A couple of Saturdays ago, I was at Jackson’s third birthday party. More unbelievable than the fact that he is already 3 years old is the fact that I am the great-aunt of a 3-year-old. I had a lot of great-aunts growing up, and my memories of them are consistent: They all had gray or white hair, and they all wore plain cotton shirtwaist dresses during the week and lace-collared shirtwaist dresses on Sunday and to funerals. Not one of them would have been found going down an inflatable slide on my third birthday — which is what I was doing shortly after Jackson blew out his candles and opened his presents.
Later in the afternoon, after a number of slippery descents punctuated by splashes and squeals and the realization that I really should have taken the time to put on some sunscreen, I noticed a slight burning sensation on my left elbow. I had, in all the flinging and flailing, managed to get the water slide equivalent of a rug burn; not a big one, just a small scrape. The next morning, though, I had the beginning of a scab. And by Monday, it was a genuine, irritatingly noticeable scab.
I am a careful person, some might say cautious. A few might even say overly cautious. The last time I had a scab was probably 14 years ago, when Ginny, unaccustomed to the leash I had to put on her to walk her into the vet’s office, jerked hard and sent me tumbling over a wheel stop at the end of a parking space. For a couple of weeks my knee looked like I’d made a hard slide into home. I was particularly conscious of that scab, like the new, much smaller one on my elbow, because it was located on a joint, and every time I moved it, I was reminded of the pain.
About a week after the birthday party, when the edges of the scab had started to peel up a little and get caught on the bath sponge in the shower, I started thinking about the other kind of scab, the kind that forms on the wounds that nobody sees. Those hurts, the emotional ones, are so much worse and the amount of flesh torn off so much greater. The “wound healing reconstruction
process” requires more than just time and the replication of cells when what is damaged is a heart and the painful reminder comes with every beat.
Yet, so often we are encouraged to treat the disappointment, the disillusionment, the loss of the dream as just another rug burn. “Give it time,” we are told. “You’ll get over it,” we are assured. “It’ll scab over,” we hear and are meant to understand that the scab, hard and brittle, will miraculously numb the pain. Anyone who has ever felt the emptiness of disappointment or the loneliness of disillusionment, anyone who has ever watched a dream evaporate like a shallow puddle on a hot day knows that platitudes are worse than useless. They are infuriating.
They are also ignorant. Because platitudes ignore the last step: when the scab is gone, what is left is the scar.
Interesting thing about scars: They are made of the same protein as normal skin, but the composition is different. Instead of collagen fibers woven together in a random basket-weave formation, the fibers in scar tissue show an articulated alignment in a single direction. Scar tissue doesn’t forget.
Which some of those platitude-people might see as a negative thing. The reason it’s not is this: Scar tissue, that which doesn’t forget, tells stories. The scar that runs up the back of my leg tells the story of the afternoon I led my brother and my cousins on a tromp through the woods and fell on the barbed-wire fence. The tiny scar on my knee tells the story of the 4-year-old Kathy that daringly — and uncharacteristically — jumped off the front porch while imitating some cartoon character. And the scars on my heart tell me the story every single day that I am braver and stronger for having survived the disappointments and disillusionments and dream-deaths.
The scars are prima facie evidence that what I am is alive — and waiting for the next chance to go down the water slide.