Every physical scar on my body has a good story—one that is deeply personal and reminds me of certain eras of my life.
I have a scar on my chin from the day I went riding mini-bikes with a friend as a young teenager. I had no idea what I was doing, even though he explained everything to me before we hopped on. I ended up losing control, narrowly missing a mailbox, and then flipping over the handle bars. I needed quite a few stitches to close the wound.
I have a scar near my right elbow from the time I was playing Frisbee with a co-worker after working the late shift at Taco John’s one night as a teenager. I tripped while going after one of her throws and the pavement took a bite out of my arm.
I have scars on some of my toes from diving into a pool one hot summer day and scraping my left foot on the bottom. It was shallower than I realized. I also have a scar on the back of my right leg from surgery after rupturing my Achilles tendon in 1997 while playing softball.
But none of them compare to my first scar.
Grandpa Ed, and his wife, Modene, had a wooded acreage behind their house and he liked to take me for walks down there when I was a kid. He would point out wildlife to me that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, ask me how things were going at school, and ask questions about our food situation at home.
After my parents split up, Grandpa took it upon himself to step into the gap—fixing things around our house and always making sure we had enough food. Of course, I had no idea what he was doing. I was just a kid who enjoyed prowling in the woods with his grandpa. But by stepping into the gap, he allowed me to keep my childhood. I wasn’t worried about how tough things were for my mom because he did the worrying for me. He’s been gone more than thirty years now, but I still get moved to tears when I think about him doing that.
While we were on one of those walks in the woods, I saw something that caught my attention. I can’t remember what it was, but I took off running toward it. He was close to sixty at the time, so he wasn’t able to catch me. Just as he said something about me slowing down, I ran into something that felt a lot like a wall, only with barbs, and it knocked me flat.
A warm substance trickled down my left cheek and it only took me a second to realize I was bleeding. When I glanced up, I saw a barbed-wire fence. It scared me to death, but I think it scared Grandpa even more. I’m sure he felt responsible, but the truth is, sometimes boys will be boys. They get intrigued by something and just take off without any regard for the possible consequences.
I probably should have gotten a stitch or two, but in my opinion, the scar only gave me character and a good story to tell the girls—if only I hadn’t been too shy to actually talk to a girl. But I learned later that scars do much more than make a person look tougher. They also serve as reminders. Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
I’m the type of person who is grieved when landscapes change because it feels like someone is wiping out my personal history there. The playground where I experienced my first kiss is now a housing project. The grade school—my grade school—that used to sit across the street from that playground is now an apartment complex. The marquee that sits outside my high school now says it is a “magnet school,” whatever that is. One of the roller skating rinks I used to frequent as a child is now a grocery store. I bought some cat food from that grocery store once and when I opened the box, it had worms in it. That seemed about right, since my memories of the place had been spoiled.
As I drive past these places now with my oldest niece in the car, I’ll briefly fill her in on the history of the place and tell her why it is so important to me. She tries to grasp what I’m saying, but, in reality, how can she? She wasn’t there.
Recently, I was in the car with my mom and we were driving through that same neighborhood. She pointed to one little green house and told me the name of the family who used to live there, saying she had been inside many times as a babysitter. She pointed to another house and said it was her sister’s best friend’s house. On and on she went, trying to solidify the reality of her sacred grounds that have since been desecrated or maybe worse, forgotten by everybody else.
Thankfully, even places have scars—reminders of what used to be. That old playground still has the gravel-covered alleyway that runs behind it. My old grade school turned apartment complex still has its original marquee. My old high school still has the same front steps. That old roller skating rink turned grocery store appears to have the same doors. Every time I pass by one of these scars, they speak to me, and I listen.
Knowing the value of scars, I like to ask people about the stories behind theirs. You can learn a lot about a person by listening to those stories. I find that people are much more willing to talk about the cause of their physical pain than the cause of their mental pain. And that’s okay. You have to start somewhere.
You can find this essay, and others like it, in Sacred Grounds: First Loves, First Experiences, and First Favorites.