The other night, I approached the counter at a local department store to pay for three pairs of socks. The gentleman who stood behind the cash register was friendly, polite, and more than willing to help me with my questions and with my eventual purchase. The gentleman behind the cash register had severely scarred hands. I guessed that they'd been burned in a fire or explosion of some kind and that he had never undergone plastic surgery to correct the problem.
It was impossible to take my eyes off his hands.
I have since found it impossible to forget the sight of his hands.
For every person, a story.
I wanted and still want to hear his.
As I walked away from the counter, the thought occurred to me: "Go back there, Gail. Take his hands into yours. Touch them tenderly. Tell him that whatever it was, he survived. He is working with his hands, and you are glad to have met him." Even as I think back to that moment, my eyes fill with tears. What pain he must have endured. What shame must overtake him at times when he sees the way that people stare at him and his scarred hands. The very fact that he works almost exclusively with his hands means that he gets many stares. Every day. In every interaction. But there he was, with a smile on his face, scarred hands and all.
In a state of temporary television insanity, Steve and I watched two episodes of "Miami Ink" last night, a show dedicated to documenting the life and times of a group of Miami tattoo artists. Covered nearly from head to toe in tattoos themselves, each of the artists describes and then caters to the whims of clients who enter their establishment and request one tattoo or another. What lives they lead. What stories they tell.
In the two episodes we watched last night, Steve and I witnessed a young man who'd decided to give up high school football to follow his dream of owning his own business and his own home have a lion with eagle's wings and a snake for a tail etched into his massive right shoulder. A young woman whose mother was in alcohol rehab was having a robin tattooed on her side, a robin because that is her mother's name. Her hope was that when her mother saw the tattoo and recognized what her daughter had done on her behalf, she wouldn't choose alcohol over her children. Another young woman, whose face was pierced in various places, whose tongue had been surgically split, whose earlobes were stretched over nearly two-inch circles, who had steel jewelry inserted underneath her skin, was there to have tattoos of cake, cupcakes, candy, and a huge lollipop tattooed on her rib cage. She said that ever since the dark and painful days of her childhood she has wanted to surround herself with things that are bright and colorful and positive. Hence all the colored tattoos, jewelry, clothing, and colorfully tattooed boyfriend.
The most moving of all the stories, however, was told by Gabriel, the man from Mexico with the genetic disorder that causes hair to grow all over his body. All over his body. The only part of his face that was not COVERED with thick black hair was his mouth. His lips were visible, but nothing else was. Not even his eyes. At first, the tattoo artists were obviously repulsed; they could barely look at him. But as he told his story, as he explained why he wanted the symbol for women tattooed on his wrist, each of them, and Steve and I as well, were compelled to see beyond the hair to his heart.
He explained that the genetic disorder is passed from mothers to sons and then from fathers to daughters. Earlier in his life, Gabriel had been married and had had a son; he and his wife were relieved to know that their son would not be affected by the disorder, not would he pass it on to his children. Unfortunately, his wife was unable to accept that stigma and stares that came with being married to him, so he let her go. They were divorced, and he is now alone. Sad story, but what a sacrifice on his part: to let her be free so that she could be happier. In spite of his loneliness, Gabriel loves women, he said, and wants to be surrounded by them all the time.
Each of the people who told their stories and endured the pain that is intrinsic to receiving a tattoo was willingly taking on a permanent mark, a scar if you will, that will forever remind them of a moment, a person, and place, or a sorrow that all the world will see. Scarred backs, rib cages, faces, legs, arms, and scarred hands.
We all have scars. Some are on our hands, the results of burns. Or cutting. Or cigarettes. Or even torture. Some of us have scars on places that are covered with clothing, scars on our legs, backs, and rear ends left over from spankings or beatings. Perhaps our parents meant well - they meant to discipline us. But we are scarred nonetheless. Some of our scars are internal, old wounds that have left us bruised, battered, and always vulnerable to reinjury. The scars from broken hearts. From wounded pride. From words that cut us to the core.
I have several scars on the left side of my neck from a case of shingles that I had as a ninth grader. It was a painful three weeks that fall. The nerve damage from that bout still affects part of the skin on my neck, behind my ear, and up into the hairline on the left side of my head. Whenever possible, I cover my neck in turtlenecks or scarves. I wear my long dreadlocs down over my neck as much as possible. I've had many friends, even close ones, tell me that they never noticed the scars. I'm not sure I believe them. I will say this, whenever anyone has asked me what happened, I have gladly told them my story and have been grateful not only that they noticed the scars, but also that they cared enough to ask.
Here's what I ask myself: knowing how glad I am when others ask about my scars, why am I so reluctant to ask the same questions of the scarred people I meet on my daily rounds? Why am I reluctant to reach out and touch the scars on my fellow war-wounded life travelers? Why didn't I go back and hold that man's hands and tell him that I'm sorry for whatever caused his pain and that I am glad he survived? What am I doing to ensure that I inflict no scars, or at least, the bare minimum number of wounds on my husband and children?
The next time I'm at Macy's, I'm going to look for that man and ask him what happened. It's the least I can do for such a hard-working man with his hard-working, and severely scarred hands.