I remember lying in my hospital bed at the physical rehabilitation facility, far too many years ago, staring at a picture of a little girl. Someone had brought it in for me, though I didn't remember who or why. In the picture she was wearing shorts, and leaning to feed bread to the ducks gathered around her. I stared at the little girl's legs and cried. She was beautiful.
"I broke you," I whispered to her. "I'm so sorry I broke you. I never meant to. Please, forgive me." And she did, of course. But I'm not sure if that made it better or worse.
There was a poet staying in the room next to me. He was a brain trauma patient, unlike me. For some reason they'd moved me out of the spinal cord injury section of the hospital and into brain trauma. I never actually met the man, and yet some days I can't stop thinking about him. My mother brought me a book of his poems, a little pamphlet made of thick, sturdy paper. She said she thought I would like them. And I did. They were so hopeful, so full of joy and life and wonder. The man had to be in his fifties, from what my mother could tell, and he spoke in all of his poems of the love he had not yet found, but knew he would and had great plans for, all mapped out in the beautiful, lyrical words.
"He's a great writer, but mostly he just sits with his head on his desk and cries."
To this day I can remember her saying those words, and to this day I cannot think of them without coming to tears. It was my first introduction – the first of many – to the utterly tragic unfairness of the world.
I still have the book, buried away in boxes of memories, and whenever I run across it, all the pain comes flooding back. Because I know I'm the lucky one – I was damaged only physically, not mentally; I was young, and I had found my love. This should have made me feel better, but it didn't.
If I was the lucky one, living through all that I had, what did that mean for him?
Did he ever find his love? Did he ever write again? Did he ever recapture the joy and hope so prevalent in his poetry, or is he still crying? Is he still alive?
Even at the time, I felt the bitter unfairness fall over me like a physical weight. Everything I had been blocking out, refusing to feel about my own injury – I felt it all for him. Why would such a thing happen? Why did someone so good, so joyous, so talented have to endure so much pain?
Because it is beautiful.
Beautiful in the way that wilted flowers are beautiful, and faded photographs and ancient ruins. They are more beautiful for being damaged, for being incomplete. And so am I.
I suppose it's a defense mechanism humanity has developed, to see the beauty of tragedy and pain. The same way dark humor is a defense mechanism, and I'm certainly no stranger to that either. I thrive on irony – I'd likely go mad without it.
The innocence of a child is a beautiful thing, and so is the loss of that innocence. Oh yes, I was a child. At seventeen, you both are and are not a child, and are both strongly. My innocence shattered, not on the day I learned I may never walk again, but on the day I realized no one with the power to help me cared enough to try. The people put in charge didn't see a seventeen-year-old girl whose world had just crumbled around her; they saw only a number. Or perhaps they did see me and simply didn't care. Their hearts were not stirred by the intense pain of a child, whose pain they had the means to alleviate. Nor were they moved by the determination of a child who only wanted to get better, through whatever means necessary.
They did not care about the child before them, confused and gripped constantly with fear. And so they took her innocence.
It was an odd realization – certainly I'd grown up with knowledge of the cruelty of the world. I knew that children starved and died from diseases that could be cured for the price of a soda. I knew that nurses who worked their entire lives helping people died of cancer when their insurance refused to pay for their treatments. But it was different, to see it first hand. I knew there was cruelty in the world, but I still believed that, given the chance, most people would do the right thing, would do what they could to help.
I was wrong.
Such situations are deeply ironic, and yet they are beautiful. Are they really so different?
The weakness of my body is not beautiful, the pills I must take, the mechanisms I must use every day to even stay alive are not – but the pain of it, the suffering – those make me beautiful. I am a beautiful tragedy and I'm yours to behold.
There is nothing beautiful about the struggle I put up, the throbbing ache in my legs as I trudge through the woods I once danced in and laughed. Nothing beautiful about the air that cannot find its way properly to my lungs, nothing beautiful about the black bruises that will form upon my skin when, inevitably, my strength will falter and I fall. But the pain in my heart, the fitful longing behind my eyes, for something I can never have again – therein lies the beauty.
There is no beauty in the scars that litter my body – only in the pain that they cause me, the anger at my marred existence. I am only the idea of beauty. But then, isn't everyone?
There was no beauty in the fumbling, intrusive presence of the wheelchair in my old classroom. It was ugly, and I was ugly because of it, I believed. But the horror, the overwhelming need to escape the place I could not belong, was heartbreakingly beautiful. As was the sorrow when my friends slowly discarded my presence, unable to cope – how even my cats fled from me, afraid of the strange noises and the mass of the chair; how gradually I began to withdraw, wanting nothing but the night, where there were fewer people around to stare. The way my parents looked at me, constantly on the verge of tears, and trying not to show it.
The anger and frustration every day over tedious, yet vital things, holds no poetic beauty – yet somehow I take those feelings and morph them into words that are beautiful. And in doing so, I make myself beautiful. Still tragic, yes. I will always be tragic. If nothing happens to me from this day forward but good I will never escape my beautiful tragedy.
I think back to the day, shortly after I was released from the hospital, when my father took me to the beach in a wheelchair. It was the same beach we'd been going to my entire life, every Thanksgiving, with his side of the family. I thought it would be nice, to get to see it, the place I loved so much. But I couldn't get any farther than the parking lot. My father pushed the wheelchair through the sand, and I wanted to tell him to stop, that it was pointless, that he would hurt himself. But I couldn't. He was so determined I couldn't bear to say it. It was the saddest thing I'd ever seen in my life. And had it been in a film, it would have been one of those Oscar-winning tragically beautiful scenes. But I cannot bring myself to see it as beautiful. There are some things too painful even for tragic beauty.