Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Counting Our Scars

There is a faint scar under my left eyebrow. It is becoming more pronounced as I age and most visible in the early morning after waking. It is reminding me that scars age, too, as remnants, symbols of the past pressing deeper into the skin, refusing to be hidden.

I am a child. My brother, three years older, is angry at me. I am not sure if it is something I did or if he is sick of my presence as his shadow. Again. The full ingredients that are clear? No adult supervision; our ground zero. Anger. A paintbrush thrown at me with force enough to break the skin over bone. Pain. Blood. Tears. A disembodied voice saying afterwards: “Lucky.” “Could have been the eye.” Only these crumbs of episodic memory have survived across the decades. In the same timeframe, my brother has become a stranger, only our birth roles as siblings lingering. Now I wonder: Who was the lucky one, again?

These days my brother and I text, “Happy Birthday” and “Merry Christmas” with the additional safe words, “Hope your family…” and “Take care.” Before texting overtook phone calls as our primary mode of communication, we would call each other on our birthdays, and at least hear each other’s voice shape and sound the words. Occasionally, we’d digress in content, but never too far. Darkness lived, pulled at the edges of the perfunctory.

The last time he called me, his voice was soft from alcohol. After the niceties, tears joined the softness. My brother seems to only have access to our shared history and related emotions after a few beers. “I’m so sorry. I should have killed him. I’m so sorry for leaving you there alone.”

This is the fourth brief, guilt-ridden apology I’ve received from my four, older siblings in 45 years. My siblings had all gotten away from “him.” They left me behind, at age 12, in a five-year exile with my mother and her abusive, ex-Marine partner. None of them have ever asked what happened in those years. They didn’t want to know, because they knew. Or at least they could all imagine, having already lived through the prior six years together.

Hearing my brother’s suffering laced through his tears made me sad, followed quickly by a wave of empathy. These responses have always led in moments when the past comes up raw and unbidden between any of us. I have always rationalized that my siblings, then ages 15 to 20, when the enforced exile occurred, were young, too. They were either just emerging or newly recovering from the human grenade with the loose pin: his brutal rampages, degradation and name-calling, sexual abuse, oppressive control, and perfectionistic expectations. They, too, had lived through the harm and devastation of our mother, our only living parent, failing to protect us and sometimes joining in in drunken stupors, mobile blackouts. My siblings all knew the far reach and breathlessness of terror, the slight of hand horrors that permeated what we called “home,” eventually rupturing our earliest bonds as a sibling pack, any felt sense of family.

So I told my brother then, as I had other siblings before: “It’s not your fault. Only the adults were responsible, should be held accountable. You were only a child, then teenager, too. You can let the guilt go.” And I believed it. I meant every word. I wanted him to no longer torture himself, to use alcohol as a daily refuge, a liquid raft for all the unprocessed violence, abandonment, family life askew. And while all of this was and is true, aren’t we humans doomed with our capacities for nuance, complexity, the multiplicities of our inner worlds?

I have never said or written this before: Some part of me hates them all. They knew how bodies could be struck and fly through the air, even as sunlight poured through the picture window in the background, or be molested or beaten in the shadows and slivers of night. They left me to it. In it. Worse yet? When it was over, when the five years of exile and estrangement ended, they didn’t want to know about my experiences. Their silence was thicker than our shared blood and bonds, their survivors’ guilt thicker still. I was abandoned twice and worse for it. At 17, numb and lost, I had to leave. Eventually, in the reach to heal, I had to strip away from the collusion of family silence, as if ripping off an old, filthy piece of invisible duct tape covering my mouth.

Remembering my brother’s apology born of alcohol’s access to regret, and his need for relief from his suffering, leaves me alone, cold, unseen, and unheard. Again. While I will always feel grief and compassion for each and all of us, how could I not, it is illuminating and liberating to discover and release this unconscious burden of pretending that I didn’t need them to know and care about what happened to me. Who else was I to tell? Who else would understand it so thoroughly? If they didn’t want to know, who would?

I am finally naming and counting this scar of silence, too. While the scar on my face is from a random experience that could be anyone’s sibling story, others are born of an unspeakable harm and flagrant abuses that are deeply personal. These scars, abandoned by everyone in my family, originated from the fissures and caverns of a darkness we had all felt in our skin and consumed in panicked breaths. They are by-products of violations perpetrated by twisted, adult psyches left unreported to officials and the community-at-large. Unfettered and emboldened, these adults acted out on one silenced teenager, left to bear it alone, under the timelessness of trauma’s starless skies.

Of the years my siblings and I call our ‘childhoods,’ none of us were lucky. Not one of us. Then again, luck was never the point. Amidst the wreckage of our family, another truth emerges: looking away harms, too. Deeply. From here on, I can no longer assuage my siblings’ guilt when five years of my life are blotted out or willfully erased. My brother doesn’t need to apologize for ‘not killing him,’ a desperately sad hyperbole. He needs to apologize for leaving me alone. Twice. Again. Now.




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Under The Same Sky: Writing and photos. Musings on the gritty and the beautiful that gets us through & more. Original content.