In my senior year in high school, I lost my left ovary to a cyst the size of a lemon. It had wrapped around the fallopian tube and crushed it. I felt the pain a different points along the way. The most memorable was in the middle of a street market in Barbados during my senior class trip. My friends helped me back to our hotel room where I laid in bed until the pain went away. The next time it struck, I ended up in the hospital and in surgery. The doctor said she'd never seen a case of endometriosis that severe in someone so young. I've always prided myself on being an overachiever. Why stop in the classroom? I left the hospital one ovary short, a warning to get pregnant sooner than later, and a long purple gash running across my belly and three inches below its button.
Eight years later, that gash would be overlayed by a topographical map of flesh valleys, rivers, and ranges. I was pregnant with the only child I would be fortunate enough to carry. A baby boy whose every flip, flutter, and hiccup I can still remember. During a shopping trip with family, my little cousin Desi kept me company in the dressing room while I tried on maternity clothes. She stood there quietly sucking her thumb and tracing one particularly long mark along my side. Her small mahogany finger riding along my river bed.
I breast fed for one year. Every day I would bring an electric breast pump to work. It was the look and size of a classic workingman's tool box. On my lunch hour I would sit in the handicap stall in the women's bathroom to pump. I didn't have an office, so I'd dragged a chair into the stall and run an extension cord in as well. I sit, pump, and chat with the other women who'd come in and out. Now at age 40, I spend a fair amount of time looking at what's left of what was once a pair of majestic peaks that now appear to be the victims of tectonic plate shifting. And again with the river beds.
Yesterday, I turned on the television and an ad for Cindy Crawford's skin care line was on. How did she stay looking so young at age 41? She's only 41! I screamed back at the television! She is young! A few months ago I saw a commercial for Palmer's Cocoa Butter. Picture a young pregnant woman with her beautiful belly out for all to see. "Pregnancy, it's a beautiful thing", it begins, "but it can also leave ugly stretch marks." From beauty to shame in three seconds flat.
Jane Hirshfield writes in her poem "For What Binds Us":
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence.
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh
as all flesh
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle
small triumphs pinned to the chest
I remember the first time I read the first half of that passage. It was in an Oprah magazine and I like it so much, I tore it out and tucked it away behind my jewelry box for safe keeping. For someday. That day has come.
I am tired of being to asked to diminish, reduce, erase, and minimize. Why would I want to hide the evidence of a life in which I have laughed, cried, birthed, and sustained. I have been damaged, bruised. I have stretched. I have been torn. I have been reborn a thousand times. Sometimes, it feels, in a single day.
Life marks us and those marks make us. They testify to our authenticity and I will not apply anything to this body that removes one once of its essensce, of its being but rather
a balm that recognizes, restores, and honors the beautifully broken, working vessel I am
its application a ritual that reminds me that I have been tested and still stand. Not unmarked, but bound together by a wondrous mosaic of skin light, dark, smooth, thick, scarred, raised, and wrinkled. A living fabric of scar tissue cords interwoven with muscle fiber, veins, and flesh knitted together by hope, desire, memory, will.
Proud flesh. It doesn't begin to cover it.