Scar Tissue

December 11, 2018 § 17 Comments

Headshot of a white man with short white hair, wire-frame glasses and a light turquoise shirt, against a background of leavesBy Jeffrey Seitzer

In early September, I decided to go to a coffee shop to begin writing the last few pages of a memoir. Walking out the door, I was seized by the uneasy feeling I should stay at home. It was a beautiful day, so I worked on the porch. Dog-walking neighbors waved, birds sang in a tree nearby, and yet I felt even more apprehensive. I retreated to the house and burst into tears. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked one of our cats, who watched me from a safe distance.

Then it hit me. I was working on the ending.

In Unum Magazine, Reema Zaman writes:

As artists, we want to speak from the scar, not the wound, from self-possession as opposed to raw pain. The audience can feel the difference. …When an artist creates or performs from pain and inexperience, you feel their pain and inexperience and nothing else. In contrast — and this is the power and magical potential of great art — when you read or watch an artist perform from a place of self-anchored strength, as the audience, you feel invigorated with newfound clarity, wisdom, and inspiration.

I’d started writing after devastating personal loss and worked steadily for years while wracked with grief. Yet I still hadn’t formed the scar tissue necessary to write about the traumatic event that occasioned the memoir.

Eight years ago, my son Ethan and I were frolicking in the surf of Lake Michigan when we were swept into a maelstrom. The waves crashed over our heads from both directions as the bottom dropped out from beneath our feet. Holding Ethan by his swim-shirt, I swam frantically upward toward the bright summer sun. It was hopeless. My arms and legs gave out. A peaceful feeling overtook me when I looked at Ethan floating lifelessly below me, his arms suspended at his sides and his hair glistening in the rays of light penetrating the water all around us. I knew we were going to die together. A thought popped into my head: I won’t be able to tell his story.

Pulled to shore, my hands and feet blue from oxygen deprivation, I began my new life, my “after” life, without skin, in searing pain every waking moment. Friends, family, neighbors, even strangers did all they could for us. All their kind attention could not close the wound. Taking care of my wife Janet and our daughter Penelope became my sole focus, much as caring for Ethan had been when he was born with multiple internal organ defects ten years before. But now I was never fully present.

I came to accept that my anguished longing for Ethan was a permanent disability, that I would never be fully connected to people or life again. But playing Barbie on the floor with Penelope and her friends one day, fighting back tears, I remembered my last conscious thought underwater. I had to tell his story.

As individual memories coalesced into chapters and the story of our relationship took shape, I began to hear his voice again and his throaty laugh, to feel him pressed up next to me, and to imagine him playing with Penelope and his friends. Writing the memoir put us together in an eternal present. He was very much alive for me while I wrote, and this kept me alive.

But the ending.

I tried various dodges, first a neo-Greek tragedy, then an epilogue, prompting smiles and nodding heads from intimates but frowns and head-scratching among beta readers. One finally told me with admirable candor, “People will want to know what really happened.”

I re-read, realizing I’d channeled my son too much while writing. The draft did not reflect enough of my own dubious character.

A childhood bout with encephalitis left me with extreme nervous energy, wild mood swings, and a flash temper. Managing Ethan’s care prevented me from getting the exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction I needed to stay on an even keel. I paced like a caged animal in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, lonely, bored and ready to explode.

But Ethan’s cheerful demeanor under the worst of circumstances taught me to live in the moment. He had an instinctive ability to draw out the best in people. One evening, waiting outside the gym before basketball practice, I was busy giving the hairy eyeball to a kid who had been terribly mean to him. Ethan turned to him and suggested they practice passing. The kid looked as surprised as I was. It wasn’t that Ethan wanted to be his friend—he just wanted to make that moment together the best it could be. And it was, because Ethan was willing to give that kid an opportunity to be better.

I became a different person under my son’s tutelage: less anxious, more patient, more loving. More like him, but not entirely nor all at once. Clearly some revisions to the memoir were needed.

I added some salt to the original chapters and wrote two more, then pitched the memoir at the Chicago Writer’s Workshop. Momentarily forgetting my inability to bring it to a close, I told several interested agents it would be completed this fall.

Tick, tock.

Writing about that last, terrible day forced me to reexperience it and accept his death. It was debilitating at first. The few words that appear here took over two weeks to complete. But each line I wrote closed the wound a little bit more. After three months, I have formed enough scar tissue to tell his full story.

After all, people will want to know what really happened.


Jeffrey Seitzer is currently a student at the Story Studio in Chicago, where he also teaches at Roosevelt University and lives with his family. Author of a number of scholarly books and essays, his recent work in creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus, The Write Launch, Pulse Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @urbancornhusker.

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§ 17 Responses to Scar Tissue

  • Lindi Roze says:

    Jeffret Seltzer, what beautiful and encouraging story. I too have a story that I’ve been reluctant to tell, quite frankly because I’m afraid of the feelings that would surface. Each day I feel closer to beginning with the ending of my fears. Thank you.

    • It is hard to face the pain, endure it. But I think I fear numbness more. Occasionally, briefly, I feel numb and welcome the tears when they come flooding back. It feels more real. You have lost something dear, after all. And you feel closer to the one you’ve lost. They aren’t completely gone. Numbness, though, that’s true absence. I look forward to reading your story. Thank you for reading and commenting on mine.

  • So wonderfully insightful, Jeffrey. I can’t wait to discover Ethan and your relationship in your memoir. He sounds like he was a unique and brave boy. I actually have plenty of scar tissue on my body, and know the truth of this concept in a non-metaphorical way. You demonstrate ithe wound/scar tissue issue with such a clear voice here. Thank you.

    • Ben Kinney says:

      I agree wholly about the scar tissue metaphor, as somebody who has a lot of it on my body as well. I am glad you are feeling closer to telling the story.

  • I am so sorry … and I am so grateful that you wrote. That you are telling his story, with an in spite of the rawness in must bring up in you, in some who read it, in you again. May you find healing in the voice that this will continue to allow him. And you.
    Thank you for sharing this with us all.

    • jeffseitzer says:

      Thank you for reading my essay and for your understanding. I knew from a young age that life is hard. Ethan’s death helped me understand how hard it is for everyone. It brought me closer to other people. I am grateful for that.

      • We can none of us change what had happened. All we can control is how we respond to it, day in and day out, one second and one breath at a time. I’m sorry for your broken heart. The only blessing I can see in having hearts shatter is that the tenderness indeed can lead to treading gently, accepting kindness, and a softening of edges that one did not know they had till they became shards that one needed to form protective scar tissue around. I’m sorry for the hardship, long ago and not so long ago. Walk tenderly, know you are heard. Na’ama

  • Sandra says:

    What a beautiful, heartbreaking essay. Thank you for telling your story so bravely.

  • My oldest sister also had a childhood bout of encephalitis with similar, though more severe, after effects. I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with even more emotional trauma. Thank you for your essay.

  • Detra Damskov says:

    If this post is any indication, your memoir will be gut-wrenching and beautiful. I’m so sorry for your los, sand I hope with scar tissue forming, you will find a way to be more present to your new life as I’m sure Ethan would want you to. I would love to read your memoir when it comes out and will be googling your name until it does. Much love,

    • Jeff Seitzer says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my post. I appreciate your interest in my memoir. If you like, I could add your email address to my mailing list to let you know when it is moving toward publication. Coincidentally, I just read your blog post on writing about trauma. Misery porn, that is offensive. It is definitely a giant step backward for people merely to internalize their trauma. I am glad you are refusing to carry your burden alone, and I am sure many others are as well. BTW I grew up in Nebraska not far from the UNO campus (52nd and California). It appears to be Nebraskan month on the Brevity Blog, as one of your fellow students just posted something today.

  • Al Keating says:

    Having lost our own dear sweet daughter, I know something of your pain, Jeff. Having had some role in experiencing this great and solemn tragedy with you at the time, I will never forget that day. The memories of every moment remain with me, the details of which I will leave aside. Although we were strangers and the loss you and your lovely wife endured and continue to endure, I count my life’s journey as most fortunate, that despite the darkness of that day and our happenstance meeting, I will nonetheless experience a sincere and forever sense of gratitude that our lives connected. Although we may not see one another as often as those earlier years, I think often of you and Janet and I cannot express enough that the courage you have demonstrated throughout all that happened displays a remarkable spiritual and emotional resilience that I so greatly admire and always will. I look forward to the completed work and know that this will not be just a written reminiscing of life’s passing, but a sincere expression of a wonderful story of life loved, life lost and life loved again. May we meet again sometime soon and I pray that your Christmas is a joyous and precious day.

    • Jeff Seitzer says:

      You are a beautiful soul, Al. We will always be grateful to you not just for risking your life to try to save Ethan and then pulling me to shore, but also for providing us so much comfort afterward. Telling the full story of his tragic death requires sharing your story as well. Thank you for helping me understand what happened that day and for becoming our dear friend. We look forward to seeing you and your family soon.

  • gmabrown says:

    love this image, this technique, if you will, the ability to tell it requiring the scar tissue. This is so true. Thank you for giving me this to carry.

    • jeffseitzer says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my essay. In my experience, time does not heal all wounds. However, you can over time function a little. I am grateful for that.

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