01 April 2012

Scarred for life

The first scar left the most lasting impact — the tip of your left middle finger vanished when, almost as long ago as you can remember, the car door slammed on that tiny finger. You remember nothing of the pain, nothing of the trauma; you have a few mental images — vague forms, impressions — of the car, your parents, the house, the driveway, the garden and the ash tree that was always there in front of the house, always the first thing seen beyond the big ceiling-to-floor windows and before the view over the market garden (usually a chaos of weeds, long dry grass and an occasional caterpillar-raddled cabbage). Of the trip to hospital you remember nothing, nor do you have anything but the faintest of impressions of the hospital itself, and those impressions might well have arisen from other visits, perhaps the apparently long stay when you had bronchitis or pneumonia or something similarly life-threatening at that age. Whether the illness preceded or followed the incident with the car door, you don’t remember.

You do recall coming home in the car after hospital — you were told the incident happened on your return after the operation on your hand, but you think it might have been after the illness and protracted stay — and saying nothing, refusing to speak during the entire journey, until someone (your mum probably) got out at the letter box and collected the mail and your first word since leaving the hospital was, “Bills!” An indication you were grumpy, that the world clearly conspired to wreck your life. You don’t know how old you were at the time, only that you hadn’t yet started school but could walk and talk — the latter only when you felt like talking, mind you.

Now, all these decades later, you look at the scarred, shortened fingertip with its deformed nail, and the zipper-like scar at the base of your thumb where the doctor peeled back the skin, folded your finger so the injured tip fitted into the incision, then sewed up the wound. When the skin had grown over, the doctor cut the finger free and sutured the skin on the fingertip and at the base of the thumb. This is why you have scars in both places. At least, this is what you were told, but you don't remember having had your finger sewed to your palm. The position and form of the scars agrees with this explanation, but you’ve not heard of this approach to fixing fingertips so you wonder whether your recollection, like so much memory, might be wrong.

Now, all these decades later, the scar at the base of your thumb remains as clear and pale and tough as ever. You spread your fingers to stretch the skin of your palm so you can see the scar as clearly as possible, and suddenly you’re struck by its faint resemblance to pre-European Maori rock drawings — in particular, one that featured on a New Zealand postage stamp when you were still a boy; a stamp released when you were still years away from your teens and when you still possessed the small-boy lust for possessing things like postage stamps and dead insects. The stamp collecting soon faded away, although you still have your badly-assembled album, full of mostly worthless stamps, but the insect-collecting persisted late into your teens. Later, the desire vanished; now, you feel no urge to collect the fascinating invertebrates you come across from time to time, although you sometimes photograph them (which seems a far more satisfactory way to extend and share your enjoyment).[1]
The next scar arrived when you were eleven; you tripped while running at school and ripped your right knee open on the asphalt (the only grass at your school grew in the guttering). A teacher put you in a taxi and sent you to A&E where someone stitched the wound. You don’t remember the stitching but you do remember the attractive nurse who flattered you with probably bullshit comments about how brave you were because you never flinched. You were proud of those stitches, just as you were proud of the four you added to the same knee when you tripped while running at home and sliced it open on a sharp edge of concrete. You began counting your tally of stitches, then.

Now, so many decades after the first scar, you have to think hard to remember how many times you’ve been sliced open, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, sometimes as a precaution and sometimes because you weren’t cautious enough. You no longer count sutures, though, because the doctors most often sew you up with a single stitch like the closure on a sack of rice. You wonder what stories your scars will tell to the person who lays you out on a cold table you cannot feel under bright lights you no longer see. Eventually those scars will vanish, but the breaks in your bones might tell other stories — fewer, you think, with relief — to anyone who might for god-knows-what reason retrieve them. But so much will have been lost. Who will know those healed ribs broke in a long fall; who might guess how your friends helped you down from the cliff, rowed you across the bay, flew with you to the hospital and drove you home? Given one paragraph, could you recover a book?

A white gull flies past, the black on its back and the upper surface of its wings hidden from beneath so the bird seems almost invisible against the pale, overcast sky. As the gull flies past, you see its head moving from side to side, looking, searching, ready to drop at the possibility of anything edible — the slowly inflating corpse of a road-killed possum, perhaps, or maybe a featherless chick fallen from a nest. You imagine the pale gull falling from the sky like an angel to consume the dead, and you count yourself lucky your scars healed: that you still have the chance to accumulate more, so many decades after the first.

1. You do accept the need to collect “specimens” for scientific purposes, but you’re glad you no longer need to do this.

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor