The Scarlet V
For one woman, a scar left behind by her husband's cancer treatment isn't a disfigurement, but a mark of survival.
I love the ugly scar on my husband’s neck. It looks like someone took a leatherworking tool, gouged a “v” in the skin, then left it to heal without first smoothing it down for a seamless fit. For a few years, I imagined a sheet of sandpaper grinding away at it until the dead tissue went flat. I wondered if the sanding would hurt, and if the pain might be worth it in the name of erasing the scar once and for all. I wondered why a doctor would leave a wound to heal with such ragged contours. My husband could be talking in great long sentences, and I would focus on his neck, wishing the scar away. I wished this at least a hundred times. But it was the wrong thing to wish.
Three years ago, when the scar was an open wound, a tube ran through it and kept him alive. What was in it? I don’t know. A drip. Life itself. They shut him down, and the tube kept him going for a week. Then the liquids, the solid food, the moving of the bowels, the walking, the dressing, the lurching back to life and rejoining the world, a relapse into something similar, then a second tube, down again, up again, another rebirth. It seemed like it would never end. Then it ended.
I had appreciated many scars before I came to understand this one. My sister wears a set of broken rings across her knuckles where the broiler door closed on her four-year-old fingers in 1960, the year I was born. I have a neat seam under my chin from when I slipped, hoisting myself out of a swimming pool when I was 10 or 11. The blood bloomed in the water. It ran down my neck and turned pink on my wet body as I sat in the locker room, waiting. Like so many scars, it came with a bigger story: My mother was at work; my father had recently died; my older brother came for me; he did well in the doctor’s office, like a teen dad rising to the occasion, while I got stitches.
Then there are the tattoos, all scars, of course, injected with color—or not—trailing long and complicated backstories. The most interesting, for my purposes, is the stupid-looking rose or bird or clumsy flower, I can’t recall which. The woman who wore it told me, “I don’t regret it. It’s like the scar you get from falling down while you’re learning to ride a bike. It’s part of your history.”
My husband’s scar is also part of history, but he doesn’t see it that way. He never touches or mentions it. I wonder if he ever examines it in the mirror, alone in the bathroom.
Probably not. Only a healthy person assumes a sick person thinks that way. It was the least of his doctors’ worries when they sewed him up and pulled out the tube, and it was his last concern when his body healed and he returned to life. It’s really nothing compared to the crude scars that now grid his torso like an exploded train track.
Two years was the milestone. He would be out of the woods then, they said, though strictly speaking the cancer could return at any time. Two years passed, then three, the worry fading into something vague and shapeless, and retreating.
That’s when I came to understand the scar. It means something now precisely because it means nothing now. Its charm lies in its obsolescence. It’s a bad tattoo acquired in a gothic otherworld, a sealed portal to a place no one should visit, a superannuated symbol of stolen time.
And something else: proof that he survived.
First Person originates at the other end of the stethoscope, presenting essays and commentary from patients, consumers and other medical outsiders. Proto invites your contributions; please send ideas to the editor.