Scar Tissue: IV. Time Teaches
Ben is only thirty years old, his scar half a year younger. He tells me that it curves around the left side of his torso, exterior mark of an impossible rib. Others would ask him about it when he was younger, ask him about it after they swam. Why shouldn’t they? Old injuries mark our otherness. Once wounded, he showed himself in his specificity.
I have had my share of surgeries, but I find it difficult to picture Ben’s. He was so small, so small at the time that they had to cut him open to clear the pneumonia from his lungs. It must have been difficult for his doctors to imagine it too: None of them had performed such a surgery on one so young before – no one had, not in his hospital at any rate. His experience, an infantile blur of inexplicable feelings is literally unthinkable, far as it is from the class of sensations that adults call sensible. Improbably, then, I envision him through the eyes of his parents. Surely they were terrified, uncomprehending at the sight of their breathless son swallowed up by machines.
These days, Ben says, no one inquires after his scar. As he has aged, it covers less and less of his flesh. Scars, it turns out, are like puppies’ paws or kittens’ eyes, already the size they will be, almost from the start. They do not shrink as we thicken, though they may seem to. I would have thought they grew with the body, but instead they stay just as they were, paradoxically constant and inconstant.
Memory, we know, mutates: We elaborate it as we go. Always a conversation between has been and now happening, recollection selectively constructs the former to meet the needs of the latter. If scars inscribe memory on the skin, they always remain in the moments they remember for us. In this, they are more honest than our actual memories, which reshape themselves to meet the needs of the moment. Ben, of course, has no knowledge of his infantile illness, too young at the time to secure even an image of it. Perpetually present, his scar simulates memory by whispering of an unknowable past. But in its insistent immutability, it betrays itself, so unlike memory in its refusal to change as he does. Scars indicate the mere fact of anteriority, signifying the past without dictating its meaning. What does Ben’s scar say? Just that he once was smaller. Just that he once was sick.
Sometimes our bodies tell us even less. Below my right eye a crease slopes over my cheekbone at a forty-five degree angle. It has been there at least as long as I have been studying myself in the mirror, though I have never learned what caused it. Such bodily marks are like Linear A, the untranslated script of the Minoans. They suggest meaningful things that transpired before we learned to make meaning. At best, we can write over them, tell stories about them. Ben’s scar, my crease, these things are like the blank lines in my notebook, inviting a narrative whose form they cannot dictate in advance, a narrative synonymous with the bare fact of living on, of endurance.
All scars may be memories, but not all memories are conscious. Ben and I are both marked in ways that suggest places in our pasts we cannot visit – little islands, lost islands. Something, these marks say, once hurt us, hurt us before we knew how to distinguish hurting from the mere pain of being. Insofar as they refuse to grow with us, they suggest that past pains might be just that. Unless it fades completely, a scar always stays what it first was. But to wear a scar is to be something else, something other than we were then, something made different by the ongoing fact of survival.
There is a lesson in this: Tragedies that overwhelm us at the time need not grow with us. Though Ben’s scar chases his age, from another perspective it is always six months old. No mere indication of childhood pain, it is a child in its own right, a small thing that can only ever seem smaller. When we are sick, others speak to us in the deadeningly hopeful language of cliché: This too shall pass, they say. Most things do not pass. Many of them mark us forever. But so long as we refuse to worry over them, so long as we don’t reopen the wounds that sit below our scars, that which does not pass cannot grow. Scars tell us to take time, standing still as our own worlds spin like second hands.
Some acts are irrevocable: We cannot unsay the cruel word spoken before a breakup any more than we can reverse the poor decisions we make afterward. Likewise, once we have been sick we have always been sick. Maybe our bodies remind us of the things we cannot recall to show us how we have grown, and how much we will grow. Time teaches that things do not pass. Time teaches that what seemed large was small from the start.
Time teaches that I was small once. In a photograph that Catherine unearthed at my mother’s house, an impossibly young version of me glances backward over his shoulder. His hair is still curly and he is smiling. I have no memory of ever being so beautiful, so free of scars.
-September 16, 2014-October 15, 2014
Washington, DC and La Plata, MD