In a dark time the eye begins to see …”
So wrote the poet Theodore Roethke. Yes, there’s something to be said for dark times. They can teach us about ourselves. But, typically, living through them sucks big time.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about rough patches in our lives and the wounds and scars we carry from them. Some scars show, others don’t. But every scar is real.
I’ve got a scar on my abdomen where the surgeon cut away the tumor that tried to kill me in the spring and summer of 2021. I’ve got another at the base of my neck, and another on the third finger of my right hand, where I pinched it in a lawn chair at Boogie Hawkins’ house down the street when I was 5 years old. The one under my left eyebrow? I don’t know where that came from.
Those are my physical scars.
Of course, there are the inner ones only I know about, same as you. The latest of these was the byproduct of the two months I passed in a hospital in 2021, when reaction to the chemotherapy to which I was unknowingly allergic almost took me out.
Of course hospitals are by no means alone in their capacity to inflict wounds on us, but that’s the one I’ll talk about here.
I bet I am not the only one who’s noticed, but a long hospital stay can act as a leveling process. It imposes on us an endless conga line of doctors and nurses and phlebotomists who come at all hours of the day and night to poke and prod and stick and wipe and clean, unknowingly slicing, as they go about their routines, at pretensions and pruderies we may not have known we had.
Hospitals are not known for coddling human dignity. And if you’ve got a shred of what you arrived there with left after they’re done with you, you are a better person than I am.
As I write this, I realize the process may be tougher on those among us male types who’ve never had to deal with the invasiveness. And we can be good whiners. I can hear my wife Ann say: “Oh, you men are such babies. We women have had to put up with that sort of stuff all of our lives.” Yes, I now realize, ladies, yes, you have. Sorry about the whining.
Anyway, in-between the million daily indignities a hospital inflicts on us, we have time to think. In my case — and I’m no one special — the experience I had not asked for brought on a total reassessment of who I’d been up to that point, a reassessment I did not expect, and which brought on a major deflation.
I did not like what I saw in the mirror. The glass reflected serious faults I did not know about, but which now seem blindingly obvious. It made me wonder, had I always been that way? Yes, said the mirror. Really? How could I have missed that? For God’s sake, how could anyone have put up with me?
I accept now that during that awful time, I was unfair and even cruel to my wife, whom I love like none other. Hitherto, I had always thought of myself as a mild-mannered person. Apparently not. I fought her like a child over my regimen of pills and checkups. One night I yelled at her and drove her from my room in fear. I did not know that until I was out of the hospital. People whom I love and trust assured me it was true.
The harsh glare of the mirror showed me that for years, I had harbored pretensions I did not know I possessed. The hospital stay and the days and months afterward punctured that balloon. It was humiliating.
William Stafford wrote about scars in a poem aptly titled “Scars.”
“They tell how it was, and how time/ came along, and how it happened/again and again. They tell the slant life takes when it turns/and slashes your face as a friend./Any wound is real. In church a woman lets the sun find her cheek, and we see the lesson:/there are years in that book; there are sorrows a choir can’t reach when they sing. Rows of children lift their faces of promise, places where the scars will be.”
Sometimes dark times are the only way life has to get us to see what’s really going on. For me, the reassessment continues every day. I have fences to mend, bridges to rebuild. Hope there’s still time.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.