The Purpose of Our Scars

For months after his surgery, my six-year-old son Ben’s predictable request during bedtime prayers was for his scar to go away. With eyes squeezed shut, snuggled next to us on the overstuffed couch, he reminded God anew each evening in his tiny voice while I breathed in the fresh scent of shampoo in his hair. His matter-of-fact tone conveyed his belief that its disappearance would finally make him “all better.” The red line on his wrist was a constant reminder of the pain he’d endured due to fall during recess.

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When he got off the school bus that afternoon, the only proof of his injury was a miniscule cut. I put a band-aid on it to appease him but his misery grew. Within a few hours, the skin from his wrist to his mid-forearm had swollen and darkened to a purplish hue. My husband and I feared a bone fracture and took him to the orthopedist. The X-rays were clear; nothing was broken. The doctor diagnosed a benign-sounding splinter to be the source of an angry infection. He attempted to remove it with tweezers and prescribed round-the-clock antibiotics. But after a few weeks, the site remained painful to the touch and redness remained. He wasn’t getting better.

 An ultrasound revealed the offending objects: two half-inch slivers of mulch were embedded deep beneath the skin’s surface. They would have to be removed. An ordinary childhood boo-boo escalated into outpatient surgery. A purple fiberglass cast protected the area from further injury or irritation as he healed. He wore his badge of courage with pride and was a trooper throughout the whole fiasco. But the scar may never completely fade.

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IMG_20151028_155559867As a mother, it broke my heart to watch my child suffer. I wished I could have prevented his pain. I wished we’d been quicker to realize how to best treat his wound. I wished we could have avoided subjecting him to anesthesia and a visit to the sterile surgery center. But life is inherently dangerous; no amount of bubble-wrap or hovering supervision can protect him. This was his first of what will be many scars in a lifetime.

 

*****

 

Pain is invisible. It demands a response from the wounded. Its presence must be admitted and communicated for the afflicted to find relief. Skin regrows to cover and seal cuts, thickened and tougher in the form of scar tissue. Our intricately designed bodies repair themselves millions of times over the course of our lives. Yet scars remain: evidence that we’ve lived, played, risked, failed, been through trauma and come out on the other side. As we age, our largest, most visible organ becomes a topographical scrapbook. Scars serve as souvenirs of past hurts as well as evidence of healing.

Every scar is a story, an identifying mark that reveals part of who we are. We wear them both on the outside and within. Some are obvious while others lie hidden beneath our clothes, our makeup, our laughter, or our lies. Empathy begins when we notice one another’s scars, and listen to the stories behind them. It is then that we can begin to believe in the reality of another person’s pain. Intimacy requires us to invite others to see, to touch and to witness the miracle of these ordinary resurrections. To be in the presence of one who’s been healed can be life-changing.

The disciple Thomas is famous for his doubt. Deep grief and disappointment clouded his mind, making it impossible for him to believe the rumored good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But then Jesus invited him to see and to touch the scars on His body. He responded with joy and worship. Even after conquering death, Jesus still bears the scars: proof of His story, marks of His suffering. Those identifying marks allowed those who loved Him to recognize Him.

I had the privilege of hearing Nadia Bolz-Weber give the closing keynote speech at a conference this past spring. As she shared a painful experience of having misjudged someone, her wise words stuck with me. “You can’t really know someone until you know what hurts them.” It struck me that we can’t even know ourselves until we admit the things that have hurt us and accept the ways we’ve been marked as a result. None of us get through this life unscathed. When we acknowledge our own and one another’s pain, we find connection.

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Ben’s playground war wound has now faded to a lighter shade of pink. Nine months later, it’s still there and it’s probably as good as it’s going to get. But he looks at it differently now; he’s used to its presence. He realized that it doesn’t need to go away. It no longer hurts; the healing is done. Now it’s part of his story. He’ll tell you that it’s how he tells his right from his left hand; the scar is on the left.

Now it serves a purpose.

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Fall Risk

IMG_20151020_191520757The seasons are shifting. Change is in the air. Temperatures have started dipping and dwindling, leaving behind frost footprints for us to find when we wake. The trees in our backyard are bleeding their hearts out, revealing their true colors a little more each day. It won’t be long before the capricious wind knocks down painted leaves and abandons them on the ground. It’s a gradual process; incremental spurts inch us closer to a barren landscape. Fall is at its peak, but the majesty of autumn is decay in disguise. The world is winding down while we watch. Brokenness is on display as we prepare for winter and wait for renewal.

Fracture

October is the last hurrah of outdoor fun before we Hoosiers hibernate. In celebration of the season, my kindergartener’s class went on their first official field trip to a pumpkin patch. He had looked forward to the adventure for weeks. I anticipated his return from school that afternoon, eager to hear his report. But my usually happy-go-lucky kid descended the steps of the big yellow bus with a scowl on his face. As I tried to engage him, he bristled and pouted. Frustrated at who-knows-what minor irritation, he chucked his backpack onto the sidewalk in disgust. I sighed, picked it up and followed him to our house.

As a typical six-year-old, his mood can shift like the wind. Once we drifted in the door, a thought breezed through his head and he perked up. Remembering his souvenir from the field trip, he unzipped the backpack to retrieve the shiny orange pie pumpkin he had placed there for safe transport. With a toothy jack-o-lantern smile, my little boy proudly displayed this perfect gourd. He announced his plans to decorate it with markers and display it in his bedroom. But his smile collapsed when he noticed the fracture on its smooth skin stretching from stump to stem.

Thankfully, it hadn’t split completely or spilled its guts into the bag’s interior, ruining his Rocket folder or his stowed-away Batman sweatshirt. But the damage was done. I delivered the heartbreaking news that the cut was significant; even if it didn’t crack open and fall apart, it would certainly begin rotting soon. He could decorate it today but we’d have to throw it out before it started to stink. And that’s when he fell apart.

Splinters

This isn’t the first time a cut has caused a growing problem this fall. I thought back to his own tumble on the playground three weeks ago. Hurrying to join his friends, he tripped in the mulch and caught himself with his hands. The initial pain didn’t prompt him to tell a teacher or pause to cry. Not wanting to waste recess time visiting the nurse, he brushed himself off and ran off to play. It was only after arriving home that he started complaining.

What began as a boo-boo that barely warranted a band-aid started to fester. His wrist puffed up, turned purple and was painful to the touch. Ibuprofen and ice brought some relief, and we feared a sprain or broken bone. A next-day x-ray revealed our error, and the doctor diagnosed him with infection caused by a splinter. What we had assumed was a bruise was, in fact, infection slowly scooting up his forearm. My tiny trooper was stoic during the exam, but surrendered in sobs when the doctor tweezed and squeezed the wound, trying to extract the object and clean out the junk.

His wrist was bandaged with gauze and tape. Ten days of round-the-clock antibiotics were prescribed. My take-home work from the doctor was to rewrap the site twice each day, applying pressure each time to continue to flush out any remaining pus. As a mom, one of my primary roles is that of comforter. But my fear of an unchecked infection reaching his heart steeled my resolve. That evening at home, I enlisted my husband to hold him still while I attempted to comply with my assignment. Panicked tears painted his cheeks red, and he screamed, “Why are you hurting me, Mommy?” over and over as I massaged the wound. I surrendered in grief and guilt and the three of us huddled together on the bathroom floor.

My son crawled into his daddy’s lap, burrowing his face into his chest to hide from the monster he had mistaken for his mom. I laid my hands on his shaking shoulders and gently turned his face toward mine. Staring into those deep watery eyes, I pleaded for forgiveness. I promised him that I would never have caused him pain without a reason. I begged him to assure me that he knew that his mommy loved him more than words could say. I confessed that his boo-boo had scared me too, and I was trying to help him get better. The truth settled us all down and he collapsed, relieved, into my arms.

Several weeks and several follow-up visits later, the doctor remained unsatisfied with his healing. We headed to a local children’s hospital to investigate further. At the registration desk, I handed over our insurance card and relayed information about the incident and its aftermath. The kind lady behind the desk handed me a paper to sign with an embarrassed smile. She explained that my son would be required to wear a bright yellow “FALL RISK” bracelet in addition to his hospital ID since his injury was the result of a fall. These are more commonly assigned to frail and elderly stroke victims. We chuckled at the irony. Isn’t any energetic six-year-old boy, by definition, a fall risk? She cinched the laminated loop as small as it would go and secured it on his good wrist.

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An ultrasound confirmed that two stubborn splinters had taken up residence deep under his skin. The almost invisible cut had been the point of entry for a squatter his body couldn’t evict. Surgery would be required. This time, holding my own precious pumpkin, it was my heart that broke a little.

Fading Fast

Ever the trooper, he sailed through surgery without a single tear. His quick rebound meant that we didn’t even have to change our travel plans to visit my in-laws in Chicago for fall break. Proudly sporting his purple cast, he was an enthusiastic explorer on our outings to the science and industry museum and arboretum. I was weary from the week’s events but enjoyed our family adventures. That is until, for reasons that remain a mystery, a crack in my own well-being emerged.

As if I had stepped on a trap door, my blood pressure plummeted and I collapsed at the breakfast table. I awoke a minute later and clawed my way to consciousness while my mother-in-law held my heavy head and my husband dialed 9-1-1. My unprovoked fainting spell resulted in my first ride in an ambulance. In a state of detached awe, I stared through its rear windows as we made our way to the hospital. Poked and prodded and hooked up with tubes, I arrived at the E.R. and earned some bracelets of my own. When I read the notice on my new yellow band, I laughed out loud, drawing concern from the attending doctor and nurses. Scrambling for a concise and logical explanation for my amusement, I tried to tell them about my son’s recent experience. They didn’t get it. Luckily, by the time I stopped rambling, they had gathered enough information to confirm I was simply a bad storyteller and not in need of a psych consult.

IMG_20151018_085935666A myriad of tests confirmed I was healthy and in no actual danger. I was allowed to walk out of the emergency room unassisted, though for safety’s sake I kept my “FALL RISK” bracelet on until I got home.

tattoo removal

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I was eleven when I got my first tattoo. It was administered hastily by a fellow middle-schooler.  The cinder track behind the bleachers at a football game served as the makeshift parlor one fall evening at the beginning of sixth grade.

The rhythm of my life until this point had been upbeat and predictable. Growing up in an affluent small town, surrounded by loving and supportive friends and family, I was a high-achieving and confident kid. But childhood was subtly shifting into a new season, one where no one – including me – had yet found their balance.

Boys my age were becoming slightly less annoying, even intriguing. My friends and I began the awkward season of interaction so perfectly depicted by behavior at junior high dances. No one knew what to do or how to talk to one another. No one wanted to open themselves up to ridicule or rejection. We all desperately wanted acceptance. To fit in. I was about to learn that survival in this landscape involved offensive tactics like putting others down in order to make one’s self look better. After this encounter, I quickly discovered a new defensive move: putting myself down in a humorous way would effectively prevent someone else from doing it first.

What began as a whisper into my friend’s ear somehow took on a life of its own in the group’s conversation. My confidence had been compromised. In the few moments before my now-revealed crush’s friends responded to this juicy information, I wasn’t sure whether to feel betrayed or excited. True, I’d been exposed, but I clutched onto a shred of hope that my feelings might be reciprocated. Instead, I was branded by the off-hand comment from his pubescent wingman, “Don’t flatter yourself.” The boy I admired didn’t look up. He stood silently, looking embarrassed, and allowed his friend to speak for him.

Now that I’m an adult, my memories of childhood are spotty. I like to joke that my mental filing cabinet is overflowing with the tiny details of motherhood (i.e. the location of toys in our home, the names and specific powers belonging to superheroes and villains, etc.) I simply can’t retrieve all of my experiences at will anymore. However, after nearly thirty years, those three curt words remain all too accessible.

This phrase burned into my soul and left its mark. I’ve done my best over the years to keep it hidden covered up so no one else can see. But like an invisible muzzle, this tattoo hinders my ability to voice and own my opinions. Like a funhouse mirror, it lies to me about my worth and appearance and tempts me to stay out of view.

It’s funny – not funny “ha-ha,” but funny “peculiar” – how we allow ourselves to be decorated with these types of verbal graffiti. They can be small and seemingly insignificant, but they worm their way into our systems. Grafting themselves into our identities, they become parasites in our brains.

I would go on to learn that wounding words can be delivered both deliberately and unintentionally. Another imprint was left by one that was supposed to have been a compliment, a word of encouragement to make me feel appreciated.

During the last semester of my senior year of college, my professors arranged for our small group of social work majors to spend a weekend away at a state park inn. The purpose of the retreat was to bond, to rest, and to have some uninterrupted study time in preparation for our final comprehensive exams. On the final evening of that trip, we gathered and sat in a circle. We were instructed to take turns stating a quality we admired in each of our fellow classmates. It was fun for a while. But when it was my turn to receive feedback, one word spoken rang out so loudly that I became deaf to all the others spoken. It came from the mouth of my professor and soured the whole experience for me. Her one word chosen to describe me was: cautious.

I am fully aware that caution can be a positive attribute in many situations. It is sometimes even used to describe a wise person. But in this setting, that word stung me just as sharply as if a hornet had flown in out of nowhere and attacked. The rules permitted her to select a single adjective to describe my personality. And she picked cautious.

To my ears, it implied I was incapable of taking risks. It painted me as a nervous scaredy cat who would never step outside her comfort zone to put the ideals and tools she’d been studying into practice in the real world. It bounced back down to flatten me after hitting the low-hanging cloud of fear looming above my head. To one already nervously anticipating my exit from the bubble of college life, it felt insulting, condescending. And of course, she was oblivious to the impact it made.

Though I knew I was being sensitive, it wasn’t just my imagination that this little word didn’t fit with the spirit of this game. My friends tried to comfort me afterward, reminding me of all the other lovely words of truth that had been used to describe my character. But I cowered under the weight of the invisible limitations that label placed upon me. I pushed back against it for years, never quite feeling like the victor in that fight.

Tattoos leave a lasting mark. Soap and water won’t wash them off. They can remain on our skin for a lifetime. If chosen deliberately, they are symbols: meaningful statements paying tribute to the ideas or people we value most. But we all have tattoos that have been burned onto us by others. Ones we didn’t select but still have to wear.

We have to make an intentional choice and endure some pain in order to have them removed.

Uncovering our wounds and making ourselves vulnerable are the first steps in separating our identities from the labels that weigh us down. Put down on paper and shared with others, they lose power. I see that I’m not a slave. I’m not a victim. These careless scratches don’t define me after all.

My worth is not dependent on the passing judgment of others. I remember the truths I know down deep: that the One who created me calls me worthy and loves me enough to heal me by taking the pain on Himself. I’m obviously imperfect, but He calls me beautiful and continues to mold me to be more like Him as I follow Him through this life.

When I listen to His voice instead of those old voices in my mind, I’m able to feel the sunshine on my clean, bare skin. The messages inscribed are wiped away, no longer legible, and I’m free.

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(Note to my mother: you can relax. This isn’t my arm in the photo.)

broken bones

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I overheard the thud from the next room, where I washed dinner dishes at the sink. The playful laughter ceased abruptly, replaced by a sharp shriek of pain. I rushed around the corner to find my almost four-year-old son lying on the carpet, clutching his elbow and sobbing. I gathered him up to comfort him, trying to assess what had happened. He sputtered through his tears that he fell off the couch and hurt his arm. Since our couch was only about two feet high, it didn’t seem possible that a tumble from that height could have done too much damage.

But this time, our usually happy-go-lucky guy didn’t bounce back from his boo-boo. He finally calmed down, but he would not let any of us touch his arm. He refused to straighten or use it. When he continued to whimper in pain at bedtime after a dose of Tylenol, my husband and I knew we’d better get the injury examined.

The next morning an x-ray revealed an area near his elbow where there was a tiny bit of pooled blood. Though no fracture was evident, the doctor explained that it was likely hidden under the blood and recommended a cast to help protect the whole area as the bone healed.

My sweet boy was a trooper. He patiently cooperated as we went from one appointment to the next: first the pediatrician for the exam, then the imaging center for the x-ray, and finally the orthopaedist for the cast. He smiled bravely as the technician wrapped his bent arm with brightly colored fiberglass that would harden within minutes. We teased him that the royal blue and red stripes he chose would blend in perfectly with his superhero costumes. I rewarded his good behavior with an ice cream treat. Overall, I felt pretty good about the doctor’s prognosis that three and a half weeks would allow enough time for his tiny little bone to heal.

When we got home, however, I realized that in all our explanations of what it meant to wear a cast, the doctor and I had left out a very important detail. Not five minutes after pulling into the driveway, he ran to his room to change into his dress up clothes. He called me upstairs and asked me to take off his cast. When he heard the bad news that it wouldn’t come off until our next trip to the doctor, the tearful tantrum began. It took thirty minutes of crying, but he finally surrendered to the reality that he would have to live with this limitation for a while.

*****

We’ve once again arrived at the tail end of winter. Like silly schoolgirls, we’re falling for every flirtatious tease of warmer weather we get. Hope is in the air, but at the same time, the landscape is dry and brown. It hasn’t yet sprung to life. The trees are still naked, mere tangles of bare bones.

For two-thirds of our calendar, the trees in our Midwestern town are dressed with bountiful leaves. While adorned with the buds and blossoms of spring, the healthy green glow of summer, or the jewel tones of fall, their branches play a supporting role, going mostly unnoticed. Then the year winds down, and their coverings are stripped by harsh winds, leaving them exposed. Seasons shift, and their skeletons show. The lifeblood of the trees must have drawn from deep roots throughout the cycle in order for them to maintain health and withstand the winter. Gazing at the barrenness of the woods behind my home made me ponder my own inner structure and its ability to endure winter.

Our physical network of bones are responsible for supporting and enabling movement, absorbing impact, allowing us to stand upright, and giving us our shape and strength. Our foundations are hidden from view, exposed only by x-rays or when an outside force cuts through our skin and lays them bare.

Without proper nourishment from a vitamin rich diet, they become brittle and weak. Exercise is required to challenge them to build density. When force is placed upon a bone, it breaks down and then rebuilds itself a little stronger, enabling it to handle more stress the next time. Sudden trauma from a fluke accident, a daredevil stunt gone awry, or intentional abuse can cause bones to break.  More subtle fractures, appropriately named repetitive stress injuries, can grow gradually as well.

Beliefs form the soul’s skeleton. These are inherited from our families of origin, imprinted on our psyches by the words our parents spoke to us. Our surrounding culture and circumstances shape the way we see the world. Our understanding of the person and character of God is built by listening to, watching and interacting with those who claim to know and represent Him. Both consciously and unwittingly, we test our hypotheses in the real world of our experiences. Over the years, we gradually cement our concepts of who we are, what the world is about, and where we fit into it. Even if we can’t articulate them clearly, our beliefs fuel our thoughts and behavior.

As I look around at the lives of my friends and others in my peer group, it’s obvious that we’re in the thick of it – real, hard life. We’re longing for spring to return as we walk through the reality of the stresses and pain of this life. Unwelcome diagnoses, broken family relationships, wayward children and demanding jobs weigh us down, and a low-grade anxiety permeates the air we breathe. Some of us frantically reach for makeup and accessories, titles and accomplishments, jam-packed schedules – anything – to stay covered and maintain the illusion of an eternal summer in our lives.

But winter comes around in every life. It is no respecter of persons. And when it does, we are exposed. We all have our own particular flavor of brokenness that hinders our happiness and tempts us to cover up. But if we are brave enough to bare our souls and take time to nourish them, winter can be our most productive season.

Just like with my little one’s injury, healing begins with examination. When we take a closer look, we may find that untended wounds from our past have stunted our growth. Lies we believed have left us with weak spots in our souls. Hidden and ignored, these cracks make us unable to bear the weight of life’s stresses and threaten to make us crumble, overwhelmed.

Old breaks may require the painful process of being reset – rebroken and then realigned – to allow our cores to grow stronger.  Injured souls, like broken bones, must be supported and protected for healing to occur. Relationships that give us the freedom and grace to ask the hard questions, encouraging us to go deeper in our search for God and truth and meaning, can help us gain perspective and fortitude. We have to invest the time to build our strength. And our advanced age means a mere three and a half weeks of suspended superhero play won’t quite cut it. Whole, healthy souls are built incrementally.

Bone pain can be intense and isolating because no one can see the injury from the outside. But when we are brave enough to have others help us examine and treat our wounds, we can begin to heal.

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