This past weekend I went to my 20 year reunion. It was the first reunion I’ve attended. In most cases, I haven’t seen these people for … well, 20 years. I, like most everyone I suppose, wanted to make a good impression. I wanted to be on the “improved” list and not on the “yikes what happened to her?” list. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would wear, how I would fix my hair (as if I could), whether I was tan enough or thin enough or if my body was tight enough. I spent a lot of time wanting to highlight the good parts of my body and camouflage the … um, the not so good parts. Nothing like a reunion to bring out the insecure high-schooler in all of us.
It took a grand total of 3 minutes after arriving for me to forget all of that and go back to just being me and hating all that superficial crap I so easily get caught up in. Why is it so easy?
I am not my hair. Good hair day, bad hair day, no hair day … I am not the dead protein that hangs straight and oily without life or falls flat in the middle of the day or curls up like unruly Christmas ribbon zipped through the open scissors. I am not my hair.
I am not my nails – my nails that turned black or showed the signs of chemo in zebra like stripes on the beds of my fingers or lifted without pain one day from my big toes only to be replaced with bumpy topographical toenails – toenails a blind pedicurist would dream about. Toenails so thick and strange I’m wearing closed toed slippers. I am not these toenails – or the ones before them.
I am not my breasts – small, round and happy it took me years to learn to love them. Years of crying and begging and stuffing and years of buying push-ups and water bras and gel bras. Until one day I was convinced. They are good breasts. They don’t sag. In fact, they can’t sag. They are exactly the breasts I’m meant to have. I cherish them. And ache for any woman who has to give hers up to cancer or disease or age. But as much as I love them, I am not my breasts.
I am not my insides – my lungs and liver and spleen. They function as good as any other set of lungs, liver and spleen. Once a few years ago an enlarged spleen sent me for a round or two of tests. It was big. It got smaller. All was said to be okay. Was it early signs of my cancer diagnosis? Maybe. Did I spend quite a bit of time thinking about my spleen? Yes, certainly. Just as for 6 months during chemo I thought about my lungs with every burning breath. But I am not my lungs, or liver, or spleen or any other of the squishy masses residing in that dark space above my hips and below my necklace.
My ovaries and my uterus and the space between my legs are important are physiological indicators of my sex. But they don’t make me a woman. I picture them much larger than they really are. In my mind my uterus is about the size of a watermelon and my ovaries are twin baseballs. Once during an ultrasound of this area I asked, Is that life-sized? and the technician laughed. That’s when I realized we were looking at a 24 inch screen. I hope I get to keep my ovaries and my uterus and all the other obvious womanly things … but I am not these spaces, these areas.
I like my brain. It thinks funny thoughts. It keeps me company in the dark of night when the dogs and The Hub have created a rhythm of breath beside me. I like the images it supplies me during tedious meetings and the witty comebacks it flips into my mouth at just the right moment. I like the way it works the sudoku puzzle and is often challenged by the USA today crossword. I like my brain. Even now when it struggles to remember names it should know. Even now when the effects of chemo still linger on the edges and cause me to screw up my face and dig for the right phrase or word. Even now, I like my brain. But I am not my brain.
My face, my eyes, my hands and feet. My gait – the way I lope along. The big feet that get caught up under tables at restaurants, the wide-swinging arms that wave frantically when talking, the knees, the ankles, the too pointy elbows – I am not these things. They are not me.
All of these things I got without trying. They were the price of entry. They were the unwrapped presents handed to me when I slid wet and naked and (unsurprisingly) screaming into this world. Like those over the top gift bags given to celebrities at award shows – I did nothing to deserve such finery.
I am not defined by these possessions. For the most part I have the same equipment you do – give or take a few choice items. It’s a pretty standard package. These things do not make me special or unique.
But my scars … my scars are mine.
I was sliced open when I was 14 months old. An inch above my pubic bone lies a railroad track that has depots on both hip bones. It seems large now, on my adult frame, I cannot imagine the sight of it when I was pink and nearly new. When I was just beginning to string words together. When I was still in diapers. Diapers that had to be changed to expose a mess of tissue sewn together, red and raw, trying to heal in a most difficult place. I love that scar. It reminds me of the stories. The stories I heard all growing up about how sick I was and how devastated my mother was and how difficult it was for my father and how my sister at 4 nearly made herself sick with worry over me. I love that scar because it sealed me into my family. It is my proof that I was fought for, longed for, cared for and loved.
Just above my collarbone lies a 3 inch long whitish pink line. It is only a year old. It has healed so nicely – you wouldn’t notice it unless I pointed it out to you. And then you’d ask and I’d tell you it was a biopsy – a biopsy that was positive for cancer. And if you didn’t already know the story your face would fall. And you might gasp and you’d want to hear the story. I will, of course, tell it to you. You will forget the scar because you think the scar isn’t the story. But it is. It’s that scar that reminds me that no one knows my body better than I do. I fought for that scar. I made myself a nuisance for that scar because I knew. I knew something was wrong. That scar could be twice as long and half as concealed and I would still love it because that is so me. Push. Make them hear you. Don’t quiet down. Don’t take no for an answer. Push. I’m alive because of that scar. That’s a good scar.
When I was 14 I carried water in buckets from the house to the barn when the water pump froze. When I would open and close the fence, the water would slosh. It was winter. It was cold. It took all of 10 minutes for that water to freeze into a solid patch of ice. About the third trip I slipped and fell onto a ragged pipe jutting out of the ground. I probably should have gotten stitches, but I didn’t. And that’s okay because the scar that is left is interesting. It’s on my right leg and is a strange slick patch of skin about the size and shape of a quarter. When I tell the story of the scar I explain the water and the ice and the jagged pipe, what I don’t say is I fell because I was trying to run. Why was I trying to run? No reason. Just because running is better than walking. And even though walking is safer, running is more fun. That scar reminds me that at my very core, I run. Given the choice, I don’t choose safe. That’s me.
If you look very closely at the tender underside of my left arm you might see the remnants of scars long faded. I never knew it had a name, not until I was an adult. But long ago, when I hurt so deeply and thought I would explode from the pain I took a single blade from a razor and made thin cuts into my skin. I took good care of those cuts afterwards, always cleaning them and taping them up if needed. Those scars remind me of that girl – that girl I was. They remind me that people hurt and need to be heard. They remind me to look a little closer at the quiet ones, listen a little longer to the angry ones and love a little deeper with everyone.
I have crazy scars on my left knee. After the skiing accident the surgery went fine but a month later a staph infection nearly took my leg. The infection caused my scars to widen and fatten up. They aren’t thin and lovely and that’s okay. Every time I look at them I’m reminded I’m not invincible. That risky things sometimes hurt. That I’m somewhat fragile and despite my every attempt to appear otherwise to most people, I’m delicate. There are times I need to be treated gently and there are times I need to do what I’m told.
My port scar is prominent. You can see it from across a good sized room. It is still quite red and much too bumpy. That skin was cut open twice – once to insert the valve that would deliver the poison and once to take it out. As much as I hated that port, I don’t mind the scar it left. Because it means I survived. I didn’t have to have it. It was my choice and I took it. It was like being hazed into some sick sorority. It is my brand, my burn mark, my purple heart. I see that scar every day in the mirror and I stare it down. I always win.
I have other little scars … a fall here, a peanut jar to the forehead there, a scar left from a chemo med test spot that will go away in about a week (said the doctor a year ago). I have a rope burn on my ring finger and a puncture wound near my palm and a dozen or so other little imperfections. And I have scars I chose … skin that is inked. Designs I drew and asked an artist to needle into my protective layer. I love them all.
I am not my body, but it holds a roadmap to my life and hints of who I am – not in its beautiful perfect parts, but in the ugly ones.
It’s the ugly that makes me real – just like it did 20 years ago.