by Konnie Hall
I’ll never forget the first time I saw her, a petite teenager with frizzy blond hair sitting opposite me in a circle of a dozen people on metal folding chairs. She was wearing a long sleeved plaid blouse over a vulgar t-shirt, not your ordinary Florida summer attire, and certainly not your ordinary Bible Study attire. It was clear she didn’t belong. About halfway through the discussion, the group grew impatient with this outsider for asking questions, multi-layered questions either no one was willing to take the time to answer or else no one was really able to answer. Tension crept into the room on lion’s feet ready to pounce because—Heaven forbid!—a real live sinner was disrupting the respectable Bible Study. Finally, in a voice duplicitous with frustration and phony kindness, the facilitator said, “Let’s save all further questioning until the end and move on with our study.”
With that pronouncement, exasperation shifted from the group to the girl. She abruptly got up from her chair, shoved it into some nearby chairs so she could break out of the circle, stomped out through the side door, and forcefully shut it behind her.
Her noisy departure heightened the ensuing silence. I thought someone might get up and follow her, but no one made a move. A hollow feeling of relief began to soothe the tense moment away, but I knew it couldn’t—and shouldn’t—end there. As awkward as it was, I too got up, quietly scooted my chair out so I could exit the circle, and walked out the same door.
I found her sitting on the ground leaning against the building. I sat down next to her and quietly watched her pop a cigarette out of a crinkled package. She touched the end of it with the flame from her well worn lighter.
Eventually I said, “I’m sorry you got cut off in there.” I paused to see if she might respond, but she just blew out smoke. I tried again. “I wonder if you would like to share?”
She looked straight at me with genuine surprise and said, “What? You mean you smoke too?”
Chuckling at the slight misunderstanding, I said, “No, I mean would you like to share where all your questions are coming from? You seem to be trying to figure some things out.”
It became clear she was parched for friendship as she warmed to the idea of talking to me quickly. Many a silent tongue has been loosed when loneliness meets up with a listening ear. She talked a lot about screaming, her parents screaming at each other, at her brother, and at her. They screamed about her music, her friends, her loser boyfriend. She talked about her dad “slapping her into shape.” Her story was messy and missing any evidence of love.
I kept quiet. She kept talking.
At last she said, “And now my parents are divorcing, so they shipped me to Florida for the summer hoping my aunt and uncle might be able to ‘do something with me.’” When she mentioned her aunt and uncle, she jerked her thumb toward the room we had exited.
“How are you handling all this?”
She stubbed her cigarette out and sat there staring at the ground, thinking for a moment. Then she slowly unbuttoned her cuffs at each wrist. She rolled up her sleeves to reveal forearms shredded with self inflicted wounds. Some were fresh. I wanted to recoil in horror, but I knew I had to prove myself worthy of her trust, so I reached out and held her striped forearms gently in my hands. Then I looked into her pale blue, pensive eyes which acted as windows into her heart, a heart embedded with glass shards and razor sharp blades, a heart tutored and tortured by pain. This heart was not foreign to me, for it well easily belonged to any abused child, or anyone with broken dreams from a broken home, or any outcast who feels worthless or ashamed. It was the heart of fallen humanity. In truth, it was my own heart.
For she didn’t know it was also my first evening to attend this Bible Study just as it was hers. Earlier in the day, an older man at a used bookstore had extended an invitation, so on a whim prodded by providence, I came. And just like this gal, I was also in Florida temporarily. I needed time and space to sort through some swampy emotions caused by a recent hurtful situation in my own life. Spending a couple weeks at my in-law’s empty beach-front condo seemed the best option.
I finally let go of her arms, and sagged against the building. Her bracing, frank vulnerability collapsed my fragile shell and my long suppressed tears gave way to genuine weeping. I rolled up the sleeves of my own injured heart, and it was my worst moment, but also my best moment, since I’d arrived in Florida.
Not knowing any of this, she kindly patted my arm and said, “It’s okay. These cuts don’t hurt anymore.” I smiled through my tears at her desire to comfort me.
On that sultry summer evening, leaning against that church were two strangers: one, a rebellious sixteen year old with a tough New York swagger, and me, a normally pretty level headed wife and mother who was grappling with the betrayal of a close friend. But our wounds were a bridge. And wounds that result in scars, the common disturbing ripple that we all share and bear, leveled the playing field. We were equals. We not only bared arms and hearts, we bared our souls. The rare moment glimmered with uncommon grace.
After that first encounter, I only saw her two more times. The next Sunday she found me when the church service ended and pressed some folded notebook paper into my hand. “I copied off some of my poems for you. I want you to read them.”
“Wow.” I said. “I feel so honored.” I hugged her and thanked her. Of course her poems, all about the color black and the benefits of death, revealed her mutilated heart as clearly as her cutting had. Even though she was crying out for help, I was not the one to give it as my young friend needed more than I could give. I discreetly discussed this with her aunt and uncle, a kindly older couple, just in case they were oblivious to the signs. My expressed concern for their troubled niece was met with genuine gratitude.
My few days in Florida were up, and I needed to return home. Just like a tongue that fixates on a gap left by a missing tooth, my mind was preoccupied by a future without one of my dearest friends. Nevertheless, nothing, not even a heart worked over by sandpaper, decelerates time. I invited my frizzy haired friend over so we could say our final good-byes. We sat on the sand warmed by the late afternoon sun and listened to the sea gulls crying overhead. Together we watched the rhythmic waves wash the shore clean, providing a new beginning for a new day. We talked about that, about new beginnings.
Then she sighed heavily and said, “But I’ll always have to wear long sleeves.”
“Oh, maybe not. Maybe one day you will see the value of your scars.”
“What good are scars?”
“Well, did you know the Scottish army of long ago refused entry to any new recruit unless they had at least five scars?”
“Maybe the scarred soldiers were seen as battle tested. Road ready. Prepared for anything.”
We sat silently while she took this in. I was thinking about my own situation as well as hers. I said, “Maybe scars can even—if we let them—teach us to love the haters, and maybe even be kind to the criticizers.” I looked straight at her. “Maybe scars can even help us forgive.”
“Maybe.” She said thoughtfully.
As we stood to go, I asked if I could pray for us. She tossed her cigarette to demonstrate she understood smoking was not allowed while praying. I secretly smiled at her self-imposed nod toward reverence. Wrapping my arms around her, I prayed to the Authority on scars and forgiveness. “Lord, would you let our scars be the blood seed of compassion for others, especially those we might see as enemies, even if they’re our friends or our parents.”
I watched her walk to her car and get in, but she didn’t immediately leave. She was doing something, but I couldn’t see what it was. When she finally drove away she waved, and it was then that I saw what she’d done. She had unbuttoned her cuffs at each wrist, and she had rolled up her sleeves.
That was the last time I ever saw her.