Ashlee’s Smile

By Amy Nichols

When my grandson was born, my life was turned upside down. My daughter Jennie was only 17 at the time, and when I found out she was pregnant, I was a little upset. I was afraid that all the hopes and dreams my daughter and I had shared would be gone because her life would be taking a different direction. And I was not looking forward to being a grandmother at 37.

My grandson arrived almost a month early, and we were not prepared for his arrival. The labor didn’t last very long, but it was very intense and emotional. I felt every pain Jennie felt and pushed with every contraction.

The moment of truth finally arrived. My grandson was here! Then I heard my daughter exclaim ”What’s wrong with his face?” I thought my heart would break when the obstetrician coldly and calmly said, “Honey, he has a cleft lip and palate. He’ll be all right after a few surgeries.” Within seconds of that statement, my grandson developed breathing problems. He was taken immediately to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. We weren’t given much information when they took him. All I knew at that moment was my grandson had been born with a cleft lip and palate, and now he was in Intensive Care because he couldn’t breathe. I was devastated.

As her mother, I was terrified for Jennie and her son, and as a mother in general, I was very sad. I could always fix things for my little girl but not this time. There was nothing I could do at that very moment to make anyone feel better, and (felt completely and totally helpless. The Neonatologist said our grandson was a fighter. He felt he had the breathing problems under control for the most part. If all went well, the baby would be back in my daughter’s room later in the evening.

I could feel myself falling apart inside little by little. I kissed Jen on the cheek, told her everything was going to be all right, and excused myself so I could get Some fresh air.

When I got outside, I dropped to my knees and instead of praying for

strength and comfort and understanding of this, I sobbed. I felt lost. (felt betrayed. Why did this happen to my family? What now? Most importantly, where do we go from here? I wanted answers and I wanted to know every thing would be OK. I needed to know my family could survive this. It was a long walk back into the hospital, although it was only a few feet.

My grandson was born on June 23, 1995, but it seems like a lifetime

ago. I’ve changed and so has my daughter. She has taught me so many valuable lessons that I will carry with me until I die. She taught me about unconditional love, which is something I should have taught her. When I saw my precious little grandson with part of his little face missing, I wanted him fixed immediately if not sooner. I didn’t love him any less because of the way he looked, but I kept wondering how I could ever look at him and think he was beautiful. I felt such guilt and sadness, because (felt like such a bad person. Jennie thought he was perfect. I knew what a wonderful mother she would be when she looked at me and said “You know Mom. I’m getting really sick of everyone coming in here to see the cleft baby and telling me he will be fine in time. He’s my baby, and I think he’s fine now. I just wish they would leave me alone, and everyone would just stay out of my room!”

My grandson has had three surgeries to reconstruct his face. We were very fortunate to have a caring and supportive craniofacial surgeon. (told my daughter shortly after one of Ashlee’s surgeries that every masterpiece needs a few finishing touches. We were fortunate enough to find the right surgeon who added those finishing touches, but he had to use different brushes.

The surgeries very very long and stressful. The time leading up to the surgeries was more so I believe. Ashlee had ear infections, countless nights of crying and screaming. We experienced sleep deprivation, frayed nerves, unkind looks, stares and comments. Jennie and I became closer than I thought a mother and daughter could become. At first there were problems with nursing, so I helped Jen as much as I could to learn the positions to put Ashlee in so he could get the most out of the nursing. It was extremely hard with trying to take care of a baby with a cleft. I didn’t know how to take care of both of them. I was overwhelmed at times. My family was not very supportive. I had to call them and explain how much they hurt my daughter and myself by withdrawing from us. I explained to them that he had a birth defect - nothing else. If they held him, nothing would happen to them or their children. Sometimes people have a hard time accepting things out of the “norm”, and my family seems to fit into that category. So that too was painful.

I look at Ashlee now and I see a small scar where the opening used to be, but my heart sees so much more. This little guy has an incredible spirit and fire inside that illuminates his smile. He has the most spectacular blue eyes that sparkle and shine when he hears his name, when he discovers something new, or when we hold him and touch his face. My grandson has the perfect face - for him. I couldn’t imagine him looking any other way. He’s a gift that has a different kind of wrapping.

I’ve watched Ashlee change in countless ways, but I’ve watched others change as well. I’ve watched those around me grow into understanding facial differences and the acceptance that goes with that understanding. I’ve watched my daughter grow into a wonderful mother. I’ve seen myself change from being a pretty shallow person to actually having some kind of depth. I always said it didn’t matter what a person looked like as long as they were beautiful inside. I don’t know how much I honestly meant and believed those words until Ashlee came into my life. So many of us (myself included) question so-called tragedies in our lives and wonder why they happened without ever trying to figure out what we could do with the experience.

I know all too well that pain opens a place in our hearts where no one wants to go. I also know the pain is replaced with understanding, answers and a sense of peace. It took me a long time to find that place in my heart and I’d like to make that place easier for others to find. I appreciate what a special gift we were given the day Ashlee was born. My life has more meaning that it ever had before and my heart feels so much love whenever I see Ashlee’s smile.


Taken from AboutFace; Volume 10, No. 3