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The crooked smile of fortune

ON THE FIRST day of spring this year, I awoke to find that only half of my face could smile. The other half drooped -- turning down at the corner no matter how hard I tried to rescue it. Panic is not too dramatic a word to describe my response. After a brief but thorough exam, my doctor concluded: ''Bell's palsy, a temporary paralysis caused by a virus. You'll be fine," she said.

A curious word, fine. In the mirror this morning, I watched the ancient masks of comedy and tragedy fighting for control of my face. I am -- for a few weeks, anyway -- a human question mark. Try as I might, I cannot form both sides of my mouth into my old, winning smile, nor even make both sides frown convincingly. For the moment I'll have to be agnostic on the advice I heard years ago: that each day we must decide if life is comic or tragic and then live accordingly.

My question-mark face suggests that life must be both. Despite the cold spell, the crocuses are blooming, a good sign. But for two friends, the news is not so good.

One of them, taking a shower, felt a swelling in his armpit. The doctors tell him his chances for recovery are excellent, but not without weekly trips to the hospital for chemicals that will scorch his blood. For my other friend, the doctors can offer no elixirs. Still young, he is beyond their reach and lives moment-to-moment, grateful for the days that remain.

In such times, the expression ''There but for the grace of God go I" cuts me to the quick. Why did my doctor say, ''Relax," while my friends' doctors did not? I know with certainty that my good fortune has nothing to do with my goodness, for my friends are caring, decent souls. I don't know why. I don't know why I was born to relative safety, literacy, health, and dignity -- and not to parents making the best home they could in some precarious lean-to on Haiti's central plateau.

Is it dumb luck -- what the ancients called fate, Dame Fortune? What kind of principle is this for doling out life's bounty? Job, with his pocketful of troubles, didn't know, and yet he refused to ''curse God and die."

Before veering off into Marxist critiques or ruminations on karma, I think once more of the crocuses. Soon, songbirds and herons will return, and perhaps this is all the answer one needs to begin seeing the proverbial glass as half full.

But the question mark in my mirror persists, and I know that elsewhere on this good Earth, right around the corner and halfway across the world, the days are darker for many, through no fault of their own. Will I remember those with less luck than I when my seventh cranial nerve quiets down and restores my smile?

A resolution, then, for the day my smile returns: to place on my already cluttered desk a replica of the ancient masks -- a reminder of my newly split, weirdly joined selves: one, eyes crinkled with joy; the other, raising a wail to heaven.

I may never understand the balance of fortune and misfortune in this world, but what I do with that reminder, each day, will be the measure of my worth.

Leonard Rosen teaches at Bentley College.

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