The Beauty of a Scar

Upon meeting Scar, most people reasonably assumed that he was named after the accident. The opposite timing seemed too horridly prophetic to be the truth. I tried to comprehend the likelihood that someone would name a healthy young puppy after the mark of injury only for injury to become his fate.

It was the first time I’d ever seen a gaping wound that had been left untreated, regarded with an equally shocking level of indifference by those around him. Pink, pulsing muscle tissue bulged from the socket where Scar’s eye had once been. Some days, the wound oozed enough to make us wonder if he was diseased or contagious.

We were afraid of him – afraid to touch him or even to let our eyes settle on him for too long. Looking only at his right side, it was easy to imagine how handsome he’d once been. But as soon as he turned his head, the sight was arresting. He always wore a tongue-hanging grin, despite his obvious pain, which initially struck me as an unsettling combination.

Scar before the accident.

Scar used to be the leader of the pack, John explained, the alpha from whom students knew to stay away. He bullied the younger school dogs, stealing their food and harassing the females. It was this menacing, tough-guy reputation that earned him his name.

On one of our first nights in Lom Kao, Scar followed us as we walked to eat dinner at Ben’s. He trotted alongside me, matching my stride, and touched my hand with his nose. I reacted with a melodramatic shriek, quickly jerking my hand away.

“If you ignore him, he’ll stop following us. He only wants food,” John offered encouragingly. I wasn’t so sure. When I looked back, I saw his good eye searching for a reason to explain my outburst.

The royal princess travelled to Lom Kao one fall semester before Jenn and I arrived. Her visit to the school was a strict affair; a daunting list of preconditions were to be met prior to her arrival, including one clear prohibition: no dogs.

To remove all dogs from the property was no simple task. Most of the school dogs were not owned by anyone and they behaved accordingly. The school’s unsurprisingly poor solution was to round up all the untamed dogs and cage them for the duration of the princess’s visit. A tranquiliser would be administered to keep the dogs calm.

There was an accident, John said, lacking the details that would’ve slipped out of a translated retelling. Maybe Scar was inconsolable at the idea of being locked up, or maybe he lashed out when he was approached with a tranquilizer. Somehow, the drug was not injected as planned; it was accidentally injected into Scar’s left eye. It became increasingly infected until the eye – quite literally – exploded out of the socket.

Watching people react to Scar was an agonising first-hand account of a story resembling Frankenstein. Students, teachers and locals seemed to fit neatly into groups with respect to Scar: those repulsed by him, those indifferent to him, and those who cared for him. The former made up an overwhelming majority.

Scar followed us to dinner every day. He paced in front of Ben’s restaurant while we ate, hoping we’d save leftover scraps. We watched the students turn away from him as the corners of their mouths turned down. An agitated, hollering Ben chased him away from her restaurant day after day.

More and more, we began to witness Scar’s personality. His goofy grin grew on me. He remained a rambunctious fool – running out into traffic to madly chase motorbikes, starting fights with dogs who challenged his rank – but he also lent glimpses to a more gentle, loyal side. It didn’t take long for me to join the minority group of Scar caretakers.

On hot school days, he’d alternate between camping on the steps outside our office, where Pee Som and I would leave water and food, and the entrance gate to the school, where he’d sit happily for hours with the school guard, Uncle Prayun.

I came to the office one morning to find a fresh, new Scar. His eyelid had been sewn shut, the gory wound hidden behind a rough set of stitches. I could hardly believe the sight, nor the relief I felt at the ability to gaze at his face without wincing. I imagined the drastic change from Scar’s perspective – to go from seeing countless disgusted faces, starved for physical touch, to a sudden and widespread sort of genial acceptance.

That first day was a celebration. Scar was showered in kisses, and we danced around campus inquiring animately about the generous hero. We learned in whispers that it was the shy Uncle Prayun who had taken Scar to the vet.

On an autumn evening, I went to the office kitchen to cook eggs for Mama Dog, a homeless blonde female who sought shelter at the school once pregnant. She hadn’t been eating much since she gave birth, preoccupied with keeping her litter safe from aggressive wild dogs, and was barely nourished enough to continue nursing.

I knew that if Scar followed me, there was no chance Mama Dog would be able to have the meal to herself. I snuck quietly out of the office and kept my torch turned off as I tip-toed to Mama’s hideout, but there was no tricking Scar. I heard the patter of his paws approaching behind me and flicked my light on, whipping around to shine the light in his eye. My yelling and stomping were futile; Scar knew I was only trying to scare him. Even in his weak state, I couldn’t outrun him, and he’d followed the scent anyway. I’d have to be more convincing if I hoped to send him away.

I shouted aggressively, forcefully, using a tone of voice with which I’d never spoken to Scar before, so severe that I nearly startled myself. He reacted in the way I least expected. He didn’t stand his ground, turn away, or run. The powerful, pack-leading Scar bowed down and whimpered. My heart wilted; I dropped to his level. Still whimpering, he inched close to me and rested his head heavily in my hand. He looked up at me as if to say, I’m only hungry.

I paused and noticed that Scar and I happened to be crouching just below the school’s sacred spirit house. I respectfully brought my palms together in prayer. Then I kissed Scar on the head, left half the eggs at his paws, and ran to Mama’s hideout before he could follow.

Pee Som’s commitment to care for the school’s homeless animals was a true rarity. In a low-income farming village where human welfare is often of high concern, animal welfare is seldom deemed the priority. The other foreign teachers and I were among the only caretakers in the school, along with the school guard and a few kind janitors. Pee Som became the leader we counted on to organise our efforts for the animals’ needs – arranging meals, vet visits and medications. She referred to us, her helpers, as her angels.

Even amidst a community of people set in their ways, leading by example made impactful waves. Some of the younger teachers in our office began to quietly assist – avoiding the watchful eyes of the older, more traditional teachers in order to refill water bowls and hide our four-legged fugitives from the heat. Students observed Jamie and me caring for and loving Khao Noi, Mama Dog, and even Scar, and they too began to regard him with budding compassion.

Jamie loved Scar so much that she considered at length the possibility of bringing Scar home to the US. We were both wholeheartedly optimistic for a short while, but Scar’s health was nowhere near the levels required by immigration, and it continued to decline.

Sealed but not treated, Scar’s eye infection festered. Puss seeped from his shut tear duct, making us wonder if the wound had actually been better adjusted to the open air. Over the course of the next year, Scar suffered countless injuries and illnesses. His energy level and appetite became irregular; he lost weight until he seemed like little more than a spine with ribs. Through it all, he remained strong, bearing a striking contradiction between his physical appearance and his spirit’s resilience.

Thai people use the phrase “su su” to encourage others to keep fighting, to be strong. Pee Som and I endlessly believed in Scar’s ability to fight. Our attention was continuously stolen from Scar to care for other homeless dogs and cats, yet he always kept fighting. His power to overcome inspired us so that we nearly took his fight for granted.

When Pee Som delivered hard-to-hear news about any of the animals we looked after together, she’d approach us with a somber acceptance, like she’d anticipated this long ago and had already quietly come to terms. News about Scar, however, never quite fit the mold.

Pee Som often told of his injuries and infections as if they were minor in the face of tough-guy Scar. But when he was run over by a car twice in a row, she was not composed in her typical way. She was angry. She shook her head while talking like she refused to believe he’d been hurt this badly, not as a result of his own mischief or complications of his previous injuries, but by the fault of a fellow teacher.

It was not uncommon to see the other teachers turn up their noses and look the other way when an animal needed help, but to be the negligent cause of injury and still walk away undisturbed was too much to accept. Instead of getting out of the car to check what they’d run over, they backed up and ran over it a second time. I never found out whether or not the teacher realized that it was Scar they’d hit – nor did I ever discover which teacher committed the act – though to maintain my faith, I always chose to believe in their ignorance, because they drove away without a care soon after the second collision. Uncle Prayun rushed over as soon as he heard Scar’s howls.

I carried Scar into the Lom Kao vet. It was the first time I’d experienced Scar being too weak to walk. I had worn dress shoes with complicated straps that day. We weren’t planning to rush Scar to the vet, or I would’ve worn slip-on shoes. No shoes indoors in Thailand, even if you’re hoisting a very large, urgently sick dog into a clinic. We must have been a funny sight – all three dressed formally for the classroom, cradling a heavy, helpless Scar into my chest while Jamie struggled with my shoe strap buckles. Pee Som was not far behind, politely but desperately asking the vet to see us.

The vet took us in, but there wasn’t much she could do with the scope of her resources. In addition to his broken leg, Scar had an infected, open wound that had begun to kill skin tissue as it spread. She cleaned up what she could and re-bandaged him for our trip to the Lom Sak vet hospital.

In Lom Sak, the hospital was full of cats and dogs awaiting or receiving treatment in steel cages. When we entered, the atmosphere was loud and tense. This hospital was an open-air garage space. Noisy fans circulated the hot air while the vet spoke loudly with other dog owners. One of the caged dogs was whining incessantly. It had gotten itself tangled in its leash and had its neck hunched at an unhealthy angle. It cried for someone to help relieve the position, but the vet didn’t seem to have enough hands to help. Why was leashing a caged dog even necessary? The dog’s cries became more hysterical until the wholly-distressed environment made Pee Som and I feel nearly as hysterical.

The vet asked me to leave Scar in one of the cold crates. We retrieved some towels from the car and helped him settle. Pee Som squeezed her petite upper body through the crate door and wrapped Scar in one of the towels, giving him a hug. It took several minutes for her to let go. We all left the hospital with tears in our eyes, unsure whether or not he would survive. It was not the first time I had seen Pee Som cry, but it was undoubtedly the first time I had seen her so distraught, so unassured. Jamie and I rode quietly in the backseat, dazed and struggling to understand Pee Som’s translation of the vet’s report.

The only time the silence broke was when we passed by the 7-11. Jamie asked Pee Som to pull over. “Are you hungry?” Pee Som asked us with a confused look. Jamie explained the concept of comfort food in all its glory to a bewildered Pee Som. What relief we felt as we laughed, realizing that the true source of comfort was our togetherness.

Miraculously, it didn’t take long for Scar to limp around campus with his injured leg hoisted up high, left to dangle lifelessly. Scar had long ago proved his impressive ability to come back from life-threatening conditions, yet it still surprised me how quickly he adjusted to his three-legged hobble. For a little while, he was once again stubbornly attached to his independence, fighting to live the life he’d formerly lived, patrolling school grounds and hunting for his meals.

This time, however, his retreat to the office happened sooner than later. Still battling previous injuries and infections, his ability to fight was further weakened by his broken leg. As we approached the peak of summer, Scar spent the majority of his days resting in the shade of the benches lining the office entranceway. Pee Som, Jamie and I brought water and food to his shady hideout in between classes, monitoring his medication and still-healing wounds. With the hazy heat, it became more rare that Scar left his post, only venturing out to visit Uncle Prayun.

Scar’s condition continued to decline. We reached a point when teachers in our office began to express a strong opinion – they were repulsed by Scar’s wounds and lingering gangrene, and disgusted that he was now living so close to our workplace. They urged Pee Som to have Scar euthanized. The suggestion greatly offended Pee Som. It was not an option we were willing to entertain.

Day after day, we cradled his head, pleading with him to swallow his medication and eat even the smallest bits of food. The idea of giving up on this soul, who had begun to lock eyes with us as we cared for him, was inconceivable. Scar had softened as a result of his pain, as a result of becoming dependent on us as his caretakers. It was as if each injury slowly chipped away at his tough coat of armour, allowing us to gradually glimpse his vulnerable, trusting heart.

Scar spent several weeks back at the Lom Sak vet’s office receiving IV treatments until he could once again handle solid foods. His intensive care was not cheap – Jamie and I had begun to chip in a significant portion of our salaries each week – and we were incredibly relieved that the treatments were working. Although the vet assured us that Scar would need to continue bi-weekly treatments, we were giddy with excitement on the day we could finally bring him home.

Jamie couldn’t find a teacher to cover her class that afternoon, so Pee Noi reluctantly agreed to help Pee Som and I pick up Scar. He looked more alive and well-nourished than I’d seen him in months: his ribs were no longer visible, his hair was growing back over the closed wounds on his legs, even his eye appeared relatively normal. His entire appearance had changed for the better, topped off by his signature smile.

Pee Noi joined Pee Som in the front seat and I monitored Scar in the back. He was so excited to see Pee Som that I spent most of the trip trying to prevent him from climbing onto her lap as she drove. Pee Noi, who might not consider herself as much of an animal lover as we would, kept her space as much as possible within the tiny cab.

As we cruised along the busy highway, Scar suddenly began to pace anxiously across the backseat. Any effort of mine to console him was futile – he had lost total interest in myself and Pee Som. It was not until he began circling in place that I realized what he needed.

“Pee Som! Stop the car!” I’ll never forget Pee Noi’s face – or shrieks – when she turned around and saw Scar squatting. Scar had apparently enjoyed a very full meal a couple of hours prior to our drive home… How considerate of the vet to warn us!

Of all the hilarious, uncomfortable, shake-my-head moments I experienced in Thailand, very few compare to this one – standing on the side of a highway in Lom Kao, cleaning a pile of dog shit out of my boss’s backseat while a traumatized Pee Noi tried to hold onto a very confused, very excitable dog without a leash.

As so many of my Thai experiences taught me, there are few things more valuable than a sense of humour. But Scar, the gruesome tough guy of whom I used to be afraid, brought me so much more than laughter: he brought me genuine connection. Traveling spontaneously has shown me that most of the time, what I think I’m doing – taking care of a dog – turns into something else entirely, and in this case gifted me with relationships I continue to cherish.

Just as the vulnerable, helpless moments changed Scar, having someone to care for, to root for, and to look forward to every day changed us, too. Despite our obvious and sometimes overwhelming differences in culture, perspective, and language, Pee Som and I found a sense of meaningful understanding in our shared values as we watched over Scar. Our experiences taking care of animals together led us to form an unbreakable bond that we might not have otherwise found.

Eventually, when Jamie and I were scheduled to depart Lom Kao for the final time, Scar’s health was stable. He still spent the vast majority of his time being nursed by Pee Som and Uncle Prayun, but his independence seemed to be slowly returning. His goofy hang-tongue grin remained, and he treated Jamie and I to a sweet goodbye kiss.

I was in Canberra, Australia, eight months after my Lom Kao departure when I heard from Pee Som. He was at peace now, she said, finally resting. She and Uncle Prayun had decorated Scar’s grave with yellow Allamanda flowers, just like I’d helped to do for Khao Noi two years prior.

I reacted differently to Scar’s death than I had to the passings of all the other animals we’d cared for together. Relief wasn’t quite the right word, but I found comfort in knowing that he was no longer in pain. Despite the mixed emotions, one thing was certain: an astounding sense of gratitude for all that Scar’s life brought to my own. I have Scar to thank for the reminder that change is always possible, especially when you su su (keep fighting). But above all, Scar helped Pee Som and Jamie to become like family to me, and for that reason alone, I will forever be glad that I decided to look beyond his scar.

2 thoughts on “The Beauty of a Scar

  1. Hi Sam, Beautifully written. What a fascinating story of compassion and love. I hope all is well your way. We just finished up a 3-day weekend. We spent time with friends, watched movies, baked and went for walks. Thank you so much for sharing your talents and insights with others. Lots of love, Aunt Carol


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