Friday, April 09, 2010

A Life of Purpose

We all want to live one, right? We all want to have an impact on others for good, to inspire and to encourage someone, anyone, to live their lives with some type of purpose. In general, I feel I strive to do that but I always feel a longing to do more.

What to do? Write a best selling book often comes to mind -- but I believe that the opportunity to do something small but significant for an individual or a family would be even more gratifying. In my religion, we are encouraged to constantly give service but I find myself selfishly hoarding my time, feeling too tired and apathetic during points of my life. Just now, on another blog, I discovered an opportunity to write a post about birth defects. This group plans to throw a baby shower to raise supplies for the March of Dimes Teddy Bear Den. To read more details, please go here.

I have dealt with a birth defect since, well, birth. I was born with a bilateral complete cleft lip and palate. I had my first surgery, to close my lip, at 3 months old and then, at 6 months, another surgery to close my palate. However, this wouldn't be the final surgery of my young life -- or my adult life for that matter. By the age of 12, I had been in surgery for my birth defect 24 times, including having 11 sets of tubes in my ears, one major ear operation and 12 other surgeries for my cleft.

Surgeries and doctor appointments became just another part of my life. As I got older, I came to understand that I was different from other children; the first time I can remember recognizing that difference was at church one Sunday morning: I walked in and went to sit with my class. I was 5 years old and felt crushed when a boy in my class said, "Move over, here comes fat lip." I don't remember ever telling my parents about that; I probably didn't. It was the first time I felt burning shame about what I looked like. A few years earlier I had told my mother that I was beautiful the way I was and didn't need any more surgeries, but I hadn't realized how I looked to other people. The realization hurt. A lot. It wouldn't be the first or last time that I have been judged for how I looked, even in my adult life.

In the 3rd grade, I decided I would take my little baby book to school to show the children some of the pictures of me before my lip had been closed. I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. McNary, who was so compassionate; she obviously made an impact on me as I remember her name to this day. She told the class that I was going to come around with my picture book and if they didn't want to look just to shake their head no. Most of the kids looked and I think it gave them more understanding. I remember that the rest of my elementary years were fairly free from the standard teasing children that age tend to engage in.

We moved then, back to the land of the Mormons, back to Utah where I expected to be accepted; these were my people. These were kids who were taught from a young age to be compassionate, to be accepting of those who are different. However, I was severely disappointed during the last few months of my 6th grade year and into my 7th. I remember one girl in particular who was especially cruel. The middle school or junior high years, we all know, can be cruel, but I felt especially picked on. Sometimes I wished to be someone else, someone popular who didn't have the struggles I had. Thankfully, I made some solid friends who are still my friends to this day. They looked beyond the outside to see who I was on the inside. I will be forever in their debt for helping me to feel wanted, loved and valuable. When I had my last surgery at 12 or 13 I told my mom I was finished; I didn't want any more surgeries. I figured that if someone didn't like the way I looked that was their problem, not mine. But even adults, even after I became a working adult, myself, would describe me as "a harelip," a term which I found (and still find) highly offensive.

I didn't always feel okay about how I looked; I wanted to be liked the way every adolescent does. In different seasons of my life, I have doubted my decision to stop reconstructive surgery so early. The first time was when, as a senior in high school, one of my friends (whose father was a plastic surgeon) told me that her dad said he could have done a better job on my lip. I doubted then. I have since toyed with the idea of visiting a surgeon to see what could be done for me. The thought occasionally flits across my mind and I mostly dismiss it, but sometimes several days pass before I decide I don't want to go through the pain and agony one more time.

As an adult, I am still different: I contracted end stage renal (kidney) disease when I was 20. After 11 months of dialysis, I received a kidney transplant from one of my younger sisters. That kidney lasted 12 years and just recently failed, so I am going through dialysis again until I can get another transplant. Although life isn't easy, I know that I can do it. It's funny because I feel like having the experiences I had as a child made my more recent health problems easier to handle. I believe the Lord will never give me something I can't handle so I have to find a way.

I have had experiences in my life that I could use to help others, to inspire others and to educate -- but how? I think the answer is to do it one person at a time. I have small children ask me all the time about what happened to my lip. Instead of feeling defensive, I explain in terms they can understand that when I was born my lip didn't come together and it had to be fixed. Usually their parents are completely mortified but I assure them that I would rather the child ask than wonder because from that point on, when they see someone like me, it won't be a novelty but something they have seen before. Maybe by doing that I can save some other child the teasing I endured.

My wish is for parents to truly teach their children about the differences in the world. I wish that children would see someone different and consider her just another person. I know this can happen by helping one person at a time to think before staring or making a comment either to or about someone who is different. It can happen. I have two best friends who have remained so because of what their parents taught them and because of the people they are on the inside. Those friends embraced me not because I was popular or because I looked like everyone else, but because of who I am. I know that parents can have an impact on the way their children behave toward others. As I have read in The Book of Mormon, "we do not doubt our mothers knew it." If parents teach children about differences when they are young, they will remember the lesson for the rest of their lives and treat others with compassion.

That would be a life of purpose.


mary elizabeth said...

love love love this.


love love LOVE you!

Jonathan Plowman said...

Kathryn: I knew some of these things about you, and others I did not know. Thanks for your courage and example. You are an inspiration.

Eliza said...

Oh Kathryn you are wonderful in every way and you have helped me and my family (both my growing up family and my little family with Paul) more than you will ever understand!

Lots of love!!

Rain said...

It never occurred to me that you may have been teased as a child. I always thought of you as the popular outgoing type who was everyones friend. I love you and I think you are beautiful inside and out.
My life has been truly blessed because you were in it. Hang in there and don't let this kidney thing get you down!

Bailey Family said...

Thanks for being such a great sister. I am blessed to have a role model like you to look up to and to teach me!
I love you!

Jacob, Shawn, Joseph, and Shae said...

Kathryn - Thank you for this post. I am dealing with this situation, but now I am watching my son be treated differently because of his "disability." I hope more parents can help teach their children how to accept people who are different! Love you bunches!!
p.s. I noticed your kind heart before I noticed your lip!

tara said...

oh Katherine.

With this blog post you've made me reflective, teary, resolved...

and ever since I've known you (which, can you believe has been half my life!?) you've ALWAYS inspired me to be a better person.

Thank you so much for this post.
Thank you so much for being the beautiful, beautiful person you are.

thepainterfamily said...

oops...that was me.

The Crash Test Dummy said...

AMEN! I totally agree. Thanks.

Aimee Kieffer, aka "Momzoo" said...

ok, so you got me crying! Katherine, you are one of my most favorite people! MY children adore you too. I will always remember the kindness you showed to my Kallie. I remember the time sitting at my kitchen table and being mortified when she asked you about your lip. I was so impressed with how you handeled it, I think I ended up asking more questions than she did! LOL!

Love you, my sweet cousin-in-law!

TheOneTrueSue said...

What a beautiful post and thought. I'm so glad you submitted it.

Rain said...

O.K. I know I already commented, but then I got to thinking and thought you ought to know how many lives you continue to influence because you taught me.

Remember when I was called to lead the music in R.S. in the singles branch- I knew nothing about leading!
You kindly informed me of making sure my hand was always down on the first beat of the measure and all would be well. I was terrified, but with you as my pianist I learned, gained confidence, and became pretty good at leading. Since then I have led sacrament meetings, stake meetings, relief society, been the choir director and now am currently teaching my sweet primary children how to share their testimonies through song. People now ask my advice on how to lead, and you know what I tell them....

As long as your hand comes down on the first beat of the measure all will be well.

Thank you Kathryn for teaching me such a valuable skill that has given me self confidence and a greater love for music.