I first heard the word “prosthesis” when I was secretary to a plastic surgeon 40 years ago.
Most recently I heard it in a Channel Five programme called Making Faces.
I don’t like being invited to eyeball misery and deformity from the comfort of my living room so I approached this warily but I was fascinated by the care and skills of the people who make individual prostheses.
Are they artists or engineers or a bit of both? And I was struck all over again with what people have to bear.
There is a current cancer campaign, aimed at everyone eventually surviving it.
But surviving cancer in the first segment of Making Faces involved removing the eye of a child so a tumour could be eradicated. The child is now sixteen, loved, supported and highly realised but still, facing life with one eye – and the decision to remove half the face of Diana, who is now in her late sixties.
One of the things I learned on problem pages is not to weigh one person’s suffering against another’s.
But for some reason, probably selfish – she is nearer my age – Diana grabbed me.
A violinist, the possessor of long, lean aquiline good looks, she has survived, walking around behind the personal equivalent of a train wreck.
In the programme, she talked about having no choice. If she hadn’t agreed, she would have died but after the operation, she didn’t leave the house for two years.
Eventually she went back to playing in the orchestra and seeing her friends with a dressing over the facial hole.
One of her orchestral colleagues commented “It’s not what she looks like – it’s what she is”. Indeed.
That Diana loved beauty was evidenced in her every move, the choice and care of her clothes, the way she carried herself, even the movements of her remaining face. But her voice was affected too and I fear that she has had her share of unkindness and disappointment. Getting used to deformity means accepting change is unlikely. You may change – it won’t. If it’s your face that is compromised, it strikes at the heart of your self-image. There must be mornings when she falters though it was clear from the programme that, if her face is diminished, her personality was not.
And although she respected the man who built her prosthesis, she didn’t like it.
It was the wrong colour.
He tried and tried – the likeness, the modelling round the eye was wonderfully realised – but she didn’t like it. It was the wrong colour.
She was filmed leaving the hospital wearing it though I felt this was probably for the sake of the production.
She might be down to one eye but she could still see colour. She trusted her own judgement.
The maker said he hoped she would wear it, she’d get used to it, it could make such a difference to her – but you can’t insist.
I felt for her.
There is a Turkish proverb “a heart in love with beauty can never grow old” but beauty itself can die and to be witness to the death of your own beauty is surely to die a bit yourself.
Living in London, you may see the famous – Oprah Winfrey window-shopping, Julian Fellowes (Mr. Downton) in the chemists, Michael Caine in the grocers.
I have just met Diana.
I was going home, saw her in the crowd, reached out, touched her arm, begged her pardon for interrupting and thanked her for making the programme.
She responded with that aplomb that makes her so appealing.
“I hope you didn’t think I was being difficult about the prosthesis” she said. “It just wasn’t the right colour.” I agreed, it wasn’t. “The colour wasn’t right, my friends agreed.”
“Yes” I said “but I was so grateful to you.”
My heart stopped. I could only tell such a woman the truth so I said she must forgive me, I could only speak plainly.
“You were beautiful” I said “and to lose that, must have been to lose some part of yourself. But you are still you. I found that moving.”
“Did you get all that from television?” she said. “How wonderful. You’ve made my day.”
“And you, mine.”
There are nine or ten million people in London and I never get over who you see or who you meet, or how or where, and it certainly isn’t from hitting the party circuit.