In praise of scars

By the time you become Real, most of your hair has been loved off. Your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” –Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit


Earlier this week, my friend Alice posted this empowering Caitlin Crosby video on her Facebook wall and I was moved to share it with everyone. The video reminded me of an essay I wrote, published in a metro-Detroit women’s magazine three years ago. Here it is:

How scars make us real

Once the anesthesia wore off and I could wiggle my toes again, my first concern was the new incision running down my left side. Ten inches long and an angry shade of red, it marked the place where my hip had been removed, packed with a bone graft, and totally rebuilt with a prosthetic implant. A long row of tiny staples closed the wound, making it look as if Dr. Frankenstein had sewn a zipper into my birthday suit.

Still woozy in the post-operative station, I imagined how awful the scar would look after it healed. And I wondered: Would I ever find the courage to wear a bathing suit in public again? Would my husband think my body was less attractive?

Coming to my senses the next morning, I tried to focus on my blessings. Those blessings included the skilled orthopedic surgeon who had agreed to perform the complicated three-hour surgery. Most orthopedic surgeons, including mine, prefer to reserve total hip replacement for elderly patients because they are less likely to need revision surgeries in the future.

I was only in my forties when I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in both hips. But this sympathetic doctor understood that the quality of my daily life was “seriously impacted” by my disability, as he put it. Practically immobile, I’d already qualified for a handicap parking permit, and couldn’t even stand at the kitchen counter long enough to open a can of cat food or prepare a simple family meal. I’d been missing band concerts and mothers’ club meetings at my son’s middle school because I couldn’t climb the steps to the building. I’d started turning down lunch dates with friends, preferring to nurse my pain in bed at home.

I needed surgical intervention.

Of course, I knew I’d have several weeks of physical therapy and rehab during recovery. But I could also look forward to walking pain-free without canes or crutches again. So why did I let vanity dampen my hard-won victory?

Facing up to flaws

Scars of any kind are a challenge to recovering perfectionists. For years, I was one of those worried women who followed the advice given in beauty and fashion magazines. I invested ridiculous amounts of energy trying to conceal every personal flaw and foible. To expose my weak spots — or admit that I was ever damaged in any way — was too frightening to imagine. No matter how many skin-perfecting creams I bought, or how many self-improvement books I devoured, I couldn’t stop believing that I didn’t quite measure up.

Ironically, I’ve always admired quirks in other people and in most of the stuff I own. One of the early practitioners of shabby chic, I can list several rooms in my home that are furnished entirely with faded flea-market treasures and garage sale rejects. Overgrown cottage gardens, non-pedigree pets, freckles, rusty tools, crow’s feet, and crooked smiles intrigue me. I’ve cherished childhood toys covered in stains and stitches, and I’m partial to an old leather jacket burnished by seasons of wear.

Scars and wrinkles are the emblems of a richly textured life — a survivor’s life. They document our personal histories and bear witness to how far we’ve traveled. Our scars and wrinkles prove we’ve survived childbirth, car accidents, skin cancer, military combat, messy divorces, failed business opportunities, and lost loves.

My long recovery from hip replacement surgery gave me a lot of extra time to think about these things.

Practicing my physical therapy, I was reminded that becoming real requires bumping up against adversity — and sometimes falling apart. It’s a deconstruction process. Whether you’re nursing a shattered limb, a bruised ego, or a wounded heart, it can take time to reassemble and repair the broken parts. But ultimately you heal and, hopefully, grow more interesting. You tighten the loose seams in your character along the way.

Five months after my first hip replacement, I returned to the hospital for the same surgery on my other damaged hip. And today, six years later, I’m sporting a beautifully matched set of titanium joints that have given me back my mobility — and identical scars on each side. Over time, the scars have faded considerably, though you can still spot them several yards away on the beach.

Now I celebrate them — these two ten-inch valleys marking the surgeries that gave me a miraculous second chance. I have earned them, and they have made me real. — Cindy La Ferle

— In photo: collage detail from “On Beauty” (an altered book page) by Cindy La Ferle —

17 thoughts on “In praise of scars

  1. Thank you Cindy for the link to the wonderful video!

    My hearing loss requires me to focus on other people…one at a time … to really listen to what they have to share. And, that is a good thing.

  2. Rather than scars, they’re more badges, I’d say. Honoring the life we’re living, the obstacles we’ve maneuvered, the challenges faced. And succeeded at.

  3. You’re right, Mary Ellen. It’s amazing how much we learn from what some people call a “loss” or a handicap. You’re always an inspiration to me. And Joanne, badge is a better word for scar, yes!

  4. I love this Cindy. Was it in Strut? I think I read it before.
    I have to tell you, I never had any scars or stitches before I underwent major surgery to donate my left kidney to my mom in 2003.
    I had laparoscopic surgery and was supposed to have three tiny incisions on my abdomen with one larger one below the “bikini” line running sideways, nicely hidden.
    Instead, I awoke with that larger scar straight through my belly button, running up and down (apparently they discovered they needed to have easier access).
    I was disappointed at first but am actually super proud of those scars. I’m even glad to let them show if I have worn a two piece.
    So right on!

  5. Ellen,
    Thanks so much — and thank you for sharing the experience of donating your kidney to your mother. I didn’t know that about you before — what an act of love and courage! Wear that scar with pride.

    And yes, this essay was in “Strut” originally… I didn’t mention the name of the mag, since it’s out of publication now, and I figured readers out of state wouldn’t be familiar with it.

  6. I haven’t had surgery but I sure am a Velveteen rabbit! And a recovering (?) perfectionist so I totally relate to this post. As always I appreciate your wisdom and the art of your expressing it. I just wish there was a way for my stomach to get rubbed off not my hair?lol

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with the badges name for your beautiful scars .
    How you must have gone through so many emotions in all of this.
    You seem to have come out of it with your shining ability to embrace life and encourage others.

    My father-in-law is scheduled for hip replacement surgery tomorrow, and as an elderly patient the recovery will no doubt be longer. I will share your story .

    And I am so incredibly self conscious of my “belly” , pre and post multi births, we are a funny lot us humans.

  8. Here! Here!
    Our scars are like badges, badges of courage. I feel more sorry for the people I see that are still trying to hard to hide theirs. Like the Glama at the mall that is 65 going on 18. To me that is n=much sadder than the scar on my face from skin cancer surgery.
    This reminds me of a post I did a while back, you can find it under Red Shoe Revolution on my blog.
    Bless you Cindy La Ferle!

  9. Hasn’t it been said somewhere it’s the scars we don’t see which we most feel? Or, am I the 1st to say it!

    Anyway, it’s good to know when we are in pain or stress a dessert is part of the prescription to alleviate it temporatily

  10. The collage and the writing are just so beautiful. I cannot imagine how it is to live with pain or with scars. Your attitude is inspiring and uplifting. I will go check that video out.

  11. Thank you, all of you — you make my heart happy and proud to know you. What I love most about blogging is how it stirs these conversations, and we learn more about each other as a result. As for the pain and hip surgery, I am grateful for the lessons they taught me. If I could wish away the experience, I wouldn’t. As for scars, I am reminded of lines from the Paul Simon song, “American Tune”:
    “I don’t know a soul that’s not been battered,
    I don’t have a friend who feels at ease.
    I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered,
    Or driven to its knees…”
    Bridgette, I will look for that post on your site — I know it will be good. And I’ve got several small scars from basal cell skin cancer surgery as well.

  12. Cindy – finally had a chance to watch that video , and it’ s extraordinary. Love it. Thanks for posting the link. I am going to make sure my kids see it.

  13. Cindy, this post is beautiful! Perfect timing also that I am visiting here today! 😉 I’ve recently been working through the sharing from these wound areas and now this just wraps it up and reminds me before I send this manuscript out into the world the beauty that is always shining through in the very area we once struggled through.
    soft blessings to you, Jenn

  14. Glad you went to the beach! Life is too short to worry about battle scars. I’ve got my share, including a long one right across my neck, and really, I don’t think about them.

  15. Cindy, I’m a little late in looking at your wonderful Web site, but I’m always glad when I do. I’ve been taking two classes at our local community college and the workload doesn’t leave me a lot of free time. Thank you for sharing your story about your hip surgery and scars. I have a few scars myself, and I stopped trying to hide them a while ago. Thank you for your post.

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