Scar Tissue: II. Memory’s Line
At our final meeting, my surgeon handed me a sample size package of scar cream. The attached pamphlet suggested that with regular application, I could make the mark of my procedure all but invisible. A sample image showed me what I might expect after months of regular application: Redness and ridge would fade and flatten. Nothing is ever truly lost, but memory can be made less distinct. To induce amnesia, apply twice daily.
In the scheme of things, my cancerous month occupies a tiny portion of my life. Studying the calendar, I count twenty-nine days and a handful of hours between diagnosis and the conclusion of my surgery. It was another nine days before I received the pathologist’s report, and with it the knowledge that I was in the clear. Added together, those patient weeks account for just over a quarter of a percent of my life to date. As years come, and they only ever can, that fraction will grow more fractional. However much those days may mean, other eras of my life will surely eclipse them.
Days, hours, minutes accumulate endlessly, piling up too quickly for us to hold them in place. No wonder, then, that we most often recollect our pasts in still images, images that freeze the world in order to halt the relentless erasure of self-knowledge by the constant arrival of new information. In one such image – my first – I see my mother and father arguing in the kitchen of our rented house, the one out by the arboretum. It is night and they do not know that I am awake. Cloaked as I am by the living room’s darkness, silent as I am in my smallness, my presence goes unnoticed. I cannot say how long I listen to them, much less what they are saying, but in the perpetual present of recollection I have been waiting in those shadows all my life.
My mother tells me that this scene is impossible. She says that they would have never argued while I was in the house, not until after the divorce. Tangible as the scene feels, she is surely right. We must gather our pains before we can paint such pictures, mixing colors from pigments found here and there. Still images condense whole swaths of personal history, making our pasts manageable by making them small. This condensation gives rise to the illusion that isolated moments matter most, that traumas always befall us in a flash. Surely they sometimes do, but it may be our slow motion tragedies that ask the most of us: Not the blow, but the broken jaw. Not the breakup, but the months before. These are the experiences that befuddle us. Theirs are the feelings that elude the understanding.
A possibility, then: As a child, I surely knew that something was wrong in our house before I could say what it was. The air must have been heavy with incomprehensible ill-will. Memory makes all those ugly hours collapse into a single explosive evening, inventing a fiction to account for an unbearable reality. Like a rain storm on a hot day, a fight might have come as a relief, even if it left me shivering. However unpleasant it would have been, at least I could have grasped it. The scene framed by the kitchen doors is small enough that even my small eyes could take it in, take it in all at once before turning back to the surrounding dark.
Sometimes I close my eyes and run my finger along the length of my scar. A mere two months since I woke, coughing, in the recovery room, it still stings slightly when I touch it. What seems raw to me must be invisible to others, though. I still sometimes catch myself pointing it out, pulling down the collar of my shirt to show it off. I display it especially to those I have not seen for some time. You’re looking well, they tell me, sometimes quizzical, as if unsure that I was ever sick. I offer them my scar as evidence that something was wrong, that I paid a price, however small, to be well again. I show it to them to prove that they missed something, something important to me, a part of my life. A single month, unrepeatable.
My scar is evidence, yes, evidence of a month that I would not repeat but do not want to lose. That month’s images accumulate: there were two ponds behind the barn where my friends made music while I cried. Swimmable, but thick with silt, they pulled out feet down as we waded out. Fish flitted about, showing no interest in either our floating bodies or the unbaited hooks that we would cast their way. At night, bullfrogs thrummed in chorus amongst the reeds. What could be smaller than these things? What could have meant more to me? For a month, every day was just that and in that every day was just right.
Studying the scar cream, turning it over in my hands, I asked my surgeon whether anything would happen if I didn’t use it. Not really, no. My scar would be a little more prominent for a little longer, would recede a little more slowly. Eventually, it would disappear into the fold of my neck, much as Sarah’s had. Okay. Good. I would let it linger, image of a time that would inevitably fade, a period that had not been a full stop. Pain shapes us as loss makes us. Let the line of my scar last, securing what has been in a single image of what was, thirty-eight days as full as they were fearful.
Time, I keep writing, is a field. And memory? Memory is a line. When I close my eyes and run a finger along my scar, I feel the way events unfolded, each following the last. When I open my eyes and study the breadth of it, I see the way they join hands.
This is how our bodies remember. A scar is what gathers.