by Dreama Pritt
“Simone Weil was right; there are only two things that pierce the human heart: beauty and affliction. Moments we wish would last forever and moments we wish had never begun.”
~John Eldredge, Desire
The marks on my son’s skin were ugly. At least a dozen red, raised welts, long and thin, covered the right side of his neck. I rushed over to him.
“Oh, my goodness! What happened?” I’m sure my voice was shaking.
He looked up at me after pausing his video game, puzzled, with no sign of discomfort or pain in his bright blue eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“This, on your neck,” I said, gently touching one of the welts. “How did you get these marks?”
Still looking confused, he lifted his hand to his injury. “I dunno, Mom. I had a little itch and I scratched it,” he said. “Why are you freaking out?”
I couldn’t believe the angry lines were from the normal scratching of a normal itch, but within ten minutes, all the marks were gone. My son insisted that he hadn’t been in any pain. Later, he was diagnosed with a fairly innocuous autoimmune disease called dermatographia.
“It literally means ‘to write on the skin,’” his pediatrician said. She confirmed the diagnosis by tracing on his arm with a tongue depressor, recreating one of the inflamed lines we’d seen before.
The Mayo Clinic’s web site says that dermatographia “leaves no lasting marks.” My son, always the performer, is not above masking the dysfunction by using the effect on his skin as a party trick, turning his problem into a talent. Since learning of this disorder, I’ve seen images of people who use its effects for art. After drawing designs on their skin, they photograph the results, preserving the short-lived pictures raised on their reusable canvases.
I wonder, though, about the things in our lives that do leave lasting marks. Certainly, some physical injuries leave lasting scars, but I’m thinking about a deeper impact, marks that cannot be seen. Not skin-deep, but soul-deep. Not derma-deep, but pneuma-deep.
The experiences that stay with us the longest are those that prick the heart, whether sharpened by beauty or affliction. What sticks in the memory? What details won’t leave? What bits do we grasp tightly, desperate to not lose? The answers to these questions define us. Shape us. Our perspectives shift, as new experiences come, as new lines and couplets are etched into our often pierced hearts. Light and dark entwined write on the soul.
To write on the soul. That’s it exactly.
Sunlight bounces off blonde curls. The front porch is hers alone for the moment; her mother is just inside the open door. The toddler is content, curiously looking down as her bare toes explore the cool, rough surface of the concrete. An unexpected wind catches the storm door, and it swings wildly toward the blissfully unaware baby girl. As the door reaches the apex of its swing, the glass pane, adjustable to let in or keep out the fresh air, loses its hold on the door. Her mother gasps and speeds toward her daughter, even then knowing there’s no way she can make it in time. The storm door swings back into place, but the glass falls directly over the little girl’s head. It crashes. Splintering. Shattering. The girl’s mother, fear and adrenaline at full blast, rushes to her daughter’s side. Instead of cuts and blood, tears and pain, the little girl looks up unscathed. The broken glass has fallen around her in a perfect circle.
My mother always tells me that I have “blonde skin.” It is still fair, though my blonde curls deepened to chestnut before I left elementary school. A myriad of scars, both faint and dark, chase stories—wrecking a bike shoved a tooth through my lip there, taking a kitchen knife from my four-year old niece opened my pinkie here, surgeries, falls, and no idea where I got those—around my body. I love them, really. Like shadows in a painting, memories—even of pain—grant an air of character to my past.
I was protected, that day on the porch. Supernaturally, I think. But I can’t really explain why. And I don’t remember it for myself; I was too young to hold onto any memories, good or bad. When I see it in my mind, it is from my mother’s perspective, a soundless video, insulated from noise and fear and speed. I don’t remember the first time I heard the story; I don’t remember how many times I’ve heard the story; but I do know that it is a beginning in my story. A marker of who I will be. A marker of who I will become. Shards of glass not touching my body, but engraving my soul.
I wonder at the scars I have, and I wonder at the scars I don’t.
My first memory comes to me, sieve-sifted through years of shame, of shadow, of light, of love. That day, too, was a mixture of light and darkness. The sun outside was bright, but inside my Daddy’s workshop, the light was murky at best; sunlight only peeking through the cracks, illuminating dust motes and sawdust in the air. The walls were corrugated tin—dull metal corduroy encasing, enclosing. I was only three or maybe four, without the words to understand, without the words to tell.
“Do you want to see what makes babies?” my uncle said.
I backed away slowly, my arms at my sides, palms behind me, fingers splayed. I shook my head side-to-side timidly, terror-stricken. My eyes must have been as wide and full of fear as they felt.
“Don’t worry,” he said, with a note of amusement in his voice. “I won’t do it to you.”
The images that followed are engraved in my mind, though I didn’t know the words. His hand on his penis. The color of his ejaculate. I knew only that I was afraid. I don’t remember how I escaped, although I was standing by the door. I imagine he was laughing as the door closed behind me.
He didn’t touch me that day.
Some of my stories, I wish I could unread. Can you call a wound that never completely heals a scar? Words of pain weep bloody tears, staining my face, my hands, my life. That unhealed little girl’s heart still beats in my chest, and I wonder why I was protected from falling glass only to be damaged in other ways. Still, I’ve found divine grace in which to rest, and I find compassion written on my soul alongside the uglier words.
The Easter sun shone in through the gauzy white curtains and the French doors leading out to the patio on the river. Five days—two more than doctors said we’d have—had passed since my father’s devastating stroke, and most of our immediate family was gathered to spend the day together at Hospice. The beauty of the facility and the graciousness of the staff gave us much comfort during those uncertain days, but my Mom and I had been there—and at the hospital, too, before he was transferred—nearly every minute. We were tired. Dad, proving himself once again to be the biggest, strongest, most contrary man in the world, had defied the medical establishment—never regain use of his right side, never speak or understand any language—by moving the arm and leg on the damaged side of his body (even standing up with assistance), communicating with gestures and spoken words. He still refused food and drinks, though, and his Living Will prevented any nutrition or fluid except by mouth. He seemed to be improving, but even though he had far exceeded the best case scenario presented by his doctors, we didn’t know if it would be enough. He hadn’t had any fluids since the first day in the hospital. Dehydration was taking its toll. Hope and despair kept trading places.
On Easter, though, the world looked brighter. The sun was shining. My brothers scared up a wheelchair and helped Dad into it. He pointed which way he wanted them to take him, and he put his foot down so that the wheelchair wouldn’t budge until he was ready to move. They spent a couple of hours outside in the sunshine, surrounded by trees and flowers. Dad was in a hospital gown, his own pajama pants, and socks with no shoes. The ensemble was topped off with my oldest brother’s bright white Adidas ball cap. Dad was full of personality that day—more himself than he’d been since the stroke. He played jokes on grandkids and visitors; we even heard him laugh—a jagged, rough, broken, joyful laugh.
While the boys had him occupied outside, I took a shower and tried to rest. Nights alone with only me, Mom, and Dad were difficult, even with the Hospice staff a call button away. I was sleeping, when I slept, on a pullout couch. Dad was restless, and even with half his body not working, he was stronger than we were. He’d fallen more than once trying to get up by himself, and he fought us when we tried to help him. The constant struggle was stressful.
When Dad was ready to come back inside, Mom took pictures as each family member gave him a hug. Dad had always been famous for his bear hugs—hugs that found your feet floorless, your back cracked, and your breath uncatchable. He hugged everyone, all the time—I don’t think I ever saw him without being wrapped up in his safe embrace.
When it was my turn, I walked over to his wheelchair with my arms extended and a big smile on my face.
“Can I have a hug, Daddy?”
He stopped smiling. He set his jaw, and he shook his head, side-to-side.
He said no.
I laughed—a fake laugh—and put my arms around him anyway. But my heart was pierced. Broken.
I was already putting off my grief. I didn’t want to mourn him while he was still breathing. I shoved the unexpected hurt of that moment and its unshed tears into the compartment in my mind alongside the fathomless loss of my father. I hid myself in busyness, taking care of little things. Taking care of other people.
Every moment of my life, I knew unquestionably that my father loved me. I knew that I could count on him. I had seen him drop everything and drive six hours just because I called and said I needed his help. But on that day, in that moment, he rejected me. He couldn’t speak well enough to explain—and I was afraid to ask.
The unexpected hurt of that moment still holds me. I’m haunted. He’s gone now, and I will never know why he withheld that hug.
I remember when I was a little girl, and Daddy and I were playing a game. I remember that, somehow, I got hurt. I remember crying while he held me. I remember him saying that he was sorry. I remember that he said, “I love you. I would never hurt you on purpose.”
As Easter waned, Dad was stretched out in the too-small hospital bed, his six-foot, six-inch height exactly matching the length of the mattress. The light through the window was softer now, the blue walls almost smoky gray in the evening light. The room felt hushed after all the excitement and visitors of the day, and it was just my Dad and me.
I knelt by the bed. After the first night when he fell out of it, the Hospice nurses lowered it as close to the floor as it would go. I looked into my Dad’s eyes, and the tears I’d been suppressing came unbidden. I saw love and compassion in his face. I laid my head on his chest, and I wept. His left hand, the one he could control, smoothed my hair until my tears stopped.
Dreama Pritt, Marshall University alumna and current member of the MU English Department, is a Maier Award-winning and AWP 2013 Intro Journals Project-nominated author whose publishing credits include Et Cetera and Christianity Today's SmallGroups.com. Her essay “Remembering a Legend” was highlighted as part of a Creative Non-Fiction Panel at the 2012 COLA Research and Creativity Conference.