Published on June 22nd, 2016 | by Anna Doogan1
ANNA DOOGAN on the Length of Scars
My son and I watch the animated tiger onscreen, the jagged black scar slashed across his face, the dramatic battle scene unfolding in the dark of the theater.
“He’s mean,” my son whispers from my lap.
“He is acting mean,” I say. There’s a difference.
“I see his scar,” my son whispers.
I wrap my arms around him and squeeze him, uncomfortably aware of the stereotypes that my three-year-old is taking away from this movie. In this case, scarred=tough. Mean. Bad.
The scarred tiger stalking through the jungle, the smaller animals taking note of his evil scar warning, heading for the hills. The wounded villain.
If scars always signified meanness, we would all have those villains lurking somewhere in our chests.
I’m changing for bed as a commercial comes on TV. Stretch mark cream to remove those unsightly scars. Make them disappear in 6-9 weeks. Three easy payments of $39.99.
“What the fuck.” I mutter. I can’t help it.
Erase any evidence of what you suffer through or survive. Those unsightly reminders.
But maybe our scars just demonstrate what pains we’re capable of overcoming.
So I don’t want to hide any of them.
I want stories with my scars. My kids listen the tale of the rocks in my knee, run their hands over the darkened bumps. Tell us again, Mom. How did those get there?’ I tell them about rushing down the old road on my bike in 4th grade, then hanging on the metal gate that could swing out over the creek. My knees dragging rough through the gravel until they were bloodied, bits of skin ripped and mingling with dirt. My grandma bandaged them with the large Band-Aids that night. Not one of the usual little strips from the box, but the fat square bandages that meant it was a big injury.
In fifth grade, we had a class field trip to a cemetery to make grave rubbings. It was raining and I was kneeling there in the damp grass next to one of the graves. One of the tombstones had fallen over and torn up the ground next to it. A deep earthy gash right across the grass at the base of the stone, the dirt and flowers all jumbled and falling over. A gaping hole. I peered down into it, looking for what might have caused it.
I think of scars like that. Stories buried underneath what looks imperfect.
There are stories on all of my scars, even the ones that get covered up. My lumpy knees tucked under jeans, rippling stretch marks ridging my hips, thin fingernail scratches across my neck from a hungry infant clawing for a nipple. Half-moon over my ankle from scraping my skin on concrete before falling into the swimming pool when I was seven, the jolt of the water stinging my fresh wound. A slice on my lip from tripping and falling face-first into a tea party table, just before the ballet recital in first grade. Instead of twirling to Tchaikovsky on stage, I sat in my pink tights in the emergency room, the shock of an ice pack cold against my mouth.
For a few years, I had a circle of teeth on my upper arm. A scar in the shape of a smile. After a hospital patient shoved me against the wall and sunk his teeth firmly into my bicep, the emergency room nurse winced as she dabbed my arm with antiseptic wipes.
“It’s going to scar,” she said, stone-faced.
My bare upper arm offered a crooked smile to anyone who saw it sleeveless in the years after that. Ten short scarred lines that held just a fraction of someone else’s pain.
“What’s that scar?” my daughter asks.
I turn my hand over like I’ve never noticed it before.
“I’m not sure.”
It’s light brown and cloud-shaped, floating in the middle of the back of my left hand. I can’t remember. I asked my mom about it once, but she didn’t remember either.
“I guess I forgot.”
My daughter shrugs. “Guess it wasn’t very painful.”
The scar cream commercial suddenly flickers through my mind. Those unsightly scars. I want my daughter to have her own perceptions of what’s beautiful. I clear my throat.
“Actually, I don’t mind the scars I have. They’re part of me. Like stories. They’re some of my memories.”
My daughter shoves food around her plate with her fork, pushes her hair out of her eyes as she looks at me.
“Memories of pain,” she mutters. A thin crescent tucked against her hairline, the remnant of a hard fall against the coffee table corner when she was four.
I nod. “Sometimes.”
I don’t mention that there are all kinds of scars. That some might be a source of pride, and some are considered sexy. That some are intentional, and others are invisible. That there are scars that don’t heal as easily. The ones that dig across the heart like small paved roadmaps and leave permanent weight on the shoulders. Scars that can’t be seen, and can only be felt.
She’ll learn about all of those later, whether I like it or not.
My son has a scar in the middle of his forehead, Harry Potter-style. Only it’s in the shape of a teardrop, rather than lightning bolt. A teardrop-shaped cut from a fall at the pumpkin patch the Halloween before he turned two. He doesn’t remember, but my breath still catches in my chest when I get a good glimpse of it.
We watch Harry Potter for the umpteenth time and talk about forehead scars. We watch another movie and wait for a character to avenge his father and the scars slashed across his own face.
Where are all the female characters with scars? I wonder.
I get curious, so I search online after that. I can’t find any female movie characters with scars. Only men. Why is that? Maybe the strength of women is too intimidating to see on the surface.
I vaguely remember one movie from high school. The character with burn scars covering her back, ostracized by the rest of the kids. Until a magic spell removed her scars and made her popular and she could finally start coming to class in miniskirts and tank tops, in that silver screen acceptability. Good thing she knew the spell, I guess.
The socialized shame of scars creates a twisted version of what’s beautiful. I run my fingers over the permanent mark on my inner arm where a kid once pressed his 4th of July sparkler into my skin when I was little.
My son carries popcorn into the room. I grab the remote, turn on Harry Potter again.
My parents had a box fan that sat on their bedroom floor in the sweltering east coast summers. When I was seven, I tried jumping over it. I pretended that I was a horse. Then I kept doing it, over and over, back and forth, leaping effortlessly from one side to the other.
But then I didn’t jump high enough, and in my shorts my leg caught the sharp metal corner of the fan and it ripped along my thigh. Hot pain through my leg, blood dripping down metal.
That cut took weeks to heal, and peach Band-Aids stuck across it in a vertical row, like a ladder.
Sometimes I forget about that cut from the summer so long ago. Every once in a while, I remember and check to see if the scar is still there. I pull up my skirt or pull down my jeans, twist in the mirror so I can see it. The pale thin gash that still runs down along the back of one thigh. I take a good look at it.
Just double checking to make sure that all of the parts of my story are still there.