I grew up in a restaurant where scars were the closest thing anyone had to a resume.
The prep cook’s hands looked like knife-sewn stitchwork quilts, and the line cooks all shared the same smooth fingerprints from searing burns. The mark of a novice pizza maker, like myself, was brands across the forearm from inexpert removal of a pie at the back of the 700° oven.
By the end of my less than illustrious tenure, my arms were scored with the bright red lashings. For years afterwards the scars remained distinct and pronounced against my skin. I still shudder when recalling the excruciating sizzle of the oven, but these days only I can see the scars. And only if I look closely. The scars, and their lessons, are now an inextricable part of who I am.
It seems the marks on our hearts are the same.
Eko died three years ago yesterday. In the years since I’ve written about loss as a measure of both time and space. Loss as a painful lesion across a once pristine stretch of heart. Loss as an invasive grief which I could not excise but refused to accept.
But scars are strange things. Their once distinct boundaries slowly blur. Their gnarled texture softens. Their conflagration of color burns out and dulls until neatly blended. These unwelcome sufferings become familiar companions. We begin to forget what the unblemished skin ever looked like.
I’ve now known my scars for half as long as I knew Eko. Sooner than I’d like, the days with my scars will outnumber the days with my puppy. Already, I struggle to recall what I looked like before Eko’s death. The man I picture seems nearly a stranger.
We are remade by the time we spend with our dogs and then unmade by the moment we lose them. I’ve written much about those transformative experiences, but only now do I have the perspective to consider the transformation Eko made possible after he died.
That transformation began when Eko was just a puppy. I was so desperate to love and protect my dog that I treated him with the care of a museum curator. But just a couple weeks after I brought him home Eko picked up his first scar – a notch on his ear from eagerly diving into the maw of a friend’s dog.
I winced every time I saw the hard scab on his soft coat, but Eko didn’t seem to mind. Nor did he care much about any of the scrapes and scars he accumulated over the years. Because Rhodesian Ridgebacks are not antiquities to be preserved. The flawless coat they’re born with is not meant to remain so. Their supple paw pads are not meant to go unworn. These creatures intuitively understand life is a treasure meant to be spent, not hoarded.
To love a Ridgeback means accepting the cost of an unforgettable journey is innumerable scars.
In time I came to understand the lesson — the scars were Eko’s resume. His job? Teaching a boy that love is not safety, it’s vulnerability.
And I have never felt more vulnerable than I did after Eko died. I was lost and broken. I was also, as I learned the morning after Eko’s death, a father-to-be.
I felt no joy for the child we’d dreamed about, only fear at all the ways Emily’s pregnancy might end tragically. My fear tethered the yearnings of my heart so that it could not rise high enough to break from another fall.
It was a miserable time and I was a miserable person. For months I did little more than stare at my wounds numbly. I became a detached stoic, unfeeling at circumstance so that I could not be hurt by it. It was three words from Emily which brought me back.
It was an invocation to be the man my puppy taught me to be. Flawed and scarred, but undaunted. In three words she cut loose the ballast on my heart so that it could rise again.
Three years later and I am transformed by Eko’s memory. The scar has faded, but I remember. I remembered Eko when I offered my love to a new puppy. I remembered Eko when I gave my heart unequivocally to my son. I remember Eko each time I am vulnerable but choose love over fear.
Yesterday morning at sunrise, Emily and I walked to the beach, Lincoln between us, Penny and Zero on either side. The dogs raced down the shore, Lincoln whooped, Emily smiled and my scarred heart was grateful for the dog who transformed me and made the moment possible.
I know I will be cast down and broken again. More reckonings undoubtedly await. These are the costs of a worthy journey. But I will never again hide from this price or be cowed in fear of the day I must pay it.
Because my scars are my resume, and the job my puppy entrusted me with is ever unfinished. Today, and all days, l race ahead with my heart lifted high. Full, vulnerable and free, as Eko insisted it must always be.