Oh, wretched man!
I stood in the corner pretending to gaze out of the open window, my face turned away from the crowded room of people. People filled with hope. I clutched my camera against me as I willed the tears to go back up their ducts. I was desperate for a breeze, not just to relieve me from the sweltering heat of the conference room but to also evaporate the damning evidence from my face.
I know the power of tears. And normally, I’d have no shame in shedding them. Even in front of others, including strangers.
But I couldn’t this time.
I didn’t want them to mistake my tears. I wasn’t crying about their situation, or the condition of the hundred or so children patiently waiting their turn to be examined, weighed, and prodded.
No, I was crying because of my own condition. I felt like the saddest excuse for a human who walked that day. Its effects struck me solidly to my core, grabbed my deeply buried internal wounds, and ripped them open. I stood gazing at an invisible mirror laying bare my sad, wretched state.
What had started all this? His nickname is Ian. He was 14 years old and one of the oldest patients we would have this mission. I was in Kalibo in the Philippines with Uplift Internationale taking part in a project to perform life-altering surgery on people to repair cleft lips and palates.
Children who have this congenital deformity, particularly if it’s a cleft lip, suffer fantastic humiliation. The local dialect even has a name for them which translates to cut lip. Children are mocked and scorned to the point where they cannot go to school. Or, like Khian, they avoid any reflective surface, shamed to see their visual deformation taunting them.
So for all intents and purposes this surgery is truly life altering.
Ian had struggled with a pretty severe case of a cleft lip for his whole life. He was in this humid, hot room with his “auntie” who had heard Uplift was coming to do these surgeries for free. My job as part of outreach was to be the photographer and blogger for this particular mission. I was to visually document the project, and I walked around the room snapping photos of the children, their families, and our team in action.
Then I came to Ian. He had the saddest eyes. It was obvious he was here for surgical screening as he kept a handkerchief to his face the whole time. I wanted to photograph him like I had the others. And something about him just connected with me at a deeper level.
I kept working with him slowly throughout the morning trying to get him used to me and my invasive camera. His watchful eyes followed me wherever I went in the room. I wondered if he was expecting me to try to sneak some shots when he wasn’t ready.
Finally, Auntie got him to move his hand away from this mouth. When he did, I struggled with my emotions as I snapped a couple of quick shots. I thanked him in Tagalog and tried to appear casual as I walked away.
I can’t stand having my picture taken. Why? Because of my chubbiness. I hate the way that the camera steals every inch of curve from my jawbone making my face appear even rounder and fatter than it really is. The line breaking up my face from my large, second chin is stolen so that my face looks like a white basketball.
I felt like such an idiot. Such a vain, stupid fool. Here was a boy with a significant facial deformity who was hiding behind his mask for a real reason.
And then there was me whining “Oh, don’t take my photo. I look too fat!” I felt like scum of the earth.
I changed that day. I’m still no fan of being in front of the camera, but you won’t hear me complain if someone wants my photo. Hell, I’ll even volunteer if it’s a good memory, or to be with my son in a photo.
Riding in the ferris wheel in Paris, showing my son the importance of fighting our fears, I snapped a photo of us together. As I looked at the digital monitor, my enormous, boneless face peered back. I had a second where I winced, but then I saw the Paris skyline behind us and Tigger’s trademark dorky smile, and I smiled.
Yeah, I’d keep that photo. And it was our Facebook profile photo for a while, too.
Fat face and all.
When we leave ourselves open, travel transforms us.
At least a hundred children with broken smiles taught me something powerful. How could I let their lesson go to waste?
I won’t. I refuse.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: When we leave ourselves open, travel transforms us. Sometimes more deeply than we could ever imagine.
I’m grateful to Ian. With a single, incredibly vulnerable, shy smile, he taught me volumes and put me on the path to accepting myself. Buddha belly, moobs, second chin, thunder thighs and all.
And I’ll even smile for the stupid photo.
How has travel transformed you?