This is a story about healing, but it begins with scars.
Like all good stories, it starts off: “Once upon a time on a hot summer’s day”—summer is my favorite time of year. One of my brothers loaded up our dad’s boat with a group of his friends, my cousin—who was visiting from California—and me for a day of waterskiing.
I confess I was kind of proud to be included in his plans. I mean, I’m eight years younger than my brother. A bundle of silly, yet self-conscious, non-stop chatter, I was pretty much the epitome of your all-American, bratty adolescent. I was a giggly, 13-year-old girl, and I’m certain I got on his last nerve.
A Summer Day Turns Tragic
I remember how carefree I felt slicing a wake into the lake’s glassy surface. The water mirrored blue sky, perfectly white clouds and my own dark silhouette. I was off-the-charts excited about an Eagles’ concert coming to town that week. As I skied, I belted out a rendition of the band’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling” the only way I knew how—off-key and at the top of my lungs.
After we all had taken a turn waterskiing, we idled to a stop and pulled out lunch. I may have been born in California, but I was raised southern enough to know the best way to wash watermelon-sticky hands is to dunk them in the nearest lake. I dived into the water, swimming from one side of the boat to the other using the shortest route. That is, I swam under the boat.
Suddenly, I felt the water churn violently. Someone had started the engine. The boat prop spun to life and sliced into my legs and lower back. I don’t know how I broke free of the blades. Sheer panic must have fueled my efforts to kick to the surface, and my cousin lifted me into the boat.
In that moment, everything seemed to shift into slow motion. Every image, facial expression and movement were burned indelibly into my mind’s eye like some sort of freakish afterimage.
I remember things in snapshots and flashes—my brother’s face draining of his August tan, the striped beach towel snapping in the breeze as his friends scrambled for something, anything to stop the bleeding. I remember asking if my legs were there, and my brother’s voice choked as he tried for humor – absurdly counting 12 toes.
This can’t really be happening, I thought, as my brother raced the boat back to the marina for help. The siren screamed throughout the long ambulance ride. It can’t really be that bad. I remember thinking those words over and over, like a mantra to myself. Maybe I even said them out loud. I think the urgency of the siren, combined with the paramedics’ frantic movements, gave me a sharp reality check. The shock began to wear off. Pain set in long before we reached the hospital. That’s when my pep talk dissolved into a question: Can it really be that bad?
There are some things I don’t recall. I don’t remember the surgeon telling us the blades narrowly missed my spine. I don’t remember him saying it was a wait-and-see game whether or not I would walk. I don’t remember him adding that might be a moot point—if an infection set in, he would have to amputate both legs. I don’t have to remember those things because my parents kept the weight and worry to themselves. I was flooded with antibiotics and family and friends’ fervent prayers following that first surgery to close my wounds with thousands of sutures, set my broken legs and place pins in a shattered foot and toe.
I’m so blessed God answered those prayers in the way all of us had hoped.
Scars No One Sees
Did the boat accident leave scars? You bet it did. Like a line of railroad tracks that Thomas the Tank Engine could happily chug around on for days. But the real story here lies in the emotional scars that resulted from a hundred invisible hurts inflicted on me—and the ones I inflicted on myself—over the months and years ahead.
Although I played the clarinet worse than I sing, like many of my friends, I still wanted to play an instrument so I could be a twirler in the marching band. But the band room was downstairs from my other classes, and the middle school I attended didn’t have wheelchair access. The school’s solution was to park me outside the principal’s office during band practice. For an hour every day I sat alone, my plastered legs jutting out in front of me on the wheelchair’s ugly metal footrests. Exposed to stares and stage-whispered comments, I tried not to stare myself at these twin symbols of my frustration and helplessness.
Loneliness became my constant companion that year.
My best friend lived next door to me. She had been the epicenter of my social life since my family moved to Alabama. She was pretty and popular, and her house was the place to be on weekend nights. I knew every item in her mom’s snack pantry and the exact placement of the squeaky board that gave away our midnight snack raids. But now I stared at that once-familiar house from the outside.
One Friday night, I sat at the living room window and watched as our gang ran up the walkway next door, bed rolls and backpacks in tow, gathering for a slumber party. And they hadn’t invited me.
I think what cut the deepest, though, was when I turned my wheelchair away from the window and saw tears running in parallel lines down my mom’s face. I was certain they would etch permanent grooves into her cheeks, like scars, and steal something essential from her.
Finding New Passion
I think that boat propeller made quick work of severing my childhood from my adulthood. In a split second, I went from carefree and giggling to broken and haunted. As my social circle shrank away, I found time on my hands and a renewed interest in my Bible. I remember holding my breath the moment I came across a previously unfamiliar passage: “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.” (Isaiah 43:2) Suddenly, the brittle pages of Scripture burned bright and true and pure as I saw, for the first time, my story inextricably woven into God’s story.
I learned not to cry. Instead, my tears found new expression, flowing freely as I journaled primal emotions. My pen literally bled ink, and on the page, raw, unfiltered pain began to coagulate and take the form of poetry and short stories. The demanding, staccato-like flashes of disturbing memories—my sleep thieves—slowed down, smoothed out, and my heart began to beat to a calmer rhythm. In this way, God gave me grace notes—the gift of words—and I discovered my life’s passion for writing
If my story ended here, it would be a pretty worthless exercise in self-indulgence. Filtered through scarred hands (Yes, Jesus knows a thing or two about wounds), our personal tragedies become the very springboard for our hope. But, hope came to me slowly that year, in almost imperceptible increments. I gained strength, progressing from wheelchair to crutches.
Eventually the casts came off, and I saw my legs for the first time. Shrunken and atrophied, they were crisscrossed with dark, dash-like stitch marks. Instead of horror, I was filled with gratitude. My legs, my feet, my toes—all ten of them—were whole. I would walk, dance and run again. My pain transformed into joy.
I’ve read that for any wound to completely heal, it must do so from the inside out. Infection posed the greatest threat to me as my body began to physically mend from the boating accident, but infection comes in many forms. If I allow bitterness, self-pity, anger or blame to contaminate me whenever I face unhappy circumstances, I’ll self-destruct. With that poison coursing through my system, I might as well amputate my own limbs because I sabotage my relationships with others and with God, and I cut myself off from any chance of a useful life. This I know from personal experience.
Bookworms, Dreamers and Geeks
My next-door neighbor moved out of state not long after we entered high school. Though we were never as close as we’d once been, losing the touchstone of my first best friend was a bittersweet rite of passage. As the moving van disappeared from our street, I lost more than my friend. I also waved goodbye to childlike innocence. Never again could I see the world as an unbroken place where people we hold precious can’t be taken from us. In that profound moment of painful grace, I learned loss is a part of love.
I didn’t remain lonely. New people who would become friends came into my life. These folks weren’t like my old gang, that homogenous crowd I’d been a part of for years. Rather, these were members of a motley crew, and they came with baggage—with stuff.
Slowly, my posture relaxed, and I loosened up arms that had wrapped me up into a tight ball of pain. God moved me from my lonely island of self-pity and self-absorption to look up and see the world as a densely populated place filled with people from all walks of life, many in need of empathy and comfort. Now my arms were open to offer them.
My new cohorts were probably a more representative cross-section of society—the bookworms and poets, the artists and dreamers, the philosophers and geeks. None were ever voted Class Favorite. They spent most weekend nights at home figuring out new guitar chords or sewing a dress from a pattern that existed only in their imaginations.
They could be considered outcasts of an arbitrary high school caste system. They never had a lunchroom table unofficially reserved for their group because they didn’t travel in groups. They weren’t ruled by a herd mentality.
These comrades dressed in bright colors and had dark senses of humor, but they knew how to laugh at themselves, think independently and, in my opinion, they possessed some of the most precious of gifts. They were kind, and they were accepting—of me, of my baggage, my pain and my scars. Under the protective wings of their friendship, my real healing began.
Everyone Has Scars
“I’m no longer of use to myself or anyone else.” My mom penned those words—in her suicide note. Her tears did steal something essential from her. She lost her will to live when I was in graduate school. That may sound like a personal tragedy, which it is. It’s taken some soul-searching and mental and spiritual gymnastics for me to find any kind of meaning in the face of such loss. I’d already learned love and loss often are inseparable. In grieving my mother, I also came to understand that profound loss leaves scars.
We all have wounds that cut deeply enough to leave permanent impressions on our hearts, our memories and on our souls. I’ve thought a lot about these indelible marks that bear witness to times life got in more than a good swipe. In truth, every one of us is scarred, but I believe our scars inextricably tie us together. These jagged ribbons of our human experience connect us, one to the other.
My journey of healing brought me face to face with the Healer. He gave me words. Those words became a voice which I believe has grown beyond my personal story to offer a more universal message. It’s simply this: We all have scars. And we’re all given a choice. We can self-destruct in the flames of our own hot mess, or we can use the heat of our pain to cultivate healing and radiate empathy, kindness and compassion.
With time, my scars—both visible and invisible—have faded into what I choose to see today as character lines.
But even after all these years, I get caught off guard when someone in a grocery store checkout line stares at my legs and asks, “What happened?”
A shrug and a smile help soften my standard reply: “You should see the other guy!” Sure, I’d like to be seen as this big, bad girl who whooped up on Jaws the Propeller—See it in 3D!
But, we should see the other guy—the one whose wounds are more recent, whose scars run deeper. A lot of times that other guy, or gal, is standing right beside us in the checkout line, asking only that we see them.