The accident was barely worth talking about.
I’d taken the trash out one night, early in the summer. I was 12. I hummed and bounced the bag against my knee. When I came back into the house, my mother gasped in horror. I looked down and saw my leg soaked in blood. A broken glass in the bag had acted like a knife, stabbing me deeply each time I bounced the bag. I never felt it because the first cut damaged a nerve.
The aftermath of that night was far more painful.
I had a large, angry red scar that the soaring temperatures made nearly impossible to hide. The scar criss-crossed my left knee – six separate scars actually – working together to form a garish butterfly.
In my black-and-white 12-year-old mind, my leg was ruined. Up until then, I hadn’t had plans to be a swimsuit model or star athlete, but my options were now severely limited. I was broken.
I confessed this to my grandfather one evening, sitting in the now-vintage rockers on his back porch, safe in the dimming of the day.
“I can’t dance anymore,” I said.
“But you’re so good at it! Why not?” he asked, curious. He was wildly enthusiastic about any grandchild hobby, quickly assessing our abilities as, in his expert opinion, far superior to those of the average population.
“People will see my leg,” I replied.
“They’ll see them both,” he agreed.
I huffed. Clearly he didn’t understand.
“They’ll see my scar, Grampa. The tights don’t hide it. I can’t dance because everyone will be looking at my leg. It’s awful.”
He smiled in the face of my earnest pre-teen angst.
“It’s unique,” he said. “If you’re ever lost and frozen on a mountain with your double, your scar will identify your body.”
I’ll pause and confirm: yes, he really said this. He was a colorful man and a terrific storyteller.
“Everyone starts out exactly the same way. We are born perfect and boring. Then life starts, and we get stories and scars and begin to forge our own path. Your scar is beautiful. It is yours alone.”
I just looked at him.
I’d like to say that I understood, but I’d be lying. I was 12 and he was hopelessly old. What did he know about scars and brokenness and mourning a once-perfect leg?
I understand now.
We are all a little bit broken
My friend’s daughter, a cancer survivor, panics at the sight of a needle. A relic of her years of chemotherapy, she hyperventilates and nearly passes out while waiting for her flu shot. My sister, like me, spent years in Spanish-speaking countries. Too nervous and shy to answer the phone or venture out alone, she never learned the language.
My children carry the scars of our divorce. Like my the marks on my leg, they have faded to silver now, but they still exist. Caden fixates on our schedule, carefully checking to make sure the days are indeed even. Simon started to have friends over again in high school – for years our family was “too confusing to explain.” Transition days are still bumpy for Lottie.
This brokenness, these outward signs of our experience so far, doesn’t make us less than others with different worries or heartbreak.
This brokenness tells our story
In his masterpiece “Anthem,” the songwriter Leonard Cohen urges us to forget our “perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I played that song over and over and over again in the darkest days of our divorce and separation. That image is powerful. It became a kind of mantra, and created an idea I carry close to this day.
I think of the scars we carry, visible and invisible, as cracks in the glass of a window. Light shines through the glass, shifted and altered by the cracks. The light casts patterns on the wall, shaped by the cracks but not dimmed. Light through a perfect window? No pattern, no story.
I know this analogy isn’t perfect.
I know sometimes things are so broken no light gets in at all. I know that sometimes people carry scars and stories so heavy they can’t bear the weight of them. I know that some people escape life unscathed, and their light shines brightly unaltered on the floor.
I sometimes wish we didn’t carry these scars. I still sometimes consider the possibility of a perfect left leg. I sometimes sit with what if’s and if only’s.
But I have a choice.
This is our story. This is one of the ways our window cracked. And I can choose to stare up at the window or down at my leg and wish the cracks away, or I can look at what happened next. I can see Simon’s adaptability and watch Caden sharpen his wit, coping with humor. I can be grateful for the lesson my children learn as they watch their parents move forward after everything fell apart. I can appreciate the path our lives have taken and admire the pattern the light casts on the wall.
I choose to find the beauty in our brokenness.
This article was originally published on This Life in Progress.