I’ve long held a fascination with scars — both my own and other people’s.
Scars hold stories. Not many people get a scar from something they don’t remember.
I remember being fascinated in middle school by this really cute girl I wanted to talk to. She had a tiny scar over her top lip. I wondered from afar how it happened, thinking that that tiny imperfection added so much to her beauty.
My older son has a scar on his leg he earned from rolling down a hill as children will do — right into a metal post.
My wife has a scar on her collarbone. Behind it is a story about how she almost died as a child from aplastic anemia, how she went through chemotherapy and lost all her hair, how her older sister proved to be a perfect bone marrow match, how — Carla being Carla — she was most upset not about this life-threatening disease but that she was missing school.
I look in the mirror at my own body and think about the stories those scars tell.
My left ankle and foot are awash with scars from reconstructive surgery in 2009, a nearly footlong mark running the length of my Achilles tendon, a 6-inch line on the right side of the foot and smaller one in the back where a nail once held my heel bone back in place.
There’s the one I wrote about recently that’s on my left shin, left by the horn of a fake deer during a game of tag.
There’s the one just below my sternum, a small slit that’s part of a set of four torso scars caused during laparoscopic gall bladder surgery.
There’s the one on my chin, covered by my beard these days, which was busted open on the gym floor in first grade and led to my gym teacher, Mr. Walsh (a Vietnam veteran), carrying me like Forest Gump carried Bubba to the nurse’s office while I bled all over him.
There’s the one just under my bottom lip, through which my tooth poked when, as a 2-year-old, I drove my little tyke bike off the step into our kitchen despite repeated admonitions to “be careful.”
There’s the newest one, a big round spot on my forehead, which had the unfortunate circumstance of meeting the concrete of the wall outside the basement of our house when I got dizzy in the August heat and took a bad step off the deck stairs, passing out and falling literally headfirst.
Then there’s the one just below the newest one. It’s nothing more than a small dot over my right eyebrow. I call that one Jacob’s Scar.
It wasn’t enough …
Around this time 22 years ago, Carla and I were preparing for the birth of our first child, knowing the chances of us actually taking him home was highly unlikely. Did you know how many things can go wrong with a pregnancy? I didn’t. Sure, I’d heard of people having miscarriages, but never had I met someone whose child had died at birth, who knew for four long months before that birth that that was the likely outcome.
As if shouldering that burden wasn’t tough enough, the morning before Carla went to what would turn out to be her last prenatal doctor’s appointment, I started to run a fever. That was the only reason I wasn’t there when the doctor told her — to get ultra-personal here — she was starting to dilate and that the baby would be coming soon. When she arrived home from that appointment, I was collapsed in a chair in our home office, huddled under a thick handmade afghan, shiver-sweating.
That night, labor began. By 11 a.m. the following morning, we met our son. Five hours later, he breathed his last breath.
We were moved out of the ward where babies are born to a room on a high-up floor at the end of a hall. That hospitals have such a room is the height of sadness. It’s quiet. Away from the foot traffic of new moms and dads and cries of healthy babies.
I made it through that day … somehow. The nurses pumped me full of what I’m sure were the most expensive Tylenol I’ve ever been given. And I just … did what I had to do. I fell asleep that night on a pull-out couch across the room from Carla, watching snow fall from the darkness into and out of the lights in the parking lot.
How do you sleep when you’re at the finish line of a marathon four months long that results not in such overwhelming heartbreak and sadness? Not well. At least, I didn’t. By the time the morning light was peeking up over the horizon and through the faraway trees, I was awake and in desperate need of a shower.
I turned the water on hot. As the tiny bathroom started to fog, I undressed … and saw dozens of bumps all over my chest. Leaning in toward the mirror, I noticed more on my face and neck, including one honkin’ one just over my right eyebrow.
It took a moment, but then the realization washed over me: It wasn’t enough that I’d gone through four months of hell, four months of doctors appointments and false hope, four months of helping support a wife growing more pregnant by the day, four months of trying to figure out why this was happening, four months of wrestling with my newfound. It wasn’t enough to have to pick out a gravesite for my child. It wasn’t enough to have to witness my son’s last breath and then, several hours later, hand his lifeless body over to a nurse, knowing I’d never hold him again.
No, none of that was enough.
I had chicken pox.
There’s something that happened in that moment of realization: I laughed. I laughed because there really was nothing else to do. I’d cried so many tears over the previous four months and drained the tank of whatever was left the day before. And so, standing there naked in the increasingly steamy bathroom, I laughed.
The next few days are a blur. We came home. I slept. A lot. I was feverish and achy and miserable in so, so many ways. I itched all over.
We planned a funeral. I put on a suit. I went to the church and was brought to my knees by the sight of a tiny casket at the front of the sanctuary. We sat in the front row, and I listened to the pastor and received the well-wishes of friends and family, all while sweating and freezing and looking absolutely abysmal.
We buried our son that day. A bagpiper played Amazing Grace. We went home, and I suffered through the rest of the chicken pox. All that remains today from the infection is the scar from that honkin’ big one over my right eyebrow. Jacob’s Scar.
What time is and isn’t.
The fact that 22 years have gone by and I still feel all of this as deeply as I do is revelatory of two things:
- I am a big-time feeler.
- Time doesn’t heal all wounds.
Everyone who knows me knows that first thing. Everyone who’s lost a child knows the second one.
In the wake of Jacob’s death and the chicken pox that accompanied it, life kept going. That’s what life does. Time is this uncontrollable force moving in one direction. We humans have tried to make it cyclical by inventing calendars and watches and clocks and day planners and schedules. We have these handy divisions of time — seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, quarters, years, decades, centuries, millennia.
But time isn’t cyclical, and everything we use to measure it isn’t actually a measurement of time. They are measurements of motion.
A day is a day only because we are right here, right now. Were we anywhere else in the enormous universe, a day would not equal 24 hours. On Mars, it’s 25 hours. On Saturn, it’s 11. On Mercury, it’s 1,408 hours. On Venus it’s 5,832.
Even right here, to say a day is 24 hours isn’t precisely true. That’s why we have a once-every-four-years catchup day called Leap Year. In fact, astronomers have observed recently that something wonky is going on with the Earth and a day is less than 24 hours more than its ever been in recorded time. Or should I say “recorded motion.”
A lot of motion has happened over the past 22 years. There will soon have been 22 December 20ths between now and then. Proof that time is linear and always moving forward, the emotions surrounding each has been different every time the day nears. To say I am healed is a lie. I’m not. I mean, for Christ’s sake … I watched my son die and had to hand his lifeless body over to a nurse. You really think anyone actually heals from that?
Scars mark a moment in time on that long continuum that stretches back to denote the start of our time here on Earth. What exists on my left shin marks the exact moment that fake deer’s antler gouged my flesh. Jacob’s Scar marks when I realized just how fucking cruel life really can be.
Every scar tells a story. Every scar marks a moment in time. Time itself marks a moment in motion. No matter how much we would like it to be different, that motion is always forward. Time moves on. It doesn’t go backward. The universe itself is expanding … into what and how, I have no idea.
What I do know is that scars are important. They mean something. They matter. They speak to our ability to survive trauma and the wonders of our body’s propensity to heal itself.
What we need to be aware of are the scars that aren’t as readily apparent. I’m glad I have Jacob’s Scar. It’s a good physical reminder to chill out when I start to take what truly are the little problems of life too seriously. What no one sees, though, is how the pain of losing my son remains. It’s 22 years later. For me to expect anyone to see or know or understand that is not fair. That doesn’t make it less true.
Inside, I carry the scars of that moment in time and space, as well as some pretty significant ones from other moments that weren’t exactly kind. I am different because of those scars, just as my body looks different because of the scars from the surgeries and the deer antler impact.
Pay attention to people’s scars. Listen to their stories. Care about the invisible ones. They are what has shaped the person you are seeing into who they are.
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