It looks like a cowboy boot. The brand — or intentional third-degree burn — on my left shoulder looks like a cowboy boot made of noticeably raised scar tissue. The ridged, pinkish mess of irreparable skin and tissue even has a divot right around the area you’d find a cute design on an actual cowboy boot.
How does one go about branding oneself? More importantly, why would one do it in the first place? Well, I was drunk in Scranton, Pa., when it happened. I know that’s not an excuse. Plenty of people drink without winding up with self-inflicted brands resembling country-western footwear on their bodies.
At the time, allowing my best friend to heat a metal coat hanger on a kitchen stove until it was glowing red, and then use said hanger to brand me as if I were cattle, somehow seemed like an acceptable decision. Of course, I was so far gone that I didn’t feel a thing. I do remember the smell of the burning flesh, though — that and a female spectator’s scream the moment the hanger hit my skin and made a sickening pop, like bacon on a hot skillet.
I can (and will) joke about how stupid this was until the day I die because laughing at my mistakes, even ones of this magnitude, makes them a little bit easier to stomach. But the truth is, I was lucky. Every night for a month after the branding, I bled through the white T-shirts in which I slept. I went through at least a half dozen packs of white tees waiting for the scar tissue to set.
More than a decade after the branding, I married a nurse who just so happened to work on a burn unit. She told me the brand should've gotten infected, which could've easily led to sepsis and, under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, even death. It's one of the many times things could've gone much, much worse for me. Instead, I walked away from the coat-hanger incident with nothing but a scar and story — exactly the way I preferred to walk away from things.
Then my 3-year-old daughter, Emma, noticed the brand.
“Oh no, Daddy. You have a bad boo-boo,” she said to me and proceeded to go to work trying to make it better with all the medical equipment she has lying around from the five pretend doctor sets she owns.
For weeks, Emma obsessed over the state of my brand. “Okay, let me see your boo-boo now, Daddy,” Emma would say to me anywhere from five to 37 times a day during this period. She also kept a close watch on the progress of her work. “Oh, it’s getting much better, Daddy,” she’d say as she used a handful of diaper wipes to clean the burn boot before applying yet another “Frozen” Band-Aid.
That's the power of toddlers' optimism. They can look at the same unchangeable object day after day and somehow see progress. Me, if I don't get results within an hour, I'm ready to write almost anything off as a colossal failure.
During the most difficult moments of my new life as a dad, my children's tiny little faces are like mirrors. Their infinitely innocent and trusting expressions seem to reflect my greatest fears and insecurities about fatherhood right back at me. Am I really cut out for this? What if the depression and anxiety I barely manage to keep at bay on a daily basis finally becomes too much? Will I end up failing these kids when they need me most? The self-doubting questions feel endless when I look at the tiny humans who are depending on me.
For some reason, though, my daughter’s reaction to that self-inflicted atrocity on my shoulder has the opposite effect. It’s probably because, like my daughter, I can see progress of sorts when I look down at my arm. While the physical scar will never disappear, the confusion, anger, recklessness and, most of all, stupidity of the guy who allowed it happen has certainly faded with time. I mainly have my kids to thank for that.
I may never be able to completely shake the fear that I'm not up for the task of raising two children in such a terrifying and unforgiving world, but I'll never stop trying. I'll never stop trying to make myself a better person for my kids.
Sometimes toddlers say amazingly insightful things by accident. I feel like it’s related to the whole “Infinite Monkey Theorem” — you know, the theory that says a monkey hitting keys on a typewriter at random for an infinite amount of time could eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Toddlers are a lot like those monkeys. Every so often, a random assortment of nonsense phrases makes them sound like the Dalai Lama revealing some deep truth about the nature of the universe.
One night, my daughter was doing her regular wound care routine on my brand when she stopped, looked at me and said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you, Daddy. This never would have happened if I was there.”
Truer words may never have been spoken, little lady.
Jared Bilski is a Pennsylvania-based writer and comedian. Follow him on Twitter @JaredBilski.
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