I’ve spent the past few days tidying up my house, putting toys away, restoring breakable items to their rightful place, restoring my home to the quiet and order that was completely undone in the month-long visit from my daughters and three grandchildren, who range in age from 18 months to three and a half years. I keep discovering traces of their presence here that I missed, fingerprints on windows and tables, toy parts hidden under the sofa, and more: new scratches in the hardwood floor, a drawer pull in the kitchen sheared off when my grandson, used it as a step stool. I repaired the minor wounds I found on the cabinets and doors, removed the spots from the sofa and rugs, remembering, as I did, each little accident. These small household scars are the reminder of the events that will become the stories, part of the family lore laughed about and shared with my grandchildren as they mature.
Whether hidden or visible, our scars tell stories. I have one long scar behind my hairline that runs from one ear to the other, the evidence of a gifted neurosurgeon’s work. I touch it, remembering the bicycle accident, long weeks of recovery, and later, complications that resulted in a near brush with death. Near my right ankle, another scar, pale now, calls up the memory of the cold, sharp edge of a metal tent stake. I was chasing my younger brother who had snatched my diary and was making a fast getaway across our campsite. There are others scars, ones obtained in adulthood: one left by the surgeon’s knife on my left breast, the incision above my heart where my defibrillator now lies, and then the emotional ones, scars you cannot see—love, betrayal, and loss.
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 on our skin or carried within us. “The lessons of life,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.” Our scars tell the stories of life, events that changed us in some way: life-saving surgery, the traces shrapnel marring a face, disfigurement from accidents, broken hearts, and unexpected tragedies. They are stories we remember and sometimes, they hold the stories we 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)
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 his pictorial essay, Winged Victory, photographer Al Myers 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.”
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)
“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.
This week, think about your scars. Look beneath them. Tell their stories.