Derek Featherstone's Box of Chocolates: You never know what you're going to get

Box of Chocolates

Friday, January 23rd, 2009 - 11:41pm

Ten Years

I woke up and got in the shower to get ready to head to the visitation — Friday morning, January 22nd, 1999 was the last day before the funeral service for my mother’s mother (Granny) who had passed away on the 20th, the day after my grandfather’s birthday.

I took some water from the shower into my mouth and spat it out. It didn’t feel right. I did it again — still, didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite place what was different, and carried on. As I exited the shower, Kathryn handed me a glass of juice. I brought the glass to my lips and took a sip, at which point I found myself covered in OJ. Something was wrong. I thought that maybe my face was just asleep — similar to when a foot, or hand falls asleep. I tried to tell Kathryn something was wrong, but I couldn’t speak properly.

The entire left side of my head from the neck up was completely paralyzed. No movement. Nothing at all.

I remembered at the visitation the night before telling my best friend in the entire world, Graham Turner, and my family that I felt a bizarre headache behind my left ear. It wasn’t like any headache I’d felt before, but I didn’t have any other way to describe it. And why was it behind my left ear? I attributed it simply to me being tired and stressed and thought nothing more of it. Until the next morning when I thought I had experienced a stroke.

It took me three months away from my full-time, high school teaching job to recover from what was termed Bell’s Palsy. The doctors said my immune system was vulnerable due to lack of sleep, and several other factors. When Granny passed away, my body wasn’t able to properly fight a viral infection I had picked up, and my 7th cranial nerve was completely destroyed — eaten through by what must have been the most carnivorous virus known to humans.

Eventually I got better and was able to return to teaching. But really, from that point on, I questioned everything about what was important in life and what I wanted to do with mine. With great clarity I pronounced that relative health is one of our most precious gifts, and that I was going to take steps to ensure that I held on to mine.

And with that I left teaching to start my own business — first, as a contract trainer (putting my teaching background to good use was a logical first step) and, second, as a web developer to scratch that itch I initially felt when I was building web based resources for colleagues and students starting in about 1994.

I simply wouldn’t be where I am today if Granny hadn’t passed away ten years ago, on January 20th, 1999. Her passing was, quite literally, a life-changing experience.

As I sit here, in Toronto, my father’s mother (we called her Nen-nen) having just passed away early in the morning on January 23rd, 2009 (almost 10 years to the day after Granny died) I can’t help but wonder what the next ten years will hold for each of us.


I was thirteen years old when I first realized I was having trouble drinking anything. We all thought it was hilarious that I’d “forgotten how to eat”, but it turns out that it got worse within the span of a few hours. By the end of it, the entire right side of my face was frozen. JUST in time for my freshman year theater auditions. I was mortified.

Turns out mine was caused by an ear infection that caused my ear drum to swell, tamping down on a nerve in my face and causing short term Bell’s Palsy. They had to drill a hole in my eardrum and suck out all the liquid inside, and it took a couple months to get back to normal.

Anyway, that was all a rambling sort of way to say hey, I’ve never met anyone else who’s had Bell’s Palsy, and I’m also really, very sorry for your loss. I’m so glad you were able to get a hold of your parents. My warm thoughts are with you and your family, and I’m really glad you’re so focused on taking care of yourself. It’s something I think more people should do.

All my best to you and yours.

Strange enough, I too got Bell’s Palsy the day after my grandma passed (days after Hurricane Wilma hit us) in 2005. It lasted about a month, and I still remember that strange pain behind my left ear.

I’m sorry about your loss. My prayers are with you and your family.

I really appreciated this post, Derek. I had no idea that that’s what propelled you out of teaching and into web development. Before this incident, what was it that kept you in teaching? Was it a sense of requiring a stable income source?

Very profound post Derek, sorry to hear about your loss and I didn’t know you had Bell’s Palsy in the past, sounds like a frightening experience! Thanks for sharing that – hey, the next 10 years are wide open but it’s what you make of it I guess. Best Wishes, Matt.

It is very interesting to hear what inspires us. My father’s mother was blind from the age of 30 (an inheritable degenerative eye disease that none of her descendants have inherited) but despite that, she was a capable cook, dish washer and laundry washer in her own home and when younger, she traveled with her husband around parts of England on the back of a tandem bicycle. I saw that blindness was not necessarily a setback: it was her ability to triumph that inspired me to work with web accessibility.

@Karina: wow, thanks for sharing that story; that must have been difficult at that age. I know it was difficult for me when I was 27 so I can’t imagine it happening when I was a teenager.

@Chris: thanks for your thoughts/prayers. It is much appreciated. Glad to hear your time with Bell’s Palsy didn’t last as long as mine…

@Pascal: I stayed teaching because I loved it. Absolutely loved it; what I didn’t like was what it was doing to me. I wasn’t sure if it was the environment I was in, or if it was teaching in general, but I decided to try out a few other things, and the rest is history. I still get that excitement of teaching in the work I do now, and that is incredibly satisfying.

@Matt: you’re right, it was frightening; but as you say, the years ahead are ripe for the picking!

@Jules: had no idea that was your inspiration for getting into accessibility; amazing how those personal connections have a profound impact, isn’t it?