I did not see the wreck. I only heard it— steel and skin on asphalt followed by a terror-stricken shriek. When I turned and hurried back up the path I found my daughter, my eight year old child, standing over her pink and white bicycle spitting mouthfuls of blood on the ground.
It started as a Sunday morning ride, what was supposed to be an easy 4 mile jaunt down the local greenway. It ended with my t-shirt mopping up blood and tears on a panicked drive to the hospital. She couldn't even say what had happened. Like every accident “it happened so fast.” And it did. There wasn't a scratch on her hands and barely a scrape on her knees. Her face bore the full impact of the wreck.
In the emergency room I tried to calm her (and myself) promising that this would only require a few stitches. “We’ll be in and out of here,” I’d said. I had 11 stitches on my chin once, the result of some daredevil dumbassery on a bike when I was her age. I showed her the spot on my face where my beard would not grow— a pale and crooked line, this hairless scratch in a field of graying stubble. Hardly life altering. This was no big deal, I promised. Besides, she and I would have matching scars. “You won’t even miss the first day of school,” I told her, “I promise.” But a daddy’s promises are not a doctor’s diagnosis. And when they gave my wife and I the results of her scans it was not good. They called it a displaced mandibular fracture, which was the clinical way of telling us she had broken her jaw in three places. She would need titanium plates screwed to the bone to realign the break. Even more unsettling, her jaw would be wired shut for a month. “Fuck,” I mouthed silently to the nurse. The thought of having my mouth locked gave me the shivers. It’s something I tried to mimic by clenching my teeth together. I didn’t last 4 minutes. She would be wired shut for 4 weeks.
While the doctors worked to repair her I paced the floor, a heartsick and guilt-ridden wreck. Time stalled. The hands of the clock seemed fixed to its face. So we waited. It was sometime after 8pm when we were called to the post-op room. Your heart breaks to see a child— any child— in a hospital bed. It is not their place. As she came out of the fog of anesthesia she looked directly at me. I recognized the look. It was the same one she gave me the very minute she was born— disoriented and adrift, lost and seeking something familiar, somewhere firm for her eyes to anchor.
We left the hospital the following afternoon with bone wax and well wishes from the nurses. We left with narcotics and wire cutters. She’s required to carry the tool in case the unthinkable happens and opening her mouth becomes a matter of life or death. It is a hell of a thing to ask of a child— longanimity and nerve. The truth, however, is that we are all weaker than we will admit to others, but stronger than we tell ourselves.
Someday, years from now, there will be a boy. There will be the pretense of school work, but some lessons are not found in books. He will study her face with his eyes, and he will trace her jawline with his fingers. Maybe he will ask about that faint scar, the pale and crooked line. Maybe she’ll tell him a story of the time she lived on milkshakes and Cream of Wheat. Or maybe she'll concoct some brazen lie and give him a wink; see if he’ll bite. Either way she is marked. And if he is any kind of man at all he will understand that it’s a thing to be cherished. Because perfection is a ruse. True beauty needs a blemish, and a life needs scars.