Photo by Berkshire Community College via Flickr.

A scar is an honorable notion. The skin rebuilds with quiet determination, slowly weaving itself back together, willing itself to grow, forcing itself to fill a gap that was left there. The body doesn’t give up on itself.

Six minuscule scars dot my body, each a result of large procedures with microscopic incisions. Four are from surgery after I dislocated my shoulder when I was seventeen, the two on my hip from after I tore a labrum and chipped a bone when I was twenty-two. They’re almost invisible, specks of permanent whiteness in a pale sea. They could be considered my body’s art, or artifacts, or graffiti, or tattoos. They are distant memories of another life, my body’s way of cataloguing the trials of an amateur athlete.

Look closely and there’s a small crescent on the front of my right shoulder, a fingernail clipping engraved in the skin. Above it is another mark, a slice like a permanent paper cut. They dance parallel to two divots on the back of the same shoulder, round indents, like chips where small pebbles smacked a windshield.

Then there’s my left hip, with two hollows floating three-fingers-distance apart. One mark is slightly larger than the other. It’s the one where a medical student practiced sutures on my body when I was still unconscious. He didn’t pull the thread tight enough, so the skin healed with small gaps instead of a straight line. It looks like a miniature turtle.

If you run your fingers over the scars, you’ll feel a slight difference in texture where the healing took place. It goes from soft to dense. But where you feel layers of skin, I feel memory. I feel the collision with another volleyball player, the stares of my teammates as they point at my arm, the ball completely out of socket, pressing the sleeve of my t-shirt forward. I taste vomit as I try to tug on one of the bleachers to pop it back in place like my coach instructed me to do, telling me to get off the court so the team could continue practicing. I sense the lifeless limb jostling as I drive myself to the hospital. Alone and scared, both of my parents out of town, I try not to cry and blur my vision of the highway.

It’s not very often that a scar exists without an attached emotion. Confusion from an accident or the embarrassment of an unexpected fall. Anger. When I run my fingers over the crinkly skin on my hip, I’m transported to the fear that held me when I woke up from surgery and couldn’t move my legs. I’m brought back to the dry needles that were inserted into my glute muscles, spurring them to life with small spasms. To the wobbly muscle of my atrophying thigh, whittled away to something foreign and unrecognizable, stark in contrast to the one next to it.

For a month after my hip surgery, my mom slept near my bed so she could hear me call to her. My leg was strapped into a machine that we’d carried home from the hospital, a bulky thing that moved the limb back and forth so my body wouldn’t form scar tissue. My mother would arrive at my side, unstrap me, and help me find my way to the bathroom, or hand me crutches so we could circle the block together in the quiet summer night.

My little sister named my legs in hopes of cheering me up. She called one “metal,” for its strength, and the other “Jell-O,” for its flabbiness. Over months of physical therapy, we watched as the outline of a muscle slowly returned to Jell-O. The leg regained its strength and the incisions healed, but tiny scars remained.

***

I chose my scars. I chose to go under and let doctors cut through layers of skin, knowing I would wake up with marks. In high school, they said I could give up my sport and avoid surgery. I could quit volleyball and learn to live with a shoulder that sometimes was half-in-half-out. But I didn’t want to live a half-in-half-out kind of life. I’d been working toward college volleyball for years. I asked them to operate.

Later, after recovering from shoulder surgery and playing three years of college volleyball, my hip imploded. In the cold, sterile room after the MRI, the doctors told me I could leave my hip the way it was, bone chip floating in it, ripped cartilage and labrum and all. I could walk with minimal pain, nothing Advil wouldn’t cover up if I wanted to take it for the rest of my life. The doctors told me I could keep going, but that over time the hip might wear down. “Do you want to be able to run with your children one day?” they asked. “Do you want to be able to play volleyball again?”

By that point, I’d given too much to the sport to abandon it. My home was in the gym, with my teammates. I couldn’t walk away and quit, because walking away meant walking with pain for the rest of my life, and quitting meant not only that my body had given up on me, but that I’d given up on it. There were still goals I hadn’t accomplished, like helping our team make it to the NCAA tournament and playing professionally in Europe. I wasn’t done improving. So when they told me they could operate again, that they could fix the joint, I said yes. I believed in my body’s ability to sew itself back together, to grow again despite being broken.

The skin is our bodies’ largest organ. It must be, because it contains everything we are. If you were to peel your skin off, lay it down, and smooth out the wrinkles, it would stretch to about twenty square feet. Three layers make up our protective covering: the epidermis, or the outside shell that keeps water out and nutrients in; the dermis, where hair follicles, sweat glands, and connective tissue coexist; and the hypodermis, where more thick tissue and durable fat lie hidden beneath the surface.

To make a scar, the dermis needs to be damaged. Something must rupture the skin’s first layer and dip into the second, destroying tissue along the way. The damage must go deep enough to draw blood and interrupt the body. Each time I chose to operate, I traded smooth skin for the hopes of healing what was on the inside. Ruining one thing in hopes of fixing another.

After hip surgery, I relearned how to walk in a pool, wearing a full-length suit stuffed with floating devices My first steps on dry land were taken in front of a crowd of other patients who cheered and clapped as I hobbled stiffly through a gray-carpeted room. A year later, I was back on the court, running, pivoting, jumping, squatting, impressed by the power of my own body. The biggest obstacle in learning to play again was figuring out how to trust myself. My arms and legs moved in blocky, restricted ways, because I was afraid to let them be free.

When I look in the mirror, I am awed by the body’s resilience. Our scar tissue is made from bundles of cells called fibroblasts that have piled together. The new tissue is similar to what was there before; it contains capillaries and blood flow and all of the necessary things to live, to function. But it’s not the same. It can’t possibly be, because after the injury, neither are we. The cells form a rigid new skin, one that lacks oil glands and elastic tissue and synchronicity with everything else: a patch sewn onto jeans. The new skin is prone to aches and tingling and, occasionally, a persistent itch. Sometimes, I find myself clawing at my hip or shoulder when I’m uncomfortable or nervous, when nothing is bothering the skin except me.

I don’t try to cover up my scars. In fact, I sometimes wish they were larger, so that others could see their outsized effect on the ways I think and move and feel. As a result of my surgeries, I’ve become more observant, more compassionate than I otherwise would have been. In hundreds of hours of physical therapy, I learned to pay attention to detail—how many steps a building has; the particular blue of the sky after I’ve been inside all day. I learned the minuscule muscles that carry the weight of my shoulders and how to isolate them in small movements. I learned how to dive for a volleyball while tucking my shoulder gracefully underneath, rolling out of it, to protect the joint.

The body became my project. I began to understand the makeup of its parts and respect the way everything is connected. If I don’t keep the muscles surrounding my hip strong, my back will go out. If I don’t keep my shoulder secure, my neck will feel jagged, carrying the stress that the shoulder isn’t able to. The link between the muscles and ligaments and bones beneath our dermis, beneath the epidermis and hypodermis, is mesmerizing.

My time as an athlete has passed, but the heightened awareness I have of my body remains. When I wake up in the morning, my mind automatically takes stock of any stiffness, soreness, irregularity. Surgery isn’t a miracle repair; it’s a lifetime of noticing your new body and taking care of it.

I’ve become fascinated with the power of motion. When I move, I refuse to give in to everything I once felt my scars stood for—permanence, defeat. I can choose to be hindered by a scarred body, to view the marks left behind as stopping points, or I think of them as places to begin again, the same way my skin does.

I marvel at where you can go on your own legs; what it feels like when blood flows through the veins, pumped by adrenaline. Sometimes I run in an empty stairwell just to hear what it sounds like to let air in and out of my lungs, for the noise of my breath ricocheting off the walls.

Charlee Dyroff

Charlee Dyroff is a writer from Boulder, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Slate, Pacific Standard, the Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She's currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia, where she also teaches undergraduate writing.

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