Friday, April 27, 2012

Some Scars Are Permanent

The tree needed to come out. The big silk oak had outgrown its allocated space, its branches all but hid the telephone and electric lines running into our house, and its 60 foot-high crown swayed precariously during winter storms. Yet even above that, the tree bloomed profusely, shedding its spiky orange flowers all over our patio--a situation that irritated Jim, who just happened to be the one who had to do the cleaning up.

"I'll take it down myself," said my forty year-old husband. "I'll cut the branches off, leaving stubs to stand on as I go higher, then I'll borrow a chainsaw and cut the trunk down in three-foot sections. It'll be simple. I can have the whole thing done in a couple of days."

But I had this intense foreboding. I suggested calling a professional tree feller, but Jim assured me he could do it, and I decided maybe he was right. After all, hadn't this man completely rebuilt our Volkswagen engine three times?

We were both wrong. Oh, sure, the branches were easy enough to dismember--even with a hand saw. Then came to day when the chainsaw was borrowed and the long, orange electric cord that would give it life was plugged into an outside socket. Jim set a ladder against the tree trunk and used it and the branch stubs to carefully make his way up the tree. Near the top, he tied the chainsaw off with a long cord, then strapped on a homemade safety belt outfitted with a quick release catch.

With his brother on the ground as a helper, Jim began his cuts. The first two went as planned and the severed chunks thudded solidly into the preferred area. But the third cut went wrong. The saw bound up in the kerf, and without thinking, Jim took his left hand off the front handle and reached over the saw to push against the wood, hoping to relieve the pressure so he could finish the cut.

With the pressure suddenly released, the saw teeth spring to life, continuing the job they were designed to do. They cut. Only this time it wasn't the tree trunk they worked on. It was Jim's left arm. And they did their job with shark-like proficiency.

It took the paramedics less than five minutes to get to our house. By then, Jim's brother had wrapped the heavily bleeding wounds in ice and clean towels, keeping close watch on the blood loss and applying his belt as a temporary tourniquet. I was no help at all; after calling the paramedics, I succumbed to hysterical crying.

That Jim had been able to climb down the tree unaided seemed a miracle, as did the fact that he never went into shock. Even more miraculous, said the two physicians who did the 2 1/2 hour reconstruction surgery, was that though there had been multiple tendons and muscles cut to within a hairsbreadth of a major nerve and tendon, no irreparable damage had been done.

For six weeks Jim wore a cast that started at his fingertips and ended just below the elbow. Friends and relatives who came by to visit found him in good humor. In time the chewed-up muscles healed, a nicked tendon encircling the wrist knitted together, and with exercises that were often painful, he finally regained complete use of his hand and arm, with no strength loss apparent.

The scars didn't photograph well, but were highly
visible in person.
Within a year of the accident, the only visible evidence of that infamous day was a maze of ridged, purple scars just above Jim's left wrist and two long, indented purple slash marks on the back of his forearm. Considering that the hand surgeon called in to operate was considered to be one of the best in town, the doctor's both explained that there would be considerable scarring due to the fact that none of the cuts had been clean, but chewed. Jim carried those prominent scars with him until the day he graduated to heaven. We both considered them to be reminders of God's goodness and protection, and while they were unsightly, neither of us ever considered plastic surgery to remove them.

There are times in our lives when circumstances scar us to the point that although we heal on the inside, the reminder of that wound remains forever visible to ourselves and those around us. When those who didn't know how Jim had gotten the scars asked about them, it gave Jim a chance to tell the story--not only of his own foolishness in attempting a job he was ill prepared to do, but the story of how God in His mercy had spared him the loss of his arm.

In time, Jim saw those scars as a vehicle for witnessing to the Lord's care and compassion. I never saw him even falter in telling the tale to anyone who asked. Eventually, we both came to see that what the devil had meant for evil, God had used for good. Not many came to ask Jim about his relationship with the Lord. But they did ask about the scars. It was an opening to sharing Christ that Jim may not have had any other way.

Author's comments:

I hired a professional to finish taking the silk oak tree down, though Jim and I decided to leave the stump as a monument to how the Lord had saved Jim from either losing an arm or his life. We both knew that the events on what we came to call "the chainsaw day" could have turned out so much worse than they had. 

I often see a bumper sticker around town that says, "Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting some kind of battle." My heart knows that to be true. Sometimes the trial shows on our face or in our stance or in our walk and is obvious to anyone with an eye to see. Sometimes the trial shows itself in our actions or words. Those who know me well say they can see in my face when I'm having a bad day or week or month. Those closest to me instantly realize when I've been blindsided by the grief of loss. They immediately understand that I'm missing Jim to the point of once again shedding tears and wanting to be left alone so I can sort things out in the Lord's presence.

I have no purple ridged scars across my heart or face or chest. Yet they are there. No one can physically see them, but within me I know the healing isn't finished, for the wound still hurts, causing me pain at unexpected times and unexpected places. Sometimes I think about Jim's chewed arm and marvel at how quickly it healed and I question God as to how long it will take my heart to heal from the wound of losing Jim. I often question the Lord as to how long I will be in this fragile state and if I'm still of this earth, what plan does He have for me? He always answers with the same words: First, you must finish grieving, and then we'll talk."

I often feel as though I am in physical therapy, as Jim was with his hand and arm. Get up, stretch, take a short walk, feel the sun on my face, admire the flowers blooming in my yard, watch the hummingbirds flit from one flower to another. Each day feels much the same; each day is different. Some days are happy and content; others are filled with sobs of sorrow for the mate no longer with me and the absolute knowledge that only half of me remains tied to this world. 

I think about how Jim, ever determined, went back to work a week after the injury. He figured out how to tie his shoes with one hand, using the other foot for a helper. He tied his tie, always a double Windsor, and I watched in amazement as he did so by using only one hand and his chin. I marveled at his ingenuity and wished I were half as clever. Had it been me, I'd have stayed in my pajamas and lolled around the house till I was well. But that was never Jim's style. Sitting still drove him crazy. He was always up and about, always finding something to do to keep himself busy. I think about that now and tell myself it's time for me to change my sedentary widow ways and be more like he was--how I used to be before my world changed forever. I've grieved for two years. And while I know within myself that it's not finished, I agree that it is time for me to begin moving again. It's a small change; yet for me it is a monumental endeavor. 

One small step at a time. Next week I'll be planting my herb garden. All that's left of it are those plants that would fend for themselves. The rosemary bush is getting big; the sage has come back from nothing, sprouting anew from buried roots. Time now to plant the basil, the tarragon, the thyme, chives and parsley. I know it's a little thing. But little is all I can handle right now. At least it will get me out of Jim's big maroon recliner and into fresh air where I can feel the sun on my face, listen to the birdsong coming from the canyon across the street, watch the hawks that live there wheeling the currents, inspect the new rash of baby lizards that love to scramble up and down my fence.

It's not a big thing for most. But right now, it seems to be all I can handle. It's my self-imposed version of physical therapy. I suspect the scars of loss will always be with me. I think they are permanent. Yet unlike the scars Jim wore, mine are invisible. To everyone but the Lord and me. He and I alone know where they reside. Even so, I know God will continue to walk with me, one step at a time as I continue to heal. I trust His promise in Hebrews 13:5, and I especially like it in the Amplified Bible, where it says, " satisfied with your present circumstances and with what you have; for He (God) Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up not leave you without support. I will not. I will not. I will not in any degree leave you helpless, nor forsake nor let you down, relax My hold on you. Assuredly not!"

A big promise from my Big God. The One I have trusted since childhood and Who has never once let me down. It soothes my being, knowing the history we have together and that is what I count on to get me through this dark valley and into the light once again. Thank you, Jesus, for reminding me it's time for baby steps. I can do baby steps--even while bearing the scars of loss.

"We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed--" 2 Corinthians 4:8,9


  1. As soon as you mentioned a chainsaw I knew this story would end badly. I've seen some crazy accidents with those things! I'm sorry for your scars.

  2. HI!

    I have read your story today! I would like to share my own experience with you and your readers.