Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. (The Skin Horse speaking to the Velveteen Rabbit, in The Velveteen Rabbit, By Margery Williams, 1922)
Two weeks ago, one of my dearest and long-time friends called, as he put it, to vent. C. has had two melanomas removed from his upper body in recent years, but another, more dangerous looking, had appeared on his neck. The melanoma was removed this past week and he’s now waiting for the results of a sentinel node biopsy. We talked two days ago, but avoided the undercurrent of worry that inevitably accompanies the waiting for test results. Instead, he focused on the scar left by the surgery.
“I have a long, S-shaped scar,” he said, “and it runs from the back of my ear all the way down my neck.” I commiserated. No one likes accumulating scars, especially large ones. But I tried to lighten the mood a little—humor is something we’ve always enjoyed with one another—and joked that he still hadn’t caught up yet with the number of bodily scars I’ve managed to accumulate over the years. No doubt my rough and tumble childhood in a small Northern California town contributed to more than a few of the scars still visible on my body; others, however, were the result of surgeries, even lifesaving, as I hope for his.
As I write this, my hand moves almost unconsciously to the scar behind my hairline. It’s decades old now, but still visible if I pull my hair back from my face. It’s long and pale, running from one ear over the top of my head and down to the other, the evidence of a gifted neurosurgeon’s work. It tells a story of an accident, weeks of recovery, and complications that nearly resulted in my death. Near my right ankle, another scar calls up the memory of the cold, metal edge of a tent stake slicing into my leg as I chased my younger brother across a campsite when he snatched my teenage diary from my tent and tried to make a fast getaway. There are other scars more recently obtained: one from the surgeon’s knife under my left breast, another near my collarbone where a defibrillator was inserted after an episode of heart failure, and smaller ones from scrapes and falls doing household tasks. There are other scars too, but these are ones that cannot be seen, the residue of wounding by love, loss and betrayal, the stories we all share from living.
A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife…
We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends…
(“The Time Around Scars,” by Michael Ondaatje)
We all have scars, whether visible to others or carried deep within. “The lessons of life,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.” Our scars, the scar tissue we accumulate, tell the stories of living, of events that changed us: life-saving surgery, the traces of shrapnel marring a face, disfigurement from accidents, broken hearts, and unexpected tragedies. They are stories of our lives, the ones we remember and those we may try to forget.
My mother parts her hair
and leans over
so I can touch the scar.
“No, she says, you don’t remember,”
and goes back to making the bed,
snapping a sheet
as folds of lightning spark…
The ambulance came right away,
my mother says, pulling the corners tight.
“There was no other woman…”
(“Scar,” by Wendy Mnookin, in The Cortland Review, 2001)
David Jennings, a reporter for the New York Times who blogged regularly about his battle with prostate cancer from 2008 – 2011, offered a perspective on scars in the July 21, 2009 issue.
Our scars tell stories. Sometimes they’re stark tales of life-threatening catastrophes, but more often they’re just footnotes to the ordinary but bloody detours that befall us on the roadways of life…my scars remind me of the startling journeys that my body has taken — often enough to the hospital or the emergency room.
There’s that mighty scar on my right knee from when I was 12 years old and had a benign tumor cut out. Then there are the scars on my abdomen from when my colon (devoured by ulcerative colitis) was removed in 1984, and from my radical open prostatectomy last summer to take out my cancerous prostate…
But for all the potential tales of woe that they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, to make scar tissue, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing.
Scars, perhaps, were the primal tattoos, marks of distinction that showed you had been tried and had survived the test… in this vain culture our vanity sometimes needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be a scarred and living dog than to be a dead lion.
Our scars. The evidence of life and survival. In the pictorial essay, Winged Victory, photographer Al Myers, together with Maria Marrocchino, celebrated women who survived breast cancer. Shown half-clothed, their scars visible, Myers portrayed them as victors, scarred but beautiful. Stanford psychiatrist Dr. David Spiegel, writing in the foreword, said “…they present their bodies and themselves with humor, sadness, vulnerability, honesty. They challenge us to look beyond what is missing, beneath the scar.” (Winged Victory: Altered Images: Transcending Breast Cancer, 2009)
i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself hard near my heart
you have your own story
you know about the fears the tears
the scar of disbelief …
(“1994,” by Lucille Clifton, in The Terrible Stories, 1996)
“To look beyond …beneath the scar.” Jennings’ essay expresses the same sentiments captured by photographer Myers. It’s not that I’m proud of my scars — they are what they are, born of accident and necessity — but I’m not embarrassed by them, either. More than anything, I relish the stories they tell. Then again, I’ve always believed in the power of stories, and I certainly believe in the power of scars.
The power of stories…the power of scars… My hope is that my friend C. will smile a little in years to come when a grandchild touches the scar on his neck and asks, “What’s that from, Papa?” Perhaps he will tell her the story of a time when physicians, medicine and perhaps a little help from some greater force, all combined to allow him to live many long years.
“Every scar tells a story,” author Thomas Moore once said. This week, think about your scars. What memories surface? Write the story of a scar.