A gifted writer and very intelligent but more than anything, Lucy wanted to look normal.
Lucy Grealy’s heart fluttered and nerve endings, ablaze with pain, crippled her thoughts at this important moment. Penny Hardy, frazzled red hair like Annie of the comic strip, motioned that it was time. Public readings meant whispers of pity but Lucy did them all the time. It was a triumph over the cruel people and she needed the money. A solitary tear ran down one cheek, probably ruining her makeup. What the hell? Would she ever get used to this?
Looking back, as most nine year olds were playing with Barbie dolls, she had the first of many surgeries to remove a rare form of cancer from her face. It was marble sized and took away most of her jawbone. Radiation ate away at good tissue and bone until her jaw was collapsing. She was bitter and felt butchered. To try to rebuild some of her face, many surgeries were done over the years. She felt like a Picasso painting, parts from various faces when she looked in mirrors. Who was the real Lucy? Did she even exist? Some of the bone came from cadavers. That felt very weird to carry on your face which shows so much of your personality.
Her world was one filled with whispers from strangers. She heard voices in church, crowds, and even from walls. As she sit on the porch, the voices drowned out lovely bird songs with “you are ugly, no matter what you do”. So her room became her preferred habitat. She began to write, pouring frightened feelings out on paper, filling notebooks.
She eventually realized she couldn’t run from the world. She poured herself into education. At 18, she entered Sarah Lawrence College where she made real friends and nurtured her love of poetry. Lack of control was her monster, cancer was a mean and heartless taskmaster. Writing was a savior in the minefield of disappointments as thirty eight corrective surgeries were eventually performed. They shaved away the bone to add a prosthesis, a piece with little bone to attach it to. Unable to eat, she lived on enriched milkshakes until she was so thin and fragile, she looked anorexic.
She wrote a memoir, Autobiography of a Face, an account of an extraordinary child fighting her way through loneliness and confusion to a spiritual place, a place free of judgments based on physical appearance. It won a Whiting Award and a Bunting Fellowship to Radcliffe. The pain leaped off the page and touched each readers heart. Her search for physical love was elusive. All cried with her as she dated and tried to be normal, teaching classes at college and giving interviews about her life.
Her constant surgeries made her a professional patient and the pain that went with them made her dependent on narcotics. With each different surgeon she got various prescriptions and then she mixed them with alcohol. Each surgeon promised to make her face appear “normal,” even though they knew better.
There was one night each year, however, when reality and fantasy intersected in her life; one night when she could walk about in the real world with happiness and freedom: Halloween. On that singular night, behind the mask that hid her face, she knew the joy of being normal. She was like everyone else, nothing out of the ordinary.
But here she was tonight feeling panicky. All she had to do was read her poem “Voices”. She pulled out a compact, looked for a long minute, seeing the monster she was in spite of everything. She made herself smile and move like an animated toy and did the reading. Everyone politely clapped afterwards.
Automatically she walked off the stage, pushed open the outer door, walked down the steps into a heavy weeping mist. Now the tears came freely as she walked slowly down the street. She pushed past the few people on the campus that had umbrellas. Then she broke into a run that took her home, an apartment with two cats.
Stinky and Charlotte loved her, no matter what. She opened a bottle of booze and fixed a drink.
No one else imagined what really kept her alive. It was the belief that one day a surgery would change her and she would be beautiful, like Cinderella’s foot fit in the slipper. That was when a handsome man would see her and not have to lie about how he felt. She just knew it would happen and the mean voices would go away.
By this time, she had made several suicide attempts. It was turning out to be a very sad Grimm’s fairy tale rather than Disney film.
She would try hope once again. This plastic surgeon was the most highly paid and recommended in the US and Europe. He was sure that he could do “the Big Fix”. The latest prosthetics and robotics would help. It was going to be a long surgery and she would have to have a tracheotomy (airway in the throat area) so her entire face would be accessible to the surgeon. He was known to be a magician for the very wealthy.
She was so excited and hopeful, she accepted two party invitations in the coming months.
The surgery was done without complications. The pain was severe and she was released home after 7 days on heavy narcotics. The bandages were still on and every time a home care nurse would change them she refused to look in the mirror. She was waiting for the day when her new face would be healed and the real Lucy would look back at her. Then she could celebrate and life would change forever.
Sadly, her lifeless small body was found by a neighbor. Lucy didn’t have any bandages on.
The coroner recorded her death as an “accidental “heroin overdose on December 18, 2002, in New York City, at age 39.
By Kathie Stehr
September 27, 2021
Note: This is based on an actual person with some minor fiction fillers.