At 65, My Dad Can Now Savor Life
A letter from a patient’s son
Hello, my name is Julian. I live with my family in the small village of Zotiglopé, in Togo. I am the oldest son of Edoh, a man who lived with an untreated cleft for 65 years before he received a surgery that healed it for free from a local hospital thanks to Smile Train and you, their extremely generous donors around the world.
It’s not easy to say all that your gift has meant to our entire family and there is nothing I could possibly do to repay your kindness. The only thing I have to give you is my father’s story, which I will share with you now. It is my hope that it will help you see what life, what freedom, what exceptional kindness you’ve given to my father and to our whole family.
If you are to understand our story, the first thing you must know is that in our culture, everyone believes a cleft is a curse from the voodoo gods. My grandmother — my father’s mother — also had a cleft, so when my father was born, everyone thought the curse must be very strong on our family.
As a child, Dad was mocked and made fun of mercilessly. Other children called him names and started fights with him. Families were not required to send their children to school then, so he never went — it would have been too dangerous for him.
But you don’t need to go to school to learn smarts, and my dad has always been a smart man. He had to be. When he was picked on, he defended himself by telling his bullies that if they kept calling him names, the voodoo would bring their curses back on their own heads like a boomerang.
It worked — they left him alone.
Name calling was only one of the difficulties Dad faced. He also struggled to eat and drink because food would fall out of his mouth and people would stare. No one would share the same cup or plate with him, and that hurt him deeply. Just imagine growing up seeing your father treated as a pariah every time he eats! But Dad is not only smart, he is also strong. He told me that no matter how down he was feeling, he refused to see himself as a sick person.
In all his 65 years with a cleft, he never wavered on his right to live with dignity. My brother and sisters and I owe our lives to his perseverance: He got married and had children after years of insult and heartbreak because he never stopped believing that he had just as much a right to these things as everybody else. He believes he found his first wife because of promises and secret rituals he made to the gods, but I think it owes a lot to his own strength, too.
Though I did not inherit my father’s cleft, I am fortunate that I inherited his persistence. Being the child of a man with a cleft is very difficult. In school, my classmates mocked me all the time because of his cleft. All village gatherings and business were very difficult for the whole family.
A Blessing for My Brother
Every family in Zotiglopé has their own god, but we did not. So when my little brother was born with a cleft, we brought a god home and started worshiping it in the hopes of annulling the decree against our family. I cannot describe here the exact nature of the rituals we performed. They are a secret, and even if I were to describe them, you would not understand them.
Some people think that cultures that believe in voodoo do not accept modern medicine, but that is not true! Dad always knew that cleft surgery was possible, he just never pursued it for himself because he never had any money to afford it and he thought that as an old man already, it wouldn’t make any difference for him anyway.
But naturally, many things that are okay for you are not acceptable when they happen to your child. Shortly after my brother was born, a big hospital boat docked in Togo offering free medical services, including cleft surgeries. My sister told me about it, and I took my brother right away. He got the surgery, but Dad was out of town at the time. By the time he got back, that ship had sailed. He was disappointed, but took it in his usual stride.
How My Dad Was Convinced To Smile
No one thought much more about treatment for Dad until one day Mr. Abi, our village head, approached him and said representatives from an organization called Smile Train had visited him with flyers and told him anyone he knew with a cleft could receive surgery for free at our nearest hospital.
Dad didn’t believe him. He said, “I am too old. I have lived my whole life with a cleft, what difference does it make if I have the surgery?”
But Mr. Abi is just as strong-willed as my father! When he heard he didn’t want to go, both he and the village chief came to discuss the matter with him, but Dad still did not believe them. It took Mr. Abi three separate visits to convince him, and he only agreed after Mr. Abi told him that if he got the surgery, all the mockery would stop; it would be like pressing a reset button on his entire life.
And that was the truth! I’ve never seen Dad so happy as he’s been since his surgery. It really was as though his life began again at age 65!
Now, from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he goes to sleep, Dad is always smiling. The surgery has changed him in other ways too, ways you would never expect. He’s discovered how good food can taste. I guess he wasn’t able to taste so well before with food always falling out of his mouth, but now that he no longer has to worry about that, he enjoys food so much he licks the flavors off each one of his fingers after meals just so he can savor it longer!
Now, We Are Free
I think my entire family owes Mr. Abi everything. If it wasn’t for his perseverance, Dad wouldn’t have gone for the surgery. For the future, I can say that we are proud to have a father who has overcome something that we never thought was possible to overcome. The story of how he and all of us overcame something as big as having a cleft after living with it for so many years will now be part of our family history forever.
Of course, we also owe everything to those who donated to help pay for Dad’s surgery. You are forever part of our story too, which is why I wanted to share it with you. To every Smile Train donor, our whole family prays for blessings for every in all your endeavors, in your businesses, in your health, that whatever you embark on will be a success. I am so happy you were able to help my dad.
Our family is free now and we are free as well.
Our bottomless thanks,
This Father’s Day, give the gift of hope, health, and a smile to fearless fathers and their children around the world with a gift to Smile Train.