Coming HomeOctober 6, 2010
I stand before the full-length mirror, taking in my naked reflection one square inch of flesh at a time. My eyes go first to my belly, always there first. What was once smooth now bears the marks of one who has met the surgeon’s knife. Only three years ago I was as unadulterated as the day I was born. Now a blind person can trace the scars that line my abdomen and read the stories that lie beneath.
First there’s the low, transverse “bikini” cut just above my pubic bone where three years ago the doctor cut open a door for my first son, whose slowing heart rate earned him immediate entry to the world. He was pulled from my body bright-lunged, red, blinded by the fluorescent eye of the surgical light and screaming the most beautiful cries in the world. At first, I hated my body for what I perceived as failure. Each time I saw the scar was a reminder of my inability to open naturally and completely, as our morning glories open lazily late summer at the first morning light. As I grew into a mother, I learned how to nurse myself the way I fed and bathed and loved my baby. Every day I massaged healing oil into that deep crevice until it gleamed like a thin strand of pearls.
Almost three years to the date, another surgeon in another O.R. would find that sealed door and open it again. This time there was no baby. This time the doctor pulled out the bloody sack that was cancer. All those years, while I was running miles along the Charles River and lunging in warrior poses, writing poems, while I was meeting and then falling in love with David, while we made love and made babies, while I nursed those babies plump with rich fatty milk, the cancer was slowly growing inside my rectum. Quietly. Deceptively. It hid inside of me as I once hid as a child, tucked into the window well of our house while my sisters hunted to make me “it.”
The low scar where the cancer and 15 inches of my rectum were removed is a deep, brownish-red. The surgeon says it will fade over time. He says it will get smaller. I know. I massage the fragrant oil into the craggy terrain until the keloids are soft. Heal, my fingertips whisper to the places that were cut.
I take stock of the other scars. There’s the little one on the left side of my belly where the camera was inserted, and one in my belly button, and another on the right side. The surgeon drew me a picture of the procedure and made the incisions into a smiley face. I smile at myself in the mirror thinking about that smiley face. But he forgot to add the stoma, the little red tip of intestine that protrudes out of my skin on the right side of my belly button. Follow the map, there it is. David says it looks like a little penis. I think it resembles a nose. One day I will be wheeled into another O.R. where my surgeon will close up the intestine, drop it back into its rightful cavity and pull my skin closed like a coin purse.
I pivot to see myself in profile. This way and that. I glance all around until I meet my eyes in the mirror. I have watched myself change since getting the cancer diagnosis and starting treatment with so many healers. I am learning to let go, let go, let go of all the heavy bags I’ve carried like a pack rat from one heartache and disappointment to the next. I peek into one of the bags and then another bag, and I realize they all contain the same thing: story after story of shame and self-loathing. I’m learning to lay it all down. Some bags aren’t even mine. Whose have I been carrying and why? No, forget why. It doesn’t matter. Just lay it down. Bury it, burn it. Let the letting go commence!
My face softens. I send that woman in the mirror the sweetest smile. “I love you,” I tell her with my gaze. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’m sorry for the hundreds of ways I have been hard on you and have told you that you weren’t good enough, that you were too fat, too slow, too short, your arms too flabby and belly too big. I’m sorry for directing so much negativity to you, for telling you that you were too much and not enough. I’m sorry for not loving you completely and totally because that’s the only thing you ever deserved.”
And now tears are streaming down her cheeks and onto her neck, the woman in the mirror with her body of secret doors. I hold her tenderly with my gaze, and I feel every one of her sensations. We are the same, of course. Her pain is my pain, and it is the intense wilderness of childbirth, the moment of final release when your body opens wider than you thought possible and the baby slides from one world to the next. It is the sweetest pain of coming home.