The Stories Our Scars Tell

Vermont spring looks like winter

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, goes the saying.

When my kiddo was only a peanut he took a bad spill in the foyer of our Knoxville home and landed face first on an unforgiving surface. His cheek met the pointy corner of a single step leading from the foyer into the kitchen of our Depression-era midtown home, a single, ill-placed terra cotta tile puncturing his face close to the inside corner of his right eye and ripping the skin apart in a crescent-shaped laceration about an inch long situated diagonally on his cheek. A few days later I’d tell a friend that maybe I should cover that step with something soft—rubber, or quilted material, or something. Nah, she observed, that fall was so unlikely you couldn’t replicate it if you tried. Just damned bad luck is all it was, she consoled me.

Hours after the fall my three-year-old was sewn back into one piece by a highly respected plastic surgeon, who said he had done as much as he could to minimize the scarring, that the standard for a successful outcome was whether a casual observer would notice it. Time would tell. Earlier that afternoon our beloved pediatrician had comforted me with the notion that the scar most likely would settle neatly into what would become a wrinkle later on, and nobody would be the wiser. None of that really made me feel any better: where his beautiful, peachy skin had been earlier that sunny morning now were layers of ugly stitches: his unblemished face would never be the same. But things could have been worse—he might have lost an eye had his misstep been nudged in another direction by only a fraction of an inch.

On Saturday morning I laced up my running shoes and loaded up Scout-the-Labish into the back of the Subi for the longer run we take on most temperate Saturday mornings. I had the car radio tuned to NPR and was listening to jazz drummer Dave Tull explaining to Susan Stamberg why it’s emphatically not okay to clap on one and three when you’re listening to swing. I understood this immediately. You clap on two and four, duh, I said aloud in the car to Scout. Susan didn’t get it, until Dave picked it apart for her. (I am sure Scout knew exactly what I meant.)

But when I started trying to snap out the counts correctly on two and four (not wanting to take both hands off the wheel to clap in traffic) my injured right hand screamed at me in protest. It’s been weeks and weeks since I took a spill on the ice at the bottom of the steps leading to the back door of our house. In an attempt to save myself I reached out to grab the railing; my hand found it but grasped the wood post clumsily in such a way as to bend a couple of fingers unnaturally, in so doing causing some serious damage inside the knuckle of my middle finger on that hand, but probably also saving myself from a much more serious injury had I not grabbed for the handrail.

So now—a solid two months or so later—the golf ball-sized swelling in the joint is gone, but the searing pain is still there when I try to move my hand or fingers in certain ways. Like snapping on two and four with a nice piece of swingy jazz. That got me thinking about all of life’s events that leave their indelible marks on each of us, like the day my toddler ripped his face open in the foyer. I’ll never forget that we were about to head out the door to meet up with some other moms and toddlers for a play date, that he had brushed his teeth in the little half bath off the foyer but left the tap running, that in the nanosecond I had my back turned to him to turn off the tap, I heard him fall with a sickening thud behind me. And that I had just laced up his sneakers—new ones that were probably a skosh too long—and that he had most likely fallen over his own feet because of it. I will never forget all those little details, nor what happened over the course of the rest of that day. And whenever I see the tiny, pink crescent-shaped scar on my now-twenty-something’s face, I remember that event.

almost-spring landscape

I can read my own physical landscape like a book. The minuscule scar on one of my wrists happened on a sunny afternoon in my back yard in Memphis when I somehow got hung up on a length of chain on our swing set, the same swing set where a ‘hidden’ hard-boiled Easter egg perched atop one of the metal A-frame end poles fell down inside it. I wondered about that egg for days, and how long it would be there before the earth below it reclaimed it, and I think about that every time I see the scar on my wrist.

A year or two before that when somebody shut the front door at our first house in Memphis I did not get my five-year-old foot out of the way in time, and the door grazed the top of it, leaving a small, horseshoe-shaped scar on my big toe to forever remind me. Which in turn makes me think of the fireplace on the adjacent wall of that house, and how one winter day when my daddy built the first fire of the season in it, an entire family of squirrels skittered down the chimney willy-nilly and into the living room—and most especially, how a single one of them had a tiny, red ember still glowing on its nose, and how that horrified me. And then how my daddy spent some time reassuring me the squirrels were okay after the episode ended, and all of them had been corralled back outside through that same front door.

A tiny scar above my knee takes me back to a day in Knoxville when one of my boy’s babysitters moved into a spare bedroom in our house while she was finishing up her student teaching. And reminds me how, as I wrestled an impossibly large television up the steps with her, my hand slipped and the confounded thing clipped my knee and poked a hole in it. I marveled at how she even got that mammoth television into a subcompact car that was so small even she called it a roller skate, and wondered why I ever agreed to this silly plan for her to bring a television into our upstairs bedroom to begin with, when there were already three other televisions in our house. The knee scar reminds me of that.

Then there are the four permanent raised bumps on my right eyelid that popped up mysteriously a few weeks after I had eye surgery in 2001; and of course there is impaired vision in that eye to remind me of an altogether bad episode in my life. More recently there is the swelling and malformation in my left heel that is part and parcel of many years in the ballet classroom and on the running trail, and also simply my own genetic soup that predisposed me to that and other orthopedic injuries.

If all our scars and imperfections don’t make us stronger, they at least make us more interesting. It may seem a bit far-fetched to think of a scar as a mnemonic device, or to cling to it sentimentally. But it’s one reason (among several) I ticked the “not interested” box on a medical form in a waiting room a couple of weeks ago. The sheet on the clipboard proudly trumpeted, We now offer Botox injections! (Excitement!) Yes, I’m interested! went one answer. I’ll take my wrinkles, thanks: together with my scars, malformed joints, and other of life’s imposed bumps, they really do tell my story.

I don’t know whether the casual observer can see my kiddo’s facial scar, but he and I know it’s there, a chapter in his own story; it’s especially noticeable when he gets too hot—it turns bright red, like the glowing ember on that little squirrel’s nose. So to mnemonic device, we’ll add thermostat. Scoutie and I had a good run, thinking about squirrels (in fact treeing a couple of them), and chipmunks, and scar tissue inside joints, and clapping on two and four.

If you’re of a mind, here’s Susan Stamberg interviewing Dave Tull.

Scout knows where the squirrels are

2 thoughts on “The Stories Our Scars Tell

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