I pulled into a parking space at the local Kroger. Just as I was pulling in, a young woman hopped into the car next to mine. She stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. I watched her multi-task, turning the key in the ignition, and talking on her cell phone as the cigarette bobbed in her mouth. For a moment, I was taken back to nearly three years ago, right after the surgeries that destroyed my nose.
One of the painful side effects of having my nose gutted was being suddenly and sharply separated from the rest of humanity. I experienced myself as noseless freak moving about in a sea of happy breathers. I am not normally a jealous person, but I was sick with envy of everyone else’s nose.
I remember receiving my People magazine in the mail. On the cover was a gorgeous, bikini-clad Jennifer Love Hewitt beaming a brilliant smile. She was engaged and about to be married. The only thing I could see was her nose. I had to lay down before I fell down. I was weak and sweaty with jealousy of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s nose. I knew that nobody smiled like that unless their nose was moist and happy. I myself would never smile like that again. It wouldn’t matter if Paul McCartney came calling. It wouldn’t matter if I finally wrote that bestseller. Nothing could ever make me smile like that, again. In fact, love was even out of the question. Love requires a full capacity of senses. Romantic love is an explosion of the senses.
My grown daughter came to visit around this time and suggested a trip to the local video store to stock up on movies. What followed was a session during which I was relentlessly tortured by movies about healthy noses. I don’t recall any of the titles. In one of the movies, there were throngs of men in short dresses. I guess they were gladiators or something. All I really remember is how many healthy noses there were in those crowds–hundreds and hundreds of healthy noses. Why not just throw me a party and make me watch other people eat?
For a long time, one of the hardest things about leaving my apartment was moving among all those healthy noses. Watching a father walk through Target, holding his son by the hand. Watching a mother argue with her children about why they couldn’t have more toys. Watching couples strolling affectionately. People sharing leisure over coffee. Women chatting with their friends. I had once done all of these things. I knew I would never do any of these normal things again, without being distracted by the screaming drought and emptiness of my nose. Empty Nose Syndrome is like living life through a straw. You can’t get very much in because the reception is painfully reduced.
Two and three quarters years later, My ENS has improved. I believe the bones around my nasal cavity have grown inward to close the yawning gap created by a surgeon. I am not normal, by any means. I still spray my nose with saline many times a day. I still irrigate. I still become breathless on the phone. I still suffer. I can go out into the world, without wanting to die from the envy of other people’s noses.
Unfortunately, other iatrogenic conditions caused by the surgeon have come to occupy the space left by the improvement of my empty nose. The pain in my face and teeth caused by an unnecessary Caldwell-Luc has more than taken up the breathing space that would otherwise now be mine. So I am still just as separate from healthy people as I was before. Years of suffering this separateness has slowly lessened the pain. I have come to live with the reality that I will never again travel, fall in love, or enjoy a casual afternoon of hiking, swimming or laughing with friends.
I have become more aware now that there are quite a few human beings who don’t get to enjoy these things. As I was unloading my cart at Kroger’s, I observed the woman ahead of me. A morbidly obese woman with thinning hair, she was confined to a wheelchair. She had a breathing tube in her nose. It was obvious from the pallor of her skin that she was really sick and not just overweight. As I stood there sweating, I thought about how I am not separate from all other human beings. I am a member of the portion of humanity that suffers and it is not such a bad group of people to be among. There is a lot of strength and courage in this group. I watched the sick woman juggle her bags of groceries and oxygen. “Wait a minute,” she said, as the clerks loaded her up, “Where are my hugs?” Both the checker and the bagger hugged the woman with obvious affection.
Just a few short years ago, I would have wondered how that woman could get out of bed every day and face the world. Now I know how.