Fourteen years ago, an older driver confused the gas pedal for the brake and mowed down dozens of people at a farmers’ market in Santa Monica, Calif. I was among the injured. A scarred and fractured woman limping her way into a lonely future, I thought no man would ever want to be with me.
I was already hurt from a seven-year relationship with a man who regularly berated me. He would say things like: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you cut an onion the right way? Why are your hips so wide when you work out every day?” I was 36 when I finally ended that relationship, three months before the accident. I was eager to move on with my life, free of someone else’s judgment.
But I still had to contend with the judge in my head. That, I knew, would take a Herculean effort. I had always been hard on myself, striving for perfection in all areas of my life: During high school and college, I studied long hours to achieve honors; as an adult, I took my Irish fiddle wherever I traveled so I wouldn’t miss a day of practice. I restricted my diet and exercised to extremes with the goal of being thinner than thin. It was the age of Tab and mini-skirts — and I equated being thin with being attractive, capable and worthy.
All my hard work to be “perfect” shattered the moment the car rammed into me, and my body slammed against the pavement, the impact jarring my brain, rupturing my spleen, fracturing my pelvis and too many other bones to count.
I woke from surgery with 24 staples holding my belly together. Bruises spread across my body. Jagged-edged gashes penetrated my left hand, thigh and calf. My right foot looked like raw steak. I was a wreck. And I was in a wheelchair for four months. Unable to exercise like I was used to, I worried that I’d get fat. Then the nightmares, the panic attacks, the irrational fears of dying from this or that — all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Facing months of physical therapy, followed by years of treatment for PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, I was now marked on the outside and inside.
I felt ugly and inadequate, still hurt by the words my “what’s wrong with you” ex would hurl at me. The day I broke up with him, he said: “It’ll be hard for you to find someone.”
Well, I found John.
We met briefly before the accident. A friend invited me to hear her perform with him in their Irish band at a local pub. During my recovery, John emailed me, wishing me a speedy recovery and asking if there was anything he could do. I was surprised to hear from him. It had been three months since we met, and we barely knew each other. I hardly remembered what he looked like.
But in my vulnerable state, John’s caring emails made me feel wanted, whole, intact. So I responded “yes” to his email two months later, when he asked if I wanted to have dinner with him. When he picked me up, I immediately recognized him: the wavy salt-and-pepper hair, the stubble beard and mustache.
Still limping from my injuries, I used ski poles to keep me balanced. When John opened the car door for me, I tossed them into the back seat. If they were out of his sight, I thought, maybe he’d forget that I was broken. But as I stepped out of the car at the restaurant, he said, “Don’t forget the poles” and handed them to me. He walked beside me the short distance to the entrance, his hand near my elbow, ready to catch me if I were to fall.
At dinner, he confirmed his interest in me: “Are you in any pain? Are you playing your fiddle? Do you like to sing? I’d love to hear you sing sometime.” He was trying his best, as we all do on first dates, but I sensed he was sincere. I knew it when he noticed the miniature hurricane-shaped scar on my hand, and his hazel eyes misted as he said, “Is that from your accident?” then touched it, his finger like the brush of a feather.
When I checked my email after our date, he had written: “As pretty as the winter is, it felt like summer tonight. My intuition says that you’ll make the world sweeter. I hope I catch some of it.”
He had me. All of me.
I said yes again when John asked if I was available the following week, and the week after that. A 46-year-old in search of a partner after a divorce years earlier, it didn’t matter that he was 10 years older than I was. What mattered was that he understood that I needed someone who was willing to listen to me, to try to understand me — a bit of a flawed woman with an obsessive drive to be perfect. He has continued to listen to me, to always be on my side, after vowing to do so on our wedding day eight months later.
He didn’t judge me, but listened as I told him how I hated my boss after she threatened to fire me for failing to fulfill my job description. She couldn’t understand that I was still dealing with PTSD more than a year after the accident. John took me in his arms each time I woke him during the night, thinking I was dying from a heart attack when I was really having a panic attack. He rubbed my back, and he cried with me when a doctor told us he was surprised I could work at all, with my brain-fog and difficulty concentrating and multitasking. The result of a brain injury.
As we approach our 13th wedding anniversary, John still listens to me. Though he sometimes struggles to make sense of my drive for perfection, he still wraps his arms around me when I’m hard on myself for forgetting how to play a fiddle tune, or for needing to slow down when we’re out for a walk because my hips and back burn. After I get out of the shower, when John glimpses me running my fingers along the now flattened scar splitting me in half down my belly, he says: “You’re looking good.”
I smile, knowing what he really means: “I accept you as is, including the scars, inside and out.” As I press a finger deeper into the center of my belly, feel the supple shifting of the scar with my breath and whisper to myself: “Yes, you are a part of me. You belong here.” I celebrate my scars now — there’s beauty in their imperfections.