I slide into my bathrobe and head for the bathroom to put in my contact lenses, a task I could do in the dark. It is a morning like every other.
As I leave the bathroom, I realize something is different. I close my eyes and feel the spherical bulge of my left eye but, not my right. Hmm, this is weird, I have never noticed this before. Maybe my left side is puffy from sleeping on it wrong. In the kitchen, I stand at the high counter, looking at my computer. It is a little challenging to read text on the screen. No matter. I chalk it up to another night of getting less sleep than I need.
I catch my husband studying my face with more scrutiny than usual.
“Do you have a mouth sore?”
“You are just holding your mouth in a funny way.”
“Really? Does it look strange to you? I feel like my left side is puffy this morning,” I say with a little more concern.
“Yeah, it looks a little different.”
I head back to the bathroom. In the mirror, I inspect my face, which looks markedly different on one side. My right eyebrow is doesn’t move as the left one stands at attention in surprise and disbelief. I make exaggerated and silly expressions in the mirror trying to force my right eyebrow to move, and I notice the right side of my smile. It isn’t moving either. I make the biggest, over-the-top, Shaquille O’Neal full-face smile I can muster. It is like a line has been drawn down the center of my face from forehead to chin, the left side full of expressive smile lines at my eyes, raised cheeks, and the corner of my mouth pointing gleefully up to my ear — the right side: nothing.
Suddenly, I am concerned I may be having a stroke, recalling billboards around town urging people to seek medical attention F.A.S.T. if you see one of these affected areas: Facial drooping, Arm weakness, slurred Speech, Time to call 9-1-1.
Red lights flash as a fire truck pulls into my driveway. The paramedics look me over, and even though they don’t suspect a stroke, they still recommend a trip to the hospital for testing. If I am, indeed, having a stroke time is of the essence.
Sounds easy enough. I need to get my butt to the hospital as soon as possible, and I don’t want to go alone. Then I look over at the two concerned little faces quietly watching the smile slide off of half of my face, and I realize I need another person to watch my children. I am painfully aware of how small my circle of support is.
My parents and in-laws live in another state.
My best friend of twenty years lives thirty minutes north in easy traffic, but it is rush hour.
My single friends are at work.
Then, as the paramedics are loading me on the gurney, I think of her–a friend of a friend.
Like me, she is a stay-at-home mom, but I’ve only known her for a few months. We walk together in a group with our kids, and she invited me to her baby shower. I wonder if it’s appropriate to ask for emergent help from a budding friendship.
Maybe I can skip the hospital?
I am probably not having a stroke.
I’m going to be okay.
…But what if it really is a stroke?
I don’t want to impose on her, but I’m desperate.
“Call her, I’m texting you her number,” I tell my husband.
“We don’t know her that well.”
His statement is true. She doesn’t know my history. She hasn’t walked with me through years and years of milestones like my best friend. How can I possibly trust someone to take care of my kids without first building a marathon relationship?
Just before the paramedics close the ambulance door and before the fear of the unknown can take over my heart, a shock of courage zips up my spine.
“I know her, and I trust her. Call her,” I say assuredly to my husband.
While the ambulance sprints to the hospital, a new truth surfaces in my mind. Trust galvanizes friendships. I realize I can’t go back to the way things were. Not exactly. I can’t stay in the safe shadows where friendship is neither tested nor even kindled. I have to risk rejection, stick my neck and heart out there and proclaim, “You are my friend, and I need help.” Trust and reciprocation of trust are the foundation upon which to build a friendship.
After a CT scan, blood draw, and examination from a neurologist, it is clear that I am not suffering a stroke but have a condition called Bell’s Palsy. I learn Bell’s palsy is an inflammation of the seventh cranial nerve which controls facial muscles. The inflammation causes the nerve to swell and push against the skull, pinching it, which causes paralysis of the facial muscles on one side of the face. The exact cause of the inflammation is unknown—some researchers believe it is stress-induced, others peg a virus as the culprit. The doctors give me a prescription and marching orders to tape my eye shut when I sleep and discharge me to go home. Unfortunately, they cannot give me a sense of how long this paralysis will last. Weeks? Months?
As I walk in the door of my house, I see my friend and my two sons curled up on either side of her lap reading a book. They are safe and nurtured, and she looks up at me and smiles. Not a “poor you” smile or one of pity or curiosity, she looks at me as a friend, a person she wants to see well and taken care of, a person she wants in her life. I hope she sees all of that reflected at her from the half of my face that can show emotion. I am so grateful for her.
I had two faces for three weeks. I saw an acupuncturist who told me that according to Chinese medicine, I suffered from a Wind Stroke. He recommended taking a daily nap and wearing a scarf outside until things were back to normal. I heeded his advice because I felt like I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I gained the comfort of knowing people will support me. Trusting my friend that day enabled us both to demonstrate our commitment to friendship. She met my desperation and vulnerability with unquestionable compassion. Our friendship is forever cemented in my heart as a treasure, completely worth the risk.
Jenni Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home and you can also find her on Instagram.