The day I was born, I came bearing wounds from sorrows I hadn’t yet known.
When I was still in my mother’s womb, my older sister, then just 5 years old, was mowed down by a teenage drunk driver. Her skull was fractured, as was her entire pelvis and most of her ribs, and she suffered several injuries to her internal organs.
My sister spent months in the hospital, a year in a wheelchair, and many moons recovering. My mother, the most devoted of any mother I’ve ever witnessed, dedicated every second of those years to bringing her back to full health.
Because my sister was in a full-body cast from the waist down for many months, my mom often transported her up and down stairs, in and out of the car, or to and from doctors’ offices, on her belly.
I was growing inside that belly.
So when I was born, I came with large purple scars all over my back. They were bruises from where my mom had carried my then-disabled sister: on her stomach, on my back.
Fate chose to have me come into the world after a tragedy, so I came here bearing wounds from sorrows that my mother, and entire family, had gone through without me.
To tell you the truth, I always kind of liked having something that connected me to the traumatic events that shaped my family members’ lives. Because somehow, even though I wasn’t there, I was. After all, I have the scars to prove it.
Scars are kind of like odd little roadmaps to our personal histories. Involuntary tattoos written across our skin, they give away our secrets, and display our identities better than any deliberately chosen ink injection ever could.
We have scars from fleeting, telling incidents: the burn from a cookie tray we got while we weren’t paying attention, or the cut above our eyes we got from falling off a see-saw. We also have reminders of those moments when our lives are shaken and transformed irreversibly: staple-marks and incision lines, the rippled remnants of life-altering experiences.
Just like life, the scars from the silly little moments matter just as much as the ones from the bigger, more serious experiences.
We never get physical marks from heartaches, because, like snowflakes on a sunny day, they melt away with time. They are remembered, but they don’t have to remain with us for the rest of our days.
I recently met someone who has a scar running straight down his forehead, right between the eyes, which stops at about the top of his nose. He also has a circle of red dots in the pit of his neck, and a little hole in his stomach, from where he once had a tracheostomy and a gastric feeding tube, respectively.
We talked about his life, as he unashamedly showed me his scars.
Three years ago, while walking in the middle of the night, he was struck by an oncoming Luas train. It was dark, and the Luas, then relatively new, didn’t have lights or sound any bells, and he said it felt like it came at him out of nowhere.
He spent weeks in a coma, two years in a hospital recovering from physical injuries, and he suffered traumatic brain injuries that he’s still coping with on a daily basis. The doctors called him the “Miracle Man” because he made such a remarkable recovery(today, he even plays drums professionally, with no apparent difficulties).
He is not one iota embarrassed or awkward about his scars, because they are symbols of a much more significant truth: he is a survivor.
He said he doesn’t even try to cover up his tracheostomy scar, which, peeking out above his t-shirt, is the type that could easily be hidden by a collar.
“If you were bothered about little things like that, you’d spend a lot of your time being bothered,” he said.
I can count on my hands the number of people who have seen my scars. My best friends, and the handful of people I've shown them to as a party trick once or twice.
When I was young, my mother said that when we’d go to the pool, other mothers would tell her that their children were “frightened” of the way my back looked, and would ask her to “please cover them up.” Or worse, they’d accuse her of child abuse.
She didn’t tell me that back then, but she did always buy me bathing suits with maximum back-coverage, or have me wear t-shirts over my swimsuits, to “cover up your back.” She’d talk about my birthmarks in hushed tones, like they were something of which I should have been ashamed.
I knew it had purple marks on it, but I didn’t really understand why my back was apparently uglier than my siblings’. And for years, I misinterpreted my mom's desire to keep me from being ostracized as something completely different.
It’s funny how scars can take on layers of meaning beyond their origin.
I’ve often also thought of those scars as a symbol of my youth.
When my sister was recovering in the hospital, my oldest sister used to sing at her bedside. Two years later, when my grandfather was in hospice care, my mother remembered how much joy it brought my sister to hear music in the hospital, so she gave all of her 5 children instruments, taught us songs, and had us play music for him. I was the youngest, at 2 years old; my brother was 3, and my three older sisters were 6, 8 and 10.
We played a few traditional Irish songs for my grandfather, then the hospital staff asked us to come back to play for the other patients, and then, the entire course of our lives changed.
We started playing music professionally, at nursing homes, hospitals, innumerable charity functions, and eventually, at festivals, bars, clubs, and concerts all across the U.S. and Canada. In between classes at our public school in the Bronx, we did over a hundred gigs a year, for many years.
If my sister wasn’t hit by a drunk driver, my other sister never would’ve sang for her, and if she didn’t sing for her, we might never have played music for my grandfather, or the thousands of people we’ve played for since.
Somehow, my scar, which is a symbol of that car accident, is also a symbol of all of the gigs, all of the traveling, and all of the stuff of my unconventional youth, for which I am endlessly thankful.
To be honest, I think I’m lucky to have my scars. I have something to remind me every single day, of just how blessed I am to have the life and the family that was given to me.
Photo by Michelle Brea