Yesterday I visited a good friend. She placed her freshly bathed ten-month-old baby on the couch next to me. I am not a baby person, but this baby enchanted me—the leg rolls bunched under his diaper, the way he reached his greedy fingers out for everything, the startled look in his azure eyes when he stared at my mouth as he strained to understand language patterns.
The familiar phrase “soft as baby’s skin” did not register beyond a platitude until this moment. I smiled and stroked the baby’s bare back, noting the warm, velvet quality to his flawless pink skin. My fingers detected a faint layer of peach fuzz. He is new to this life, a fresh canvas for experience.
Today I thought about my own twenty-eight-year-old skin, still young but not new. I was overcome by a sudden bizarre desire to take an inventory of scars on my body. I could not see them all, so I asked my husband to help. He was more than happy to oblige.
“Start with my toes,” I said. “I stubbed my toe on my dad’s power drill in the garage once. The hospital had to glue it back together.”
My husband squinted as he examined my toes. “Do you know which foot it was on?”
“There is nothing here,” he finally said.
We didn’t count it and moved on.
My pale legs were covered in dings. We found a purplish dent on my right shin—a relic from a gruesome bruise when I leapt too soon out of a sailboat—then another shiny translucent shape like a canker on my inner right knee from a time I ran into the corner of an exterior brick wall of my childhood home. These were not interesting stories, mere evidences of clumsiness.
My left leg was no different, more familiar raisin-textured blotches I had seen each time I shaved or peered at my legs whenever I wore a swimming suit. These welts carried no stories my mind found worth remembering.
Then we visited some of my old favorites: a faint white pockmark on my right thigh from the time I was accidentally tasered as a teenager by my friend’s police officer father, a smile on the heel of my left palm from the coral reef of an otherwise euphoric day of surfing during the time I lived in Hawaii; a crescent on my left pointer finger from lopping off the tip with a roller fabric cutter which horrified my junior high class.
There were more: a dot on my sternum from a loose bra wire, a thin hairline down my left pinky, a raised thread on the back of my right hand, then my belly button, which we both agreed was everyone’s first scar. I realized that even my friend’s baby, by virtue of the trauma of being born, had already experienced more life than I’d originally given him credit.
“I think that’s it,” my husband said, double checking my right arm.
“You are forgetting one more,” I said, referring to the only scar I hated.
There was a pause. “Oh yeah,” he said. Then my husband kissed my upper lip, the place where an ex-boyfriend’s snowboard slashed through my face on the Utah slopes and left me with nineteen stitches which had to be put in by a plastic surgeon at the ER. I remember staring at the doctor as he threaded through my flayed face, keenly aware he was wearing jeans because he had to rush in after being on call. I could barely feel my husband’s kiss given the nerve damage in that area of my face. The doctor hid the damage well, but there is still a narrow white scar.
We completed the inventory. The two of us counted twenty scars on the landscape of my body.
Twenty! I thought, a bit bewildered by how many scars I had never noticed: two mysterious white spots on my left rib, two scrapes on each elbow, a faint arc on my left bicep, a pink gash on my lower left forearm, a faded cut on the side of my left hand, a bleached circle on my left wrist, twin smatterings on each hip (which Austin and I both thought might be faint stretch marks or road rash).
Twenty! I thought again, this time with a hint of disappointment. Twenty means eight less years than years I’ve lived. Was this a poor average? For a detectable second, I worried I have not lived enough. I am cautious about risk, but I crave feeling alive.
I know there is danger in glorifying scars, foolish to want more. My particular collection of scars signifies a lucky life, a safe life. My scars are not like pockmarked marble walls from bullets in England from The Blitz I gawked at on my first trip to Europe. I know I have never seen the horrors of war except in books and movies. My scars are not like the Tibetan men who spoke at a human rights gathering I attended in India about their escape from China, pulling up their shirts to revealing bubbling backs from years of unthinkable torture. My scars are nothing like my six-year-old cousin who’s third brain tumor was removed a few months ago. Her shaved head is covered in the kind of scars no family deserves. No, my scars are more like the scuffs on my writing desk—accidents, vaguely unfortunate, there if you take the time to look.
But scars do tell stories. They are the tattoos of nature, the marks of experience and pain. Each person contains innumerable internal wounds, but there is something reassuring about being able to count external scars. There are less mind games about who or what caused the pain. The physical mark is there. We can point, describe the scars by their shapes and colors. Just as the moon can be dated by the layers of lacerations from asteroids and space debris, our scars give us a chronology of our growing then aging bodies on Earth. No matter the person, no matter the circumstances, no one escapes this life without a scar.