How They Heal

Fatherhood focuses my soul’s gaze on what matters. The role reframes my love, my work, my faith, and my writing. And though I labor to integrate these manifolds of my life, my child helps me let go when things fail to knot together into anything resembling the tapestry of my dreams. After all, there are only so many ties that bind. Some ties, like his tie to me, also suture wounds that had yet to heal. The healing hurts. The healing helps the words quicken even as the ideas behind the words congeal into something you can touch and touches you. In the seconds it took to inspire this poem, in the hour it took to write it, little did I know that these words would be a salve for the successive blows that life would deal me in the closing months of last year. And they are a salve for me still as I heal.

At 3 years old, my son
has become quite taken with scars
and has developed this habit of inspecting my hands,
pausing from our morning walk, or nighty-night book
to turn them over and over, finding a fresh cut to say,
This a scrape. It’s going to heal!

repeating back something I must have said to him
more as an exercise in flapping my trap
than purposefully inculcating my child with a truth
that would take up residence inside him
and emerge like a fragrance from a flower.
This a scrape! It’s going to heal.

If I don’t pick at it, I add, the truth
embodied by scars on my skin
and in my heart that would have healed wholly
had I not habitually peeled back scab
after scab as if to excavate
the origins of pain itself,

as if such an unearthing could restore a loss
when I sustained the true loss in layers
ripped away and away
by my restive, claw-fingered ruminations.
As my son turns over one of my big, clumsy hands—
dummy-bruised and overused, I’m tempted

to brood on how useless they’ve been,
how cheaply I’ve sold their labor
and how quickly entropy has vaporized their works
when my son runs his feather-light fingers
over my corded forearms and whispers
Don’t pick at it. It’s going to heal.

Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of two collections of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (2021). Over 45 of his short stories, essays, reviews, poems, and author interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in literary magazines, online and in print; these include The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Carrier Pigeon, Litro, Existere, Spoon River Review, and others. He has taught writing to students from around the world, in classrooms, juvenile detention halls, mental health treatment centers, and homeless youth drop-ins throughout the Greater Seattle area. He lives with his wife and son in Seattle. Follow him on Instagram (@samcmichael) and LinkedIn (@shaunmcmichael).