As an adolescent, though I was rarely teased about the malignant pore war tearing my face apart, I was shy and sensitive – an awkward boy-becoming-man – repeatedly labeled “old soul” and eager for the layer of years. Teenage acne left unflattering patterns on my adult face while teenage life left holes in my esteem. I found hope in healing and separation – scars and their promise of thicker skin. There are some things, however, for which neither my skin nor my tenure will ever be thick enough.
Shortly before my twenty-seventh birthday, my daughter died inside my wife’s womb. On a Sunday morning, my wife, stronger than I despite her absence of damage, delivered Bennett Taydem – a baby girl just weeks shy of making our couple a family. I waited for someone to tell me I could sacrifice my organs, my bones, every inch of my skin, to keep her alive. I waited. No matter how wide I cut myself open, life does not reside in tissue.
Everything that had mattered stopped mattering. Everything I had never considered, never thought about, never even imagined, became everything. Recovery, always so possible through diligence and hope and grinding my teeth, was not an option.
I said I wished everyone else could be spared the understanding of impossible loss. But in secret, and only sometimes in shame, I wished that pain on others. Not so I would feel less alone, but so that I would feel the same aloneness as others.
Surviving means eventually everything distills into two options: hopelessness or hope. I hated both for making me choose. I wanted the impossible third option. I wanted to go backwards, to forget, to undo. But there was no reverse. Recovery, I should have known, wasn’t about repair or return. Recovery had to be a scar. Recovery is, and only ever is, adaptation.
On the Christmas following Bennett’s still birth, I learned my wife had new life inside her. I was still trying to figure out how to be a childless daddy to my baby girl. She should have been waking to a stocking full of teething toys on her first Christmas. A carrot chewed by imaginary reindeer. Powdery footprints between the fireplace and tree I’d been waiting since my childhood to make for my own children. I couldn’t stand the thought of living through it all again, of hoping through spring and summer for a little girl and waking up the next Christmas without either child.
At twenty weeks, the ultrasound surprised me with clear male anatomy. A baby boy. And I wondered, with more guilt than relief, if it might be better to parent a child so different from his sister.
In August, my wife delivered Brighton Tanner. He screamed, squirmed, blinked wide blue eyes, and slowly, that warm glow of life outside the womb coaxed the grey from his flesh. His lungs filled, his heart churned, his fingers opened and closed. With wet faces, we welcomed him; three breathing in a family of four. The fear and guilt weighing against his arrival dissolved while he cried. An overwhelming, unprecedented love, impossible without unfair perspective, began its knotting inside me.
A year later, in September, a month after my son’s first birthday, days before Bennett’s second, I visited a tattoo shop. I was familiar with its atmosphere having visited for my first, and only other, tattoo: an ink wedding ring, contrast representative of the bright permanence of love, for better and for worse. I trusted the artist. He knew, regardless of the impetus, the ink and the scar calloused around it would endure. A memory, a still point in time, for as long as my flesh beat.
He lifted Bennett’s footprint from her birth certificate, etched it into the soft inner skin of my forearm. With a single, inkless needle, he carved the outline of her tiny foot and each of her five, perfect toes. He called this line a blood barrier, to keep the shading needles from straying. The outline, he said, would scar thicker, darker than the rest of the ink. The articulating needles scraped black ink into Bennett’s foot. A foot the same shape as her younger brother. My skin bled. It raised. It scabbed and cracked. It hurt. I wanted it to never not hurt.
The shadow on my forearm, while only one of two I chose, does what scars do. Thicker skin. A reminder of life, despite.