I long feared baldness (which has afflicted all the men in my family except Hill and me). It wasn’t so much the prospect of a head without hair — my youngest brother Charlie has a beautiful bald head — so much as the proposition that the marks my hair masked for most of my life would be exposed, naked to the world.
Twenty-one years ago this week, I underwent emergency brain surgery for an Atrial Venus Malformation (“AVM”) in the right frontal lobe of my brain. The blood clot that was discovered by the Baptist South Emergency Room doctors that night was the size of a dime, but by the time the neurosurgery team at Children’s Hospital opened me up, it was the size of a tennis ball. Much to their surprise, those surgeons cheated death that night.
For me, the gift of life did not come easy. I was paralyzed on the left side of my body. I couldn’t walk; I couldn’t dress or bath myself; I couldn’t tie my own shoes. And, the residual epilepsy ruled out driving for another six years. As a 15 year old boy, who had just discovered cars and girls, it was hard to see anything beyond the handicaps, the disabilities, the abnormalities, brokenness. In many ways, the scars that zigzagged across my scalp and the burr hole in my skull were painful reminders that I was not like the other boys. No matter how much time I spent in the mirror timing my hand movements or practicing my smile to remove any signs of the palsy that plagued me, I would never be like the others. And my marks were constant reminders.
A year and a half later, after my mother unexpectedly died from an aortic aneurysm, those marks came to symbolize something even harder to bear. When I felt the scars and burr hole on my head, I was reminded, somehow, that I had soaked up all the grace my family had been allotted in those years, and there had been none left over for my mother. It seemed my life had been spared at her expense. Those marks no longer just represented my brokenness. They represented my selfishness. And to carry those marks, I had to also shoulder the shame and guilt that came with them.
I had never realized the weight of those marks until I got a haircut a few weeks ago. Hill wanted a Bryce Harper haircut for his baseball tournament, and he wanted me to get one too (for good luck, I assume). I must admit, I was hesitant. How much of my marks would show? How much of my brokenness, my selfishness, my shame would be on display? What would I say to people who noticed? As I pondered all these things in my head, Hill put it in perspective: “It’s just a haircut, Daddy! If I can do it, you can do it.” I shifted uneasily in the barber’s chair, while David, my friend, spiritual guru, and “stylist” cranked up the clippers. As heaps of hair fell to the floor, the cool air on my scalp sent chills up my spine. I walked away from that barber chair feeling utterly naked and not a little afraid.
When I got home, still wasn’t sure how my marks would be received. At least the hair will grow back, I thought. Again, my children put it in perspective. “Daddy, I just love your new haircut!” Hattie exclaimed, as Hannah climbed in my lap and touched her finger to my scar. “What is this, Daddy?” In that moment, it occurred to me that scar signified so much more than brokenness, shame, and guilt. It represented life. Not just my life, but the lives of my children. “That’s my scar, Baby,” I told Hannah. “It’s a symbol of the most precious gifts I will ever have: you, your sister, and your brother. Without that scar, you wouldn’t be here.”
I believe there was healing in laying my marks bare.
I recently took on another mark. This one was purposeful, sacramental even. It is an outward and visible sign of the interior journey I have been on over this last year. A journey back into the person I have always been but have lost along the way. A journey into my True Self and into the Oneness of God. The mark I took on is made up of words Thomas Merton punched out on a typewriter almost 70 years ago to conclude his spiritual masterpiece, New Seeds of Contemplation. The minute I first read them, Merton’s words were seared on my heart:
Come, let us go into the body of that light. Let us live in the cleanliness of that song. Let us throw off the pieces of the world like clothing and enter naked into wisdom.
I am only beginning to muster the courage to bare my marks and weigh their meaning. But even as I do, I wonder how much of the woundedness of our world is hidden among the marks we all carry and conceal.
And, I wonder, what healing lies in laying them bare?