The bleeding stops, the scab forms and falls away, and we are left with something functional, but never quite the same.
For three months my father was unable to swallow, living entirely on boxed formula fed to him through a tube. This was probably the result of radiation treatment, which tends to ravage necessary body parts along with cancer cells.
Early on, we visited a gastroenterologist to see about the feasibility of a procedure to open the blockage in his esophagus. I went with him, because it was also difficult for him to speak clearly.
The physician’s assistant was brisk and blunt. He did not see my father as fragile and human, a man who had lost his wife and his ability to speak and eat within a three short months. He didn’t see a man with three degrees from Harvard, a man who took me to get my ears pierced because my mother was too squeamish.
“It’s not a physical blockage” Th PA said. “It might get better with time, and it might not. Even if there was an actual, physical blockage we wouldn’t do that kind of procedure on you because between the radiation and the surgeries you have quite a buildup of scar tissue in that area. You can’t stretch scar tissue because it breaks, and you die.” The procedure had been my father’s great hope, the mirage in a desert of shit. Mine too.
The bad news, and its harsh delivery made a jagged cut in our psyches, one that would heal into the visible legacy of damage that is a scar.
I thought about scars, then, visible and hidden. We can see the scars that come from injuries—the raised, pinky-white lines on an arm or a wrist telling a tale of cutting or a failed suicide, surgical scars, and the remnants of work injuries. I have four visible scars, one from a dog bite in childhood, one from a run-in with a box cutter, one on the bridge of my nose. and one from giving birth by caesarean section. They are, all four of them, quite small, white, and available only to a discerning and focused eye.
The other scars, the kind that come from cuts to the tender flesh of the spirit, are hidden.
It is, apparently, true that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. The first breakup may leave us keening on the floor, gasping and desperate, but we usually don’t die. We heal, and a scar grows up and over the broken spot. The bleeding stops, the scab forms and falls away, and we are left with something functional, but never quite the same. It doesn’t look quite the same, or feel quite the same, and the scar serves as a reminder of that terrible moment when the knife moved swiftly and inexorably to destroy something whole, smooth and innocent.
There are a host of cuts in any life fully lived. Every death, every disappointment and every broken relationship cuts a thin, sure swathe through some unbroken white plane of the psyche. There are beads of blood, then there is a steady flow, but in time there is always the healing, the getting on with things, and the scar tissue.
The people we pity and fear, those who do not seem ever to heal but always to bleed, are managed with pharmaceuticals and frequent hospital stays. The rest of us, though, can work, and love and function despite the network of puffy, uneven places where once we had trusting hearts and boundless hope. We do not die, but something is forever changed in the service of survival.
And sometimes, when there is too much pressure on scar tissue, it breaks, and something dies. Our hearts may keep beating, but there is no hope, no peace, no healing. It happens.
I feared that my father, slashed and scarred inside and out by the loss of his wife, and a seemingly endless battle with cancer would fall apart at the news that there was no hoped-for procedure. There was only time, unclear odds, and anxiety.
It hurt, it threatened rupture, and I watched him carefully for signs that he was over the edge. A day later, though, he hummed along to “In the Mood,” and delivered valentines to the neighbors. No crisis after all; just another scar.
I want to be like him, I think. I look at the pale, half-moon on the side of my left thumb. It marks the day when I understood his repeated caution to cut boxes open in the direction away from the bracing hand.
I think of the other scars, the ones no one else can see, and imagine them as little rivers and mountains of shiny, pink flesh scattered like a map over my heart, my brain and my solar plexus. They are the badges of survival, they are inevitable, they are fragile and they are fault lines. I fear that one more incision at some soft and weakened site will break me, do irreparable damage and leave me unhealed, and useless.
I protect those pale, weak places to the point of pathology, sometimes refusing to take even reasonable risks because some emotional rough and tumble may unravel the carefully knitted fibers. I am not alone in this fear.
Really, though, I want to be like my dad. I want to be someone who can take the hit, staunch the bleeding and groove to Glenn Miller the next day. He is no Pollyanna, my father; he has learned to stay open for the next thing, to move forward knowing that self-protection is an illusion and a thief of joy.
Life is filled with box cutters literal and otherwise. If I can’t avoid them all by following basic safety precautions, I can at least salve the cuts with graciousness, acceptance, and big band music.
My dad hasn’t steered me wrong in 50 years.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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