Author’s warning: Stunningly undiagrammable run-on sentences soon to follow (a fragment, yes, I know). What can I say? I was not completely sober when these words were scribbled onto a cocktail napkin.
“Your hand will grow bigger and your finger will grow bigger, but your scar will always stay the same size.”
— Eddie (Jon Foster) to Ruth (Elle Fanning) in “The Door in the Floor”
From the sidelines, I can see where some folks might have considered it a somewhat unusual (if not blatantly tasteless) spontaneous-combustion-type en masse subject for discourse among a wide-ranging demographic amalgam of patrons — some of whom were regulars, some of whom were perfect strangers, some of whom had been drinking for hours, some of whom had just ordered their first frothy mug of suds — that long-ago blustery winter night at the Dillon Dam Brewery.
If memory serves (something I would not exactly bet the farm on), it began by way of a young dirtbag snowboarder-type half-embarrassedly, half-triumphantly crutching his way into the establishment, people sliding barstools to accommodate his perambulatory difficulties, someone soon asking whassup, the young man half-muttering, half-proclaiming the dreaded-but-weirdly-honored syllables, “ACL surgery,” and a longer-of-tooth lady a few seats down slurring/growling the predictable, “Well, yer damned lucky that surgical knowledge has improved,” followed by the equally predictable pulling up of the pants leg, revealing the results of what ACL surgery looked like 30 years ago, like someone had operated on her hurt knee with a herd of rabid wolverines. Then a bearded geezer at a nearby table raising a hand with a 20-percent digit deficit rate and chiming in with a similar back-in-the-day tale about the failed attempt to sew his pinky back on after a negative interface with a non-OSHA-certified band saw. “I think the doctor was as drunk as I was,” the gent rasped. “It seemed to me like he was trying to sew the damned thing on upside-down. If he succeeded, I would have had four fingers that curled inward, toward my palm like they’re supposed to, and my pinky curling upward. Guess that would have made for an interesting party trick. In the end, he just gave up, told me the pinky was too far gone and tried to throw it in a trash can. He missed and there sat my poor little finger, lying bloody on the floor, looking very alone and forlorn.”
And so it commenced, as bar confabs often do (and often don’t). It was not long before the two-dozen or so folks there gathered, in unified, borderline-soul-baring, pass-the-story-stick-type fashion, embarked upon a verbal journey centered — sometimes loosely, sometimes strictly — upon the theme of scars, with at least as much emphasis placed upon the stories about the scars as on the scars themselves. Kind of like ski-jumping, with points being awarded for both distance and style.
Though recollection of most of the scar stories that were subsequently told escapes me, there were of course some that activated the long-term memory nodules. Among those, there was a very large and gruff stranger of probably 60, who, despite his advancing age, could best be described as someone you would not under any circumstances fuck with. He wore a Vietnam Vet baseball cap, which, uncomfortable as this is to write, often is cause for giving a person some eccentricity leeway. By the time this man, who was clearly bemused by the various tales being related about the kayaking mishap and the emergency appendectomy surgery while on a wine tour of France, cleared his throat, everyone automatically assumed he would relate the tale about the vicious scar that went all the way around his goddamned throat and neck, as though he had once been hanged until not quite dead or tortured with a cable. Instead, he spoke poetically about the time he was fishing up in Idaho on some magical mountain day and it was so quiet and peaceful and he’d been trying for hours to land this one trout and how he was becoming more and more exasperated and how he got sloppy on a cast and actually managed to catch a dry fly on his own eyelid and about how he had to hike out to the trailhead and drive into town with a dry fly dangling directly in front of his pupil like one of those weird little bacteria floaters, except with a sharp hook attached, and about how close he had come to losing a viewpod questing for trout. He asked everyone at the bar to come over and look closely at the scarcely visible remains of that incident, all the while everyone’s peripheral-visioning their way down to that awful scar all the way around his neck, which, it’s my guess, is something the Vietnam Vet knew would happen. No one asked him about it.
And then, after harrowing tales involving an entire vat of French fry grease being accidentally spilled onto a young lady’s forearm and a machete wound suffered in the deepest depths of the Darien Gap three day’s hike from the nearest clinic and the entire top of a guy’s scalp being sheared off like something from a Larry McMurtry book when he was thrown through a plate-glass window in a bar after an altercation centered around a lost game of pool and a large bet the man could not pay, it was my turn to ask for the story stick. After dropping my pants and bending over to expose the back of my right thigh, I told the story of climbing a tree behind the neighbor’s house across the street from ours when I was 12 years old and living near the banks of the Saranac River in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains.
It was a fine summer day, and I was feeling my 12-year-old oats in a way I could not have supposed possible a few months earlier. For, you see, the previous winter, my erstwhile run-amok self had suffered its first serious physiological setback. I had to be tobogganed off the slopes of Bear Mountain by the ski patrol after having pushed a surely modest schussing envelope a bit too far. At that time, I subscribed to the “turns-are-for-pussies” philosophy of downhill skiing (read: I had neither the skill nor the training to turn, and I masked my ignorance with a gung-ho attitude that had but one foreordained outcome), and that philosophy-made-manifest ultimately came with a price, even for a stupid fourth-grader. I tore the shit out of my left knee trying to impress my love interest (boy, was she ever impressed!) and spent almost six months in a full-leg cast. Though my leg was still skinny from atrophy, by mid-summer, I was finally able to move, and, more importantly, to once again climb. In my youth, I was half-monkey, fearlessly ascending quarry walls, water towers, roofs and, in this case, trees. I absolutely loved climbing trees.
I was not the only kid up in the tree when it happened. Verily, there was a slew of jabbering pre-pubescents hanging out upon the rickety planks of a makeshift treehouse probably 15 (OK, 10) feet up. A flimsy home-made rope ladder connected treehouse to terra firma, a ladder only capable of handling one kid at a time. When someone suggested maybe heading over to the nearby Saranac for a swim, the notion of an orderly descent was not much in evidence. I, as always, being the most impatient person in the group, opted to bypass the ladder congestion and move downward via a series of thin branches. “Race ya,” I said, confidently.
Even now, 43 years later, the sound of branches breaking sets me on edge. There was the snap, then my first interaction with time moving at simultaneously variable speeds — slow motion (slow enough to be realizing what was happening) overlapped with blurring rapidity (so rapid, it seemed as though space had folded me instantaneously to my bleak destination), then the instinctive peeling of my right leg off a recently hatcheted stump maybe three inches in diameter and two feet high. I heard the sound of skin ripping as I pulled my leg off the pointed top of that little stump. Just before a tsunami of red overtook my world, I looked down and saw a bisected hamstring flapping and a large section of my exposed femur. As shock mercifully asserted itself, I looked back at that little stump and saw a huge hunk of my flesh still attached, twitching.
I learned an interesting lesson about motherhood that day. My mom, gone now for almost a quarter-century, had always encouraged me to be adventurous, wild, actually, and, to her credit, once the dust settled on this torn-open-leg situation, she did not waver in that encouragement. She was over at our house barbecuing. Though in my head I remember hearing screams, apparently none came from me. Yet, somehow, maternal Def-Con-1 was activated and, simply via mother/child cosmic connection, she knew that something was sorely amiss with her first-born and came running as fast as her little legs could carry her to my side, gracefully arriving with a spatula in one hand and an admirably unspilled martini in the other. Because my mom was, well, uh, slightly unpredictable, we had a tenuous, often painful, relationship clear up until the moment she passed, an unfortunate reality that, naturally, sucks. But never in my life, before or since, was I so glad to have someone at my side as I lay there, my life force oozing away into the grass. Even though I knew she was freaking out inside, my mom, child of the Luftwaffe’s unrelenting attack on her native London, went into instant survival mode. She remained calm, made sure my sister was tended to, field-dressed my gaping wound with towels and organized transport to the hospital. Ever the fiscal pragmatist, she directed the driver, a neighbor, to take us to the Plattsburgh Air Force Base hospital, where we would receive free treatment, rather than to the municipal hospital, which was closer, but which would cost money. On the way, I, of course, asked the inevitable question, one that had more immediate palpability than it does for many kids at that age, as my stepfather, my sister’s dad, had drowned three mere years prior: “Am I going to die?” “No, you’re not going to die,” my mom responded with a smile that was not only reassuring, but reassured. “You’ve still got lots of trees left to climb.”
And then things went dark as shit.
The surgery lasted almost 10 hours. It was nip-and-tuck regarding whether they would be able to save my leg. I must have semi-consciously overheard that part of the discussion among the doctors, because I awoke at one point and groggily reached down to see if my leg was still attached. That action pissed the surgeon off, and he yelled at me to hold still and told the nurse to re-knock my ass out. In the end, I got more than 200 stitches, which is a lot when you’re talking about a little 12-year-old leg, which had to be entirely rebuilt from the bone clear out to the skin. Almost half of my blood seeped away that day. I spent the whole summer on my back. It was many years before the requisite Deep Thoughts visited me, before I learned enough about anatomy to realize how close that little hatcheted-off stump came to my femoral artery, how, if my downward course was altered by even a few inches, I would have taken that stump directly to my lower spine.
Whenever I first visit a body mechanic — massage therapist, physical therapist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, witch doctor, voodoo practitioner —which I’ve been doing a lot these days, it will not be long before I am asked about the scar on the back of my right leg. I can feel their reluctance to even touch it, just in case its root cause might be contagious.
I recently started receiving treatment from a new chiropractor, because, basically, I am, at age 55, a flat-out physiological mess. I have a bad left heel, a totally trashed right Achilles tendon, a bulging L4/L5 disc and a right shoulder that, even after two surgeries, still operates at about 50-percent capability. An orthopedist once told me, after hearing my corporeal curriculum vitae — thousands of miles of long-distance backpacking, two decades of competitive tennis and years of martial arts training — that I could not have intentionally mapped out a more negatively impactful trinity of hobbies had I premeditatedly tried. Ergo: I have long assumed that my lifestyle choices are simply catching with me and that I will likely limp my way through what’s left of my years, surviving off of old memories instead of hobbling my decrepit way toward new ones.
This chiropractor, after torquing my many maladies, the way chiropractors do, asked about one I had not mentioned. “What’s the story with this big scar on the back of your right leg?” So, as I have done so many times in my life, I told him about the fall and the exposed femur and the 200 stitches. I added that it hadn’t bothered me since the wound healed. He performed some neurological tests and hemmed and hawed and said, finally, “I think almost every injury issue you’re experiencing right now emanates from that big scar. I think your body, your mind and your spirit have never recovered from that injury. It has affected the way you have moved through life ever since.”
A few weeks after these words hit print, it will be my mom’s birthday, her 75th, had she lived. It is a day that, try though I might (and I don’t try very hard), invariably lends itself to ponderment of the internal-scrutinization variety. It is an annual Heavy Day for me. But soon after the chiropractor uttered his scar-based observations, it dawned on me out of the blue that my mom would have loved being there for the bar-scar story scene at the Dillon Dam Brewery that long-ago blustery winter night. She surely would have told the story about her Ceasarian-section scar, which she received because of the desire of her eldest son to ingress this world feet first.
And I think she would have appreciated my own scar story, the one about how she arrived to save the day with an unspilled martini in hand. That appreciation would have made my evening.
You know, maybe scars never fully heal, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get better.
Ah, the wisdom that falls from the rafters of bars …