My dad was one of those guys who could recount vast swaths of his life story through the scars on his body. Crushing his face on the front wheel of a motorcycle, flipping a race car with no roof (or helmet), surgeries to re-locate a dislocated shoulder, a series of horizontal scars on his belly that read like a bar chart showing the relative seriousness of so many abdominal surgeries. His life took its toll on his body.
My generation and the youngsters that are following me into adulthood were the first of the truly coddled children. Soft and scarless. I think that’s why we see 40% of millennials sporting tattoos. Marks to prove that they’ve done something — anything. But tattoos are as contrived as the Instagram filters they put over the social record of their lives. We’ve lived through a couple of wars that failed to us. They were televised and glorified in gameplay, sanitized in a way that meant we never felt the sting of a bullet in our gut, or in the guts of neighborhoods who sent all of their boys and men away in the hopes of getting half back.
When my dad was in the closing scenes of his life, it was clear the scars and wounds were starting to win the battle. The lungs toughened by decades of smoking (although he quit cold-turkey decades before he died) began to roil and turn on their host. The thick as leather skin that encased the white boy in Africa, and the sinewy man in the Texas sun began to fail in its task — tearing and mutating. When that sore on his nose got annoying enough to send my dad to the doctor (something he tried to do as infrequently as possible) the look on the doctor’s face made it obvious that he knew what we all knew but wouldn’t dare let ourselves believe. Cancer.
I look at the perfection that is my two boys, at 8 and 11 they’re unblemished perfection. When the youngest, got a cut over his eye before his third birthday, “will it leave a scar?” was one of the first questions we asked in the ER. Every bump and graze on our kids is inspected immediately and with the intensity of a surgeon facing a particularly challenging surgery. We act as though there’s some deposit we’ll only get back if we deliver our offspring to the end of their days without any visible damage.
The day they decided to take a chunk of my dad’s face is slashed into my soul as a deep scar. In a spotless room in a pristine medical facility surrounded by manicured lawns that pushed the woods back to a comfortable distance, the doctor worked quietly. The process was clean, calm and methodical; butcher a small chunk of flesh from the cheek or nose, send it to another room, find cancer. Repeat. What they didn’t look for in the samples was what they were really taking, the self confidence of a handsome man, who would end the day looking like an unfinished sculpture of himself. Where scars had left character and developed the story, now the tumor — that scar of a life lived to the fullest — was taking with it the very identity of the man, pulling chapters of the story with it. I looked into the space where the left half of his nose had been and saw to the bone. The shock of seeing the first face I had ever seen, the face that didn’t change for the first 4 decades of my life, re-rendered as a page from an anatomical text book was overwhelming. Surgeons did a fantastic job of approximating the face he once wore, but this scar was not like the others, this was something not added to his character, but something stolen from his story. The last chapter of the my story with my dad and his new face was devastating and wonderful, and filled with beautiful connections in horrible hospital rooms. It was the transfer of the stories and scars from him to me.
In our attempt to maintain the perfection of youth, we don’t allow ourselves to write a story on our body or soul. We protect ourselves and our kids from dangers that might leave a mark. And while I’m not going to sign my kids up for MMA fights anytime soon, I will remember that life is recorded in living, and they deserve a good chapter or two.
The scars of living are what took my father from me, but the story they wrote on his body and in his gut and across his heart are the thing that we embrace and never forget. We must not leave the pages of our life story blank just to protect the ending. Because, face it, we all know how the book ends, we just don’t know how we get there from here.