Badges of Honor: Our Scars

Like our age (and weight and income), we may try to hide our scars. But like badges of honor, they show that we have lived and that we have endured and survived pain and difficulty.
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Thanks to the miracles of science and the skills of doctors and aestheticians, we're able to minimize sags and wrinkles. But when you live a full, long life, you have the scars to prove it. And these are often harder to hide.

Like our age (and weight and income), we may try to hide our scars. But like badges of honor, they show that we have lived and that we have endured and survived pain and difficulty.

Scars literally trace our life, a visual memoir -- jagged, deep, short, long, thin, pale, rough, pearly. Some of these markings created over the years you cannot miss. And a few you will never see.

I'm exposing my scars here, embracing them even. You might consider mapping your body as well, even writing down when and how they came to be. By remembering the times of your life this way you can take special pride in reaching a full age, despite the difficulties along the way. And you may find catharsis, at least partly:

My earliest major scars I've never seen, from when my tonsils and adenoids were removed. I was five, and that operation was common then, undertaken when children were prone to infections. I can still smell the stench of ether and see the rubbery, muddy-colored face mask coming toward me as I lay pinned on my back in a cold, bright room at St. Francis hospital, now razed to create a condo complex in Miami Beach.

A voice like a God floated from above, "Now we'll take your picture," my first remembered betrayal from someone other than a parent. I still remember awakening in a strange bed -- helpless, sore and unable to speak, with the small reward of chocolate ice cream scooped with a tiny wooden stick from a paper cup.

Shallow scars from a serious bout of chicken pox are scattered over my arms like faded sequins, stubbornly holding amid the freckles. A fleshy scar on my shoulder is the remnant of a fat, dark mole, a blue nevis, removed when I was twelve, and there is a shiny one left from a cyst on my leg when I was fourteen, when I thought it meant I was dying.

I rode the K bus to the Dupont building in Miami when I was thirteen to have radiation treatments for acne, treated by an old machine and an old doctor who covered me in a lead apron. These facial scars have been peeled and smoothed away over the years but sometimes I can still glimpse their shadows in sunlight.

Five scars from basal cell skin cancers scatter across my body from childhood romps without protection in the Miami Beach sun. The one the right side of my nose from the Mohs surgery that reshaped my nose is a symbol of life's fragility every time I look in the mirror.

Another scar looks like someone slit my throat. And indeed the surgeon did just that when he removed my thyroid gland. (That scar may have been caused from the earlier radiation for my face.)

Two faded pink scars on my breasts are from masses that were found to be benign. I was lucky. Another mass was not, and the scars on my right lower back are from its removal. Small and deadly, it was found by chance at the top on my right lung. I was lucky again: they found it early.

Below my navel, a thin scar cuts me in two. I felt symptoms alone on a trip in Guatemala, at the start of a long research project. I stayed up all night watching Steven Segal movies in my little hotel room in Guatemala City, and in the morning I cancelled my schedule and flew back to the states. I returned to finish the project six weeks after the hysterectomy.

The scar right below my lip is from when I was tired and plowed into the back of a truck in rural England, my husband at my side, my toddler son in the back seat. I hit the steering wheel and my front teeth came through my lower lip. The local doc, no older it seemed than Doogie Howser, sewed it up unevenly without anesthetic and we all went back to London on the train.

And there are the scars which recall happy moments: one on my fingertip from a knife that slipped when I was chopping onions too fast, cooking up a storm for the man I loved. A scar on my shin is from when I pedaled without holding the handlebars and I fell off my red Schwinn with the fat tires, the little straw basket, and the tinkly bell.

Scars on my knees are from falls, maybe from hopscotch on the sidewalk long ago, or from ice skating with my sons on my little pond in Westchester. One on my chin, is from when I fell on the terrazzo floor spinning and laughing in the bungalow on Sheridan Avenue when I was six.

Emotional scars remain as well, scars of the heart, invisible except perhaps in my hesitance to trust, and my fear of being abandoned. They come from a taunting, neglectful mother. Relationships that tore apart abruptly. Friends who have disappointed when I needed solace, and stepsons who betrayed their father's plea to honor me.

I rarely mention these invisible scars. I write of happy times and faraway places. I have moved forward through a long life. But they hurt. They burn. They are the ugliest of all the dozens of scars of my life. And unlike the external ones, they have never completely healed.

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