Scars Like Lace

David Owen wrote a 2012 personal history “Scars” as “a life in injuries” for The New Yorker. This short piece was inspired by Owen’s essay.


The faintest imprint of honeycombed scar tissue crisscrosses the back of both of my knuckles. Family folklore has it that while my mother was giving birth to my sister in a hospital in Missouri’s capital city, I fell hands first into my grandparents’ wood stove almost as dramatically as the terrifying story of Hansel and Gretel in the red leather-bound Grimms’ Fairy Tales my law-professor uncle sent to me, his rural Missouri niece, by way of Louisville. I do not know how a 3-year-old child falls by catching herself with the backs of her hands, but when I arrived at the hospital to meet my baby sister, my mother says she started to cry at the sight of second-degree burns and made the nurses grab her obstetrician, whose own wife was giving birth to another little girl in the next room. Now few notice these faded scars as they have been with me for almost 37 years, but I see them, especially in the sunlight, stretched across my hands like a fine lace.

And should someone turn my chin up to that selfsame light, one might catch the long-healed scar which required four stitches in a Chicago ER one summer afternoon. Earlier in the day, with wonder and awe, I had watched my lithe and older cousins dive backward into the deep end. I, a tall and solidly built 5-year-old girl, attempted the same maneuver, only to land on the pool edge with the full force of my chin, my jaw slamming shut like the Milton Bradley game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. I remember the ER doctor’s amazement that I did not cry as he stitched me up, including weathering a numbing shot with a needle that looked to be five inches long. Afterward, my great auntie Ann kept me company in a darkened room above the pool as I heard my Chicago cousins splash and frolic while I kept my chin dry. She smoothed my hair and gave me the prettiest little bone china heart with flowers on the lid. I lost or broke the top sometime in my girlhood, but I still have the bottom. The porcelain container fits securely in the palm of my hand and reminds me of Ann waiting with me and her selfless, quiet love.

Or there is the long, jagged scar that runs up the back of my right ankle, proof that I ruptured my Achilles tendon in my late 20s a couple months after completing my first half-marathon through the hills of San Francisco. When my tendon snapped, a starting-gun pop went off inside my body. At the time, my then boyfriend was defrosting hamburger, and I had somehow crawled to my car, retrieved my cell phone, and called him, begging him to put down the damned beef chuck down and take me to the hospital. While the boyfriend and I did not last, I was humbled by the kindness of friends and family, who drove across the state to care for me, ferried me to work as I could not drive, who took me to physical therapy appointments, who helped me bathe and brought me lemon cupcakes and bore with me as a I hobbled up the stairs on crutches to my second-story apartment.

I have many more scars—the small scar midway between my chest and belly button from having my gallbladder removed, the scar where my daughter emerged via emergency C-section, and the persistent scar on my left knee that was made and remade from falling off bikes, tripping over uneven sidewalks, and reopened by other physical adventures. “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real,” Cormac McCarthy wrote in All the Pretty Horses. My body, like all bodies, is a map of hurt and healing, of mortality and imperfection made visible. Scars are cryptograph and key, and, if we are lucky, they have less to do with pain and more to do with memory and survival.