Scars as Stories

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
— Cormac McCarthy

My friend Michael refers to it as his “front zipper.”

I wear one, too. We have the same scar.

I was examining it this morning in the mirror after I took a shower. It is a neat and tidy pearlescent seam, with accents of pink, the colors befitting a beaming new bride. Under my chest hair, it is almost imperceptible. A fault line in a forest.

I don’t honor it everyday. On some mornings, I pay closer attention to the rogue hairs that seem to have sprouted from my ears overnight, or the newly-arrived fold in my left eyelid that lends a melancholy quality to my visage even if I’m not sad.

This morning, I ran my finger gently down the axis of the scar, right below my clavicle down to my diaphragm. It was numb for a long time, as if it were a dead part of me.

The feeling has come back.

That scar holds a thousand stories. That time I collapsed in the restroom in Des Moines, and then again on a dance floor in Houston. Googling “bicuspid aortic valve disease” and “aortic stenosis” to find out more about why my own heart had betrayed me. The dream I had during surgery that still makes me cry. Stephanie, who lied and said she was my cousin so that I wouldn’t be alone in recovery. Fernando, whose kind brown eyes I woke up to when I was still intubated. Shaul, who stayed with me overnight and slept on two chairs pushed together. The friends who came to visit and endured my rhapsodies about the virtues of Dilaudid. My family and other loved ones who generously came in shifts to care for me at home. The times when I was short-tempered and argumentative, because I didn’t feel well and my heart had not yet healed. The morning I woke up in my bed, alone, after eight weeks of being cared for, and imagined how I would put my life back together, piece by piece.

My boyfriend at the time, Mr. X, had a lot of scars. A few months before my surgery, we woke up in the morning after our first night together. Quite romantically, we explored each other’s bodies amidst the linens and traced the maps of our respective corporeal histories with our curious and appreciative hands and fingers.

I have a scar on my back.

“What’s this from?” he asked, circling the tip of his finger around the divot.

“It was a little tumor. Not cancerous,” I replied. “It was outpatient, in 1994. I think I even went back to work that day. I asked the doctor to show it to me when he took it out. It looked like one of those little balls of fresh mozzarella, but covered in blood.”

“Um…you just ruined fresh mozzarella for me.”

I’m very good at pillow talk.

I regaled Mr. X with stories about the scar on my right hand from the reins that bit into my hands, at age 7, when the horse I was riding was spooked. I was never an accomplished horseman, but it makes for a good tale. There was the scar on my left bicep, a souvenir from the time I climbed back into my sister’s fiancé’s boat after waterskiing and tore a gash in my arm on a protruding bolt on the boat. While the fiancé and the boat eventually went a different way, I kept the scar.

When we got to Mr. X’s butt, I was astonished. His left buttock was a gerrymandered mess of jagged maroon zigzags and purplish raised marks that still bore the signature of sutures.

“Oh, my God! What happened here?” I gasped. “I’ve heard of Scarface, but ScarAss?”

“Thanks for making me feel attractive.”

I’m very good at pillow talk.

Mr. X explained that he had hosted a dinner party. After the guests left, he undressed and went to bed. After lying in bed for a while, he ruminated about the dishes and glasses that remained on the table.

“I don’t have to do the dishes tonight, but maybe I can just clear the table, put some things in the dishwasher, and deal with the rest of it in the morning,” he thought.

In the nude, he ventured out to the dining room where he began to clear the dishes. In an attempt to be efficient, he had an almost-empty bottle of wine in one grasp and three half-full glasses of wine in another. Before he reached the kitchen counter, he lost his grip on the three wine glasses. As he tried to juggle the wayward wine glasses, he lost the wine bottle, too.

The kitchen floor was strewn with shards of green and clear glass, amidst puddles of red wine. He tried to step gingerly around the wreckage…and he slipped on the wine-slick floor, lacerating his ass on the many pieces of broken glass.

“Don’t do dishes in the nude, huh?” I offered.

Mr. X was and is a part of the story on my chest. He was there for me when I needed him, especially after my heart surgery. I loved him. He was often kind, as well as tall and handsome. I felt lucky that someone like him loved me back. He had scars, like me. Over time, I found that he had scars of another sort. Psychic scars. The kind you can’t readily see until they make themselves known through the occasional veiled insult, the stretches of moodiness, the unpredictability of affection, and the eruption of unforgivable remarks that are rooted in injury and come out as hatred.

I tried to understand. Ultimately, I decided not to see him again, scars and all. My Mr. X, as tall and handsome and sometimes kind as he was, was broken and wounded. Wounds have needs — and continue to bleed. I felt ill-equipped to care for him, so I left. Sometimes, I regret it. I wonder why brokenness felt so scary and offensive. I know what it’s like to be wounded and to react in anger and helplessness.

“Scared” and “scarred” look alike. Scared is still hurt and feels the acuteness of the cut or burn, as if it is still fresh. Scarred remembers injury but holds the possibility of closure — and a beginning.

Social media is a fangirl of kintsugi, the traditional Japanese art of using precious metals, like liquid gold, silver or lacquer dusted with powdered gold, to heal the remnants of broken pottery and elevate the artistry through its imperfections. In kintsugi, the veins of gold and silver make the brokenness more beautiful. The healing becomes art.

It’s an attractive thought: no matter our dissolution and fracture, our reconstruction will be adorned in gold and silver. Even facelifts look savage and brutal before they reveal newborn beauty — or the tautly-held perception of it.

I imagine a scene similar to my own, with Mr. X, where two lovers are in bed together. They are caressing each other and exploring each other’s bodies. In the midst of the romantic adventure, one might notice a scar at the back of the ear or the hairline of the other.

“What’s this scar from?”

“It’s from a time when I thought I wasn’t pretty.”

Despite that scar, and its clever obfuscation, I wonder if it’s just a wound that has not healed.

When I see scars, I immediately wonder about the stories behind them. If we were to unveil our physical scars, en masse, I wonder what stories we would tell. About brutality and historical violence. About random violence. About intentional violence. About accidents. About survival. Of transformation. They are often hard stories to hear.

Our scars tell us something important and meaningful about the world in which we live, and where we have been. They are stories upon our skin and our bodies. A scar is tangible evidence that one has been, at one time, injured and in danger.

As for emotional and psychological scars, our witnessing of them might be more difficult. Like facelifts, they may be concealed behind ears, hairlines, consciousness, and access. We may be living with people who have deep and painful emotional scars. Their losses might be unimaginable — and forgotten.

Whether physical or emotional, the stories that scars contain often provide the key to the healing. It is not just the storytelling, but also the storylistening. To be seen. To be heard. To be noticed. To know that another acknowledges that I have been hurt and felt pain.

Holding that is difficult to do. Sometimes, I’ve failed.

When did you last bear witness to the story of a scar?

I love my scars as much as I adore my tattoos. My scars are tattoos that I didn’t design or ask for. They happened. Even if they are not filled with gold or silver, they are reminders of the promise I can be put back together. They are a simultaneous offer of wholeness and imperfection. Whether or not we are healed is an open conversation.

Please show me your scars. I want to see them, if only to know more about where you have been.

Rumi wrote:

“The Wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Maybe Scars are the places where we exude our Light — and Wisdom, Experience, Stories, and Being — into the world.

Anthony Weeks, open heart surgery survivor