The author and her husband, Bob Woodruff. Photo: Catherine White
Always an early riser, I loved lying next to my husband, tracing my finger from his forehead to his chin. While he slept, I would study the topography of his face, memorizing the constellation of freckles there, the lumpy scar from rugby, the indentation where his brother hit him with a chisel. Each of these little defects had a story. And in loving him, I had learned them all.
My husband has a square jaw, deep-set green eyes and dark hair. There’s no question he’s a handsome man, but more than two decades into marriage you stop distinguishing the pure physicality of a person you love. With the passage of time you see the sum of the parts, the whole picture as opposed to the pixels. There they are: the pieces you adore, cohabitating with the traits and behaviors you’d like to change. That’s just real life.
When a bomb in Iraq exploded 25 feet from my journalist husband, the face I loved was blasted with shrapnel and rocks, dirt and pebbles. When I arrived at his bedside at the hospital in Germany, I found him deep in a coma. Sixteen centimeters of skull had been removed in a battlefield hospital to save his life. I averted my eyes from the gaping head wound, the angry skin stapled back together over his battered brain.
The author at her annual Stand Up For Heroes event with two of her favorite veterans, Aaron Mankin and Andrew Kinard, both Marines. Photo: Stefan Radtke
Instead, I focused on his face. On his left side, the features I’d known by heart were bloodied and lacerated, swollen and unrecognizable. But on his right, the outlines of my husband were still intact; his dark brows and lashes, the hollow of his cheek.
With a traumatic brain injury, no one can tell you how it will end, or how much the victim will recover. There are no percentages; each injury is as individual as we are. And although our family had a happy ending and a strong recovery, I can vividly recall how each day of that early period in the ICU contained a fresh set of worries. In the quieter months after the initial shock, I began to think a lot about what constitutes love and how beauty stirs desire. But what, I wondered, sustains it?
I had always taken an unarticulated pride in my husband’s athletic appearance, the way he could walk into a room and unintentionally command it. “You look like you belong together,” people would tell us. And of course that was all just one part of a whole, only a fraction of “us” as a couple.
The author and her husband on their wedding day, in 1988.
But how would attraction and even love change in the wake of disfigurement and potential disability? What if losing what I loved on the outside meant things would change on the inside? Does a relationship mutate when beauty diminishes? Is something else strengthened?
What a shallow line of thinking, I chided myself. We had been married 18 years, were raising four incredible children. Both of us had worked to build a strong foundation, connected at so many critical points. Throughout history, couples have endured cancer, disfiguring burns, chronic pain, disease and accidents and have come out the other side, often stronger than before. Sure, life doesn’t promise anyone a rose garden, but no one ever expects to be handed a leaking bag of feces either. I had loved everything about our life exactly the way it was; I hadn’t wanted any of it to change.
The author’s husband with their daughter. Photo: Catherine White
This is the part where I am supposed to tell you that I love his scars; that they symbolize all that we survived together. But I do not. I miss that old face. These newer crags and divets remind me that the line that separates the before and after in this world is the thickness of a human hair. At some point most all of us will taste that bittersweet fruit of adversity. Life can change in an instant.
I’m supposed to agree here that “things happen for a reason” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” but I cannot. The truth is that awful things regularly befall good people. God routinely overloads us, although I cannot abide the idea that anyone is intentionally singled out. Life is random. It’s merely what happens here on earth. The beauty is that we get to decide how to move forward. You can choose your response: bitter or better? Quite simply, it is a choice.
And while I do not love his scars, I love the man who survived them. I respect the person who told me that there was no way he was undergoing plastic surgery just to make his face look more perfect. He’d had enough of operations and procedures, enough of hospitals. His scars told a part of his story.
The author and her husband on their wedding day, in 1988.
Now, as I trace my fingers across the geological fault lines of my husband’s once shattered jaw, the thin filament of white scar where they performed emergency surgery on an artery, I examine the shiny patch of skin across his brow where no hairs will grow. There were stitches there when I first saw him, running north to south. Was it cut by a rock? A piece of shrapnel? None of that matters now.
I think about how different my own face must look to Bob. It’s been changing imperceptibly since we met, the aging process visible in the time-lapse photos of us from our wedding 26 years ago to now. Love ages and mellows us. It transports us through life together, for better or worse. As a couple, it’s comforting to know that we’ve been built to weather time, to realign ourselves after the sucker punch of trauma or the back slap of disappointment.
The author and her husband, now. Photo: Catherine White
During our own journey to recover, I have been privileged to meet many couples who have served their country, beautiful men and women who came home indelibly marked by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In some cases their relationships were able to expand to absorb those internal and external changes. In many instances they did not. The military spouses that stayed together have learned to look for beauty in different ways than they did before deployment. They have found new definitions, expanded into new frontiers; they carry scars both visible and hidden.
We find out more about ourselves in the periods we are tested than we do during the moments we succeed. It’s easy to navigate life in the places where the road runs straight and even. Sometimes the trick is to find beauty in the hairpin turn or the mountain switchback, to summon the courage to sift through the ashes of our darkest moments. There is a wonderful simplicity when I lie next to my husband now, and examine his face: the beauty exists in the very fact that he is still here, with me.
You can show your support for our wounded service members by coming to a fabulous NY night of music and healing on November 5th - check it out.