I like to think I was a pretty cute little girl. I had everything going for me: blond hair, blue eyes and loads of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.
But at the age of 6, I tumbled down the stairs with a glass of water in my hand. The damage from the fall permanently altered my face, and the way I approached life for the next 24 years.
It all happened at my aunt's wedding reception, a rather smoke-filled event. My eyes were stinging from it all, so my dad gave me a glass of water and I wandered off with my cousin of the same age.
What followed is now just a few blurry moments: my cousin waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs; beginning to black out from the heat and the smoke two steps from the bottom; the glass breaking between the floor and my face.
I was found by a stranger with my upper lip dangling below my chin. A towel was wrapped around my head and my mother was told I had fallen and received a cut.
My mother, a nurse who's used to the sight of blood, normally keeps her cool. But as she approached and saw the red-soaked towel, she screamed for an ambulance.
I remember lying in her arms as my father sped to a hospital. The ambulance had not come fast enough and they were arguing about which hospital to go to. I could only see out of a portion of the towel that remained wrapped around my face, just catching my dad's panic.
They tell me I'm very lucky. The glass sliced skyward from my upper lip in a backward L shape. Other shards cut dangerously close to my eyes, just below the left and just above the right.
Forty-six black, wiry stitches took over my face. I didn't know what to make of it, what to feel. I knew I had done something physically awful, but I didn't understand what changes it would inflict on me as a person.
Scarface became my nickname. But not the cool, Al Pacino Scarface - actual scarface. After a few weeks the stitches were out, but a deep red slash remained. I tried to joke or make up harrowing stories to tell people at school, and even strangers on the street who asked about it:
"I was rescuing this kitten from a tree and fell off."
"I was in a ninja knife fight."
"Terrorists were breaking into my house and I was the only one home."
Whatever worked. It was usually better than the mundane tale of a klutzy little girl.
In high school, while girls were freaking out about pimples, I felt like I was already at a disadvantage. Sure, I had pimples, but I had pimples too. I didn't have that clean slate to work with; I didn't know where to start.
I wasn't interested in makeup. I didn't want to cover it up for the same reasons I didn't want to talk about it. I just didn't want it.
I couldn't keep up with what other girls saw or felt about themselves. Through the taunts, stares and questions I would get, I felt early on that I couldn't compete.
I know I wasn't horribly mangled, just severely marred. I withdrew from any sort of attention, bad or good. We are all a bit socially awkward in high school, but I was a moody recluse.
Boys were out of the question. When I was teased by a boy who might have been showing he liked me, I was incapable of separating the taunts of Scarface or Frankenstein from, "I think you're cute."
Eventually, I'd attract the kind of guys who thought of the scar as a beauty mark. Boyfriends liked to kiss it - exaggerate its significance - as if it made me. The first time it happened, I thought he was just missing my lips, that he was an awkward kisser. But as he continued past my upper lip toward my cheek, I realized with a sigh of resignation that he was showing he saw what he thought was the "real me." But I didn't want it to be pointed out, highlighted, noticed.
Twenty-four years since I fell, and every once in a while someone I've just met reminds me there is still something peculiar about my face. I'm so used to telling the tale that it comes out in a bored, fast, Coles Notes version. Strangers approach it in one of two ways - rudely or shyly - but always hoping I'll bring it up while they try not to stare.
Each and every day, though, the scar fades. As it does, a once-monstrous thing that consumed me also recedes. I've had to let go of a lot of hang-ups about what beauty means to me. Each woman strives to be her most perfect, to appear beautiful. I've always known how impossible perfection can be.
For a while, it was all people could see of me, and it was all I could see of myself. But I don't blame them. It's up to me. If I can let go of my scar, next go the awkward pimples, then the imperfect nose and the big feet, until finally I can just be myself.
Meghan Baker lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Tara Hardy for The Globe and Mail.
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