore was hideous to all, but some chose to see past it to the woman hiding beneath.

I realized during this entire ordeal, the homelessness, the disfiguring swelling, elusive diagnosis, and no successful treatment, and the loss of all our belongings, until that moment, I was miraculously sheltered from cruel comments and disgusted stares. The people who loved me most, my children, my husband, and my God, saw through the mask of swelling, fissures and flaking skin. None of my girls were ever afraid to be seen with me, and never showed anything but concern for my well-being. Not once had my husband called me ugly or disgusting when I insisted I was hideous, and instead called me beautiful. My oldest affectionately called me "croissant face," explaining that I was flakey on the outside, and tender underneath. Their unselfish love for me was God’s grace during some of the darkest days. God saw my load and would not allow for any additional weight.

Looking back, I realize the woman most likely was suffering from her own confidence issues. The devil will attack where we are weak, which is why God asks us to pray for those that curse us. That is the only way to truly heal. God is the only one that can remove our masks of discouragement, disappointment, and pride, and mold a new face of forgiveness, joy, peace, and contentment.

Not everyone will see our beauty, but God does. God sees our pain and brokenness too and makes it beautiful in His time. Each valley we walk through He strengthens us, refining us to shine on the next mountain. The mountains, and the valleys both, are gifts to be cherished. The souls we meet along the way draw us closer to the center of God’s path for our lives.

But now, things have changed again; they always do. It’s time to get ready for our next battle of the spirit. Are you ready?

Honorable Mention


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