The youthful woman standing behind the podium at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital press conference is one of those whose age is difficult to guess. Her blond hair is woven into a loose braid, falling over one shoulder with a bright sunflower pinned to its end. She wears a nude-colored crocheted dress over loose brown pants, her canvas bag left at her chair. Her voice is melodic, her cheeks slightly flushed, her smile one that reaches her eyes. She is the daughter of a woman who donated her face to another woman she would never meet.
“My mother was my best friend,” Marinda Righter says. “She was my soulmate.”
In her right hand, she holds a picture of a beaming dark-haired woman. Though the picture may be recent, from my vantage point the spirit is of a classic 1970s print: sepia tone, wavy hair untouched by an iron, sunlight gilding the edges of the woman’s shoulders. I could imagine her in bell bottoms, laughing in a field.
“She lost the love of her life, my father, when she was twenty-seven. He was killed by a drunk driver, and she was left to raise a two-year-old—me—on her own.” Marinda pauses, her voice catching. “I know now, looking back, how hard that must have been for her. But I had such an ideal childhood, you’d never know.”
As she speaks—so natural, so warm, as though we are all her friends—photographers vie for the best position. Huge video lenses hover just behind my head, silent observers, while other cameras flash in the hands of journalists lined along the room’s periphery. At the front of the room, to Marinda’s left, sit two people at a rectangular table: Dr. Bodan Pomahoc, the surgeon who removed Cheryl Righter’s face in order to painstakingly, miraculously, give it to someone else, and Carmen Tarleton, the woman who overcame unimaginable trauma to receive the gift.
“My mother,” laughs Marinda, “was a dyed-in-the-wool hippie. She believed that everyone—everything—was connected. That the universe brings people together for a reason. And when I met Carmen last night for the first time . . . at first, I just saw her through a window, and already, I could feel her spirit. I thought, I love this woman! And to hug her, to kiss her cheek . . .” Her voice trails off as she gazes at Carmen, who is turned attentively to Marinda. “It was magical.”
It’s all I can do to to keep my shoulders still, to weep silently when what I want to do is cry into my cupped hands, to release all the overwhelming emotion crowding my heart.
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Last year, an unpredictable time before the face transplant, I spoke to Carmen every day for months to help her tell her story. I fell in love with her the way anyone who comes to know her falls in love with her. My heart revolted at the horror she endured and then grew stronger because she showed me that nothing—no tragedy, pain, or loss, no hatred, bitterness, or grief—is more powerful than our drive to live, our desire for joy.
And now, sitting in the back row of this press conference, it’s as though I can see the lines connecting Marinda and Carmen. They are wild, colorful zigzag threads stretching between the two women, encompassing the vastness of human potential: through Marinda and her mother, a sweeping generosity, a passionate argument for the good, for serving others, for the possibility of peace; and through Carmen, physical proof of the evil man is capable of perpetuating upon others and the fierce resilience, the sublime forgiveness, we are capable of offering in return.
“I can touch my mother’s skin again.” Marinda looks at Carmen. The radiant love on her face says that she sees two people. “I can see her freckles.”
When she walks from the podium, she walks toward Carmen, and the corner of Carmen’s mouth lifts in a smile that only hints at her joyful spirit. The two women wrap their arms around each other. The room goes alight with flashes, and photographers sharply call out when their shot is blocked, but the embrace Carmen and Marinda share is apart from the photos that will be published later. It is a moment all their own, a moment when, once again, those who are paying attention are reminded of something greater than themselves. Something capable of the most miraculous thing of all: change.