Living with scars

A personal essay

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Anya Schultz/Senior Staff

Memorial Glade. It’s Friday afternoon, and the sun is shining. Your paper is turned in and you probably have something else to do but won’t think about it until Sunday. You lie down on the beautiful, well-groomed lawn, closing your eyes for a moment. The soft grass reminds you of Cal alumni who served in World War II.

Most likely, it won’t. Like the Glade, my scars have mostly faded.

There is a bench right next to the Campanile that is a memorial to World War I. I’ve heard the idea was that people would sit on this bench and look out onto the Bay as they reflected on the war. Since it was built, a tree was planted, obstructing the view of the Bay, a seemingly small challenge to the memory of a horrific world-wide tragedy.

This past summer, I worked at Camp Tawonga, a summer camp right outside of Yosemite. I worked in the kitchen as a prep cook.

Tawonga is all about tradition. The campers come year after year to sing songs from the same songbook. We were the kitchen staff, the infamous “k-staff” perching on our break tables next to the maintenance crew with our backwards baseball caps. We served mac-n-cheese through the kitchen window into the dining hall where we looked out at walls covered with plaques commemorating bunks from the past forty years. Tawonga is covered with scars.

I had been working at camp for only three weeks when I heard a loud, thunderous crack. Out of nowhere, or probably because of the incredibly dry climate that year, a 300-year-old oak tree came tumbling down from the sky. The massive tree that provided shade to the campfire stage for the past hundred years, the tree that shaded me as I ate my oatmeal that morning, the tree that would have crushed hundreds of campers if it had fallen minutes later, was falling down on me. My impulses threw me to the right but I moved too late.

People were screaming. Everyone was screaming. Sirens were ringing, and I felt blood gushing from my face. I looked down at my bloody dress. Someone radioed someone, and I was in the Sonora hospital taking the most painful shower of my life. I looked down and saw remnants of the branch that hit me covering the shower floor. I didn’t know that the tree had taken Annais’s life. I thought I broke my arm. People I had yet to talk to at camp were suddenly my family.

Together we drove back to camp, the butterflies in my stomach flapping harder and harder as we got closer. I joked that I looked like a corpse bride because my lacey white dress was covered in blood. I joked because that was all I knew how to do. We pulled over on the driveway into camp and put a sunflower on the windshield. We would not forget each other and we would not forget Annais.

Fallen down trees are how we cross rivers. Nature is covered with scars.

My friend Rebs told me that night when I was so, so scared, that this would just be something that happened in my life. I didn’t want to go to sleep because I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and face the past. This wasn’t a scar I wanted to have.

There are not many people in the world who can see a wall with no windows but find a way around it. Not many fathers can lie in bed all day and, when their daughters come home from school, genuinely want to show them something funny recorded on television. Not many people can be in that situation and not complain, not once.

My father has made it clear to me that no matter what life puts in front of him, he will face the challenge with resilience. At the age of 21, right in the middle of college, he suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed for life. At the time when most individuals take their first step toward an independent life, my father was left with a deep and toxic scar.

While some would have surrendered at this point, resigned themselves to victimhood, my father refused to give up, and after months in the hospital and years of physical therapy, he was able to finish his education, get a job, and learn how to live life all over again.

Over the years, failed experimental surgeries have caused my father to continually lose motor function, making actions like lifting a fork difficult. These physical setbacks are difficult for him, but are no match to his mental resilience. It takes an incredible person with incredible self-awareness to find a path around the wall that is stopping him from becoming what he desires.

My father is an example of pushing memories to their limits. He taught me to love science and to continually expand my mind and to learn. He taught me the importance of humor. Through his compassion and understanding, he taught me to remember that everyone is dealt a path and everyone deserves a chance to tell their story. When I see his scars, I see the person he has become and the choices he has made. He challenges his scars.

The tree left abrasions all over my body. I look at these scars on my legs, on my arms, on my face all the time.

These scars are going to fade. They have. But my memories don’t have to, and I’m okay with that. I want to look down and remember the power of nature and how we tend to get so lost in midterms and problems that we forget we live on a planet. I want to remember Annais and how true her connection with nature was. How she would sit and listen and how much she loved hummingbirds and Anna’s rat Lili. And how, after she died, a part of every Tawongan left with her. Her death is a tragedy and a reminder of how important it is to love and respect the world around us and not take any day for granted.

I want to look at my scars and remember the kitchen staff and how badly I wanted to get back to work after the accident because I loved my job, and I loved running down to the river during a break in my shift and feeling the crisp water on my body. I want to remember how it was always worth it to dunk in, even if it felt freezing. I want to remember how important it is to feel comfortable and connected with your body, because only then can we truly allow ourselves to embrace our role in this magical ecosystem. I want to remember those carefree days before the tree fell and how I felt infinite and limitless in a world with no cell phone service where everyone just wanted to dance in the dining hall and sing Country Roads at the top of their lungs. I want to remember the days and weeks after the tree fell when I would cry every day, but I would also smile every day because I was surrounded by love.

When I look at my dad, I see him. His chair is there and he lives every day with the memory of his scars, but because of the choices he has made, his scars take on a new meaning of resilience and determination.

I served as a memory of the tragedy for some people at camp this summer. I had scars on my face, and when some of them saw me, they thought of the tree. The remains of the tree were cleaned up immediately after it fell, but the stump remained all summer. Sometimes I would look out of the kitchen window at the scar and let my mind wander.

I still look up with a moment of panic when I hear branches rustle or trees cracking. Near the end of the summer, I went on a backpacking trip. I gave myself back to nature and let it remind me that the smallness of my body is no measure to the greatness of my mind. We spent hours swimming in lakes and nestling in grass. At one point it started to drizzle, and we heard loud thunder, eerily close by. I looked up with concern, and Will took one large step forward, threw his hands in the air, and yelled “Epic thunder!”  We all started to laugh, and I knew it was okay.

Annais’s memorial service was at the Alumni House on UC Berkeley’s campus this summer. It was only a few days after the tree fell when the staff loaded a bus to drive to Berkeley for the service. I felt strange merging my two worlds. I still had big scars on my face and dreaded running into anyone I knew. I also, guiltily, didn’t want to tamper my precious Berkeley campus with the deep grief I was experiencing.

Sometimes I walk by the Alumni House and think back to the service. The building is scarred in a way only few would know. New experiences give meaning to new places, leaving trails of tears and sunflowers on the side of the road.

Scars are permanent reminders of what we have been through—the grief and devastation and the courage and strength. While some scars fade, the memories remain. Whether it is the structure of our historic campus or a 300-year-old tree stump, these scars become part of us. Each memory gives us depth and perspective, which is why this conglomeration of buildings and fountains and lawns makes our historic university so rich with feeling and character.

Maybe I can take what I learned from Annais and my father to be more courageous and endearing, to value my body and my planet and to know I am just a figment of what my mind believes to be true. Our environment creates what we see and what we experience, but who we are is self-determined. We may be physically marked by our journeys, but we are defined by our mentalities and our self-awareness to use our worlds as a springboard for self-expression and creativity and thought.

I would like to feel nothing but excitement for the future, to allow my unknowns to enchant rather than frighten me. I would like to believe that my future holds nothing but radiant sunshine-filled mornings on top of mountains. But I know that I can’t control the weather. Sometimes the absurd wins and angels turn into ambulances. The best I can do is garner strength from my memories, from the people and the trees that brought me to where I am today.

 

Anya Schultz is an editor of The Weekender. Contact her [email protected]

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