This is the Story of a Scar
I’d like to warn you up front that this post contains some violence that might be upsetting.
Yesterday, a few folks that I follow on twitter were posting brief stories to the hashtag #storybehindmyscar. My first reaction was, “Well, I don’t really have any scars that have stories.” But then I thought about it a little more, and there’s a story that deserves more than a tweet.
When I was four or five, I got a scar on my right leg, halfway between my knee and my ankle. I tripped on the brick stairs outside my best friend’s house. I was running because she had a new kitten I couldn’t wait to see. That scar is nearly invisible now. I can still find it if I look, but probably no one else can.
This spring, my son Jordan scratched the back of my right hand, leaving a small scar. I wrote about this in an earlier post about my son and his rages. This scar bothers me for a whole host of reasons, but none of them have to do with it being a scar.
There’s a third scar, though. A real scar. I hadn’t really thought about it in a long time, but thinking about scars brought it back.
When I was a little boy, my great aunt, who was always like a third grandmother to me, used to say, “Mark has such beautiful long fingers. He’s going to grow up to be a pianist.”
Her sister, my grandmother, would smile and respond, “Or a pickpocket.”
I’ve inherited Nana’s sense of humor. And I’ve always liked my hands. I don’t have a lot of features that I consider particularly attractive, but I’ve always loved the way my hands look. Or looked. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I found the unexplained rashes on my hands so unpleasant. I’ve always talked with my hands, and when I felt like they were unpleasant to see, I tried to hide them. Don’t worry, this really isn’t going to get all Johnny Tremain on you.
It’s hard for me to believe, looking back, that it started so early, but when I was seven, in the second grade, I had my very first bully. His name was Isaiah, and he used to torment me for “acting like a girl.” I remember that he used to pin me to the wall by placing one hand on either side of my shoulders, forcing me to look at him while he gave me “advice” about how to act more like a boy. Sometimes he would spit in my face. I don’t remember there ever being any consequences. I remember how strongly he smelled when he would force himself into my face, like urine and sweat and clothes that desperately needed to be washed. My parents used to tell me to try and be nice to him, because his parents had a hard time taking care of him.
We went to a small Catholic elementary school, one classroom for each grade. Four rooms upstairs, and four downstairs. Outside each classroom, in the hallway, there was a row of hooks where we hung our coats, beneath a shelf where we kept our lunchboxes. At both ends of the hallway there was a staircase, with big, old wooden fire doors on swinging hinges.
One day, I was getting ready to go outside for recess. I hated recess because Isaiah used to torment me, so I was always as slow as I could be getting my coat and going outside. My last name was alphabetically last, so my hook was the last one before the stairs. Right next to the fire door.
On this day, I did something thoughtless and stupid. I leaned one hand on the door frame while I grabbed my jacket. It’s something I see my own sons do occasionally, putting their hands in a door frame where it might close on them, and I know that my reaction to seeing their hands in danger has frightened them. When I see their hands on a door frame, I panic, and I scream, and I pull them away. Last summer, I used a stick to show my older son what can happen to a finger in a door, and begged him to never put his hand on the inside of a door frame.
So there I was, getting my coat, oblivious to the danger my hand was in. I saw Isaiah’s face appear on the other side of the door. He smiled a fake smile. It was the same sneer that he made every time he found a new way to tell me how much he hated me.
Then, he put his hands out and threw his body at the door, slamming it closed as hard as he could.
I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember the door actually closing. I don’t remember what his face might have looked like when he saw what happened. I don’t remember the pain of the door’s impact on my fingers. I don’t remember Isaiah bringing me to the nurse’s office.
The first thing I remember is sitting in a chair in the nurse’s office, my hand, on fire, raised above my head, and blood pouring down my arm.
I remember my dad arriving. He worked just half a block away, and was there almost immediately. I remember seeing all of the color drain out of his face. I remember the nurse, making my dad sit down for a moment, to be sure he wasn’t going to pass out.
I remember Isaiah bringing my coat and my lunchbox to the nurse’s office, and I remember her thanking him for being a thoughtful friend. I wanted to tell her that he wasn’t my friend, that he had closed the door on my hand, and that he had done it on purpose, but I didn’t.
I remember riding in my dad’s car. I remember telling my father, “Please don’t take me to the doctor! I want to die at home, not at the hospital!” (It’s ok to laugh, that quote is really funny.)
I remember laying on the table, and telling the doctor that I wanted my dad to stay in the room with me. She smiled at me and told me that she didn’t think my dad would be able to stay in the room without getting sick, and that she needed to be able to pay attention to me, not my dad. I remember a large needle in my hand, and the pain going away. I remember trying to see what the doctor was doing, but one of the nurses had me turn my head away.
“Sweetheart,” she told me, “you don’t want to watch.” Instead, she asked me questions about school, about my brother, probably about anything she could think of.
The middle finger and ring finger on my left hand were broken on the last knuckle. The nails were shattered about halfway down, and had to be removed. I cried when the doctor told me they had to take off my fingernails, and she promised me that they wouldn’t be gone forever, and would eventually grow back.
My fingers were a bloody mess for a while, and changing the bandages was painful. The cloth would stick to the jagged scabs, and I could feel my pulse throb in the broken fingers. But, just like the doctor promised, eventually the nails grew back and my fingers began to look like fingers again.
To me, though, they aren’t the same. I look at the fingers on my right hand, still straight and perfect, and I know that’s what my left hand was supposed to look like. To me, the fingers on my left hand are bent and crooked. The nails grow at a funny angle, too wide and then too narrow, and there’s a spiderweb-shaped scar on the side of one finger. A few times, I’ve asked people if they have noticed. The answer is always the same — if they look closely and compare my two hands, they can see the difference, but they would never have noticed if I hadn’t asked.
The only time I think about Isaiah is when my mother mentions seeing his name in the police log in the newspaper. It’s clear that she still feels badly for him, the angry little boy in the dirty clothes that smelled like urine. Sometimes I want to say, “You know, he assaulted me and slammed my fingers in that door. I could really go through the rest of my life without ever hearing you say his name again, and that would be fine.” But I don’t think she would understand, so I don’t say it. Instead, I listen politely to a report of his arrest for drunk driving and think about that day in the second grade.
I don’t really blame him for what happened. My sons were neglected, too, and I hate to think about what their lives would have been if no one had stepped in to remove them from that situation.
Before today, I hadn’t really put this whole story together in my memory. I knew it had happened, and I knew how cruel he used to be toward me, but somehow I hadn’t drawn the connection between his increasing hostility and aggression and his eventual violent outburst.
Maybe I can stop looking at my scarred fingers as a defect. From now on, I’m going to try to view them as a reminder that I made it through those dark years that were just beginning when Isaiah slammed that door on my hand.
If I could go back in time, I would tell that little boy — seven year old me, who kept a My Little Pony in his backpack so that no one would see it — I would tell him that one day, twenty-three years later, his partner will take that bloodied hand, slide a wedding ring over that broken finger, and become his husband.
And at least on that day, in that moment, a scarred finger couldn’t have been any further from my mind.