Centipede Dreams, scar from a benign tumor taken out when I was 12 (37 years ago), September 2010, photo © 2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
Most people no longer ask about the large blemish I have in the center of my throat, down where my larynx meets my chest. It’s a tracheotomy scar that must be getting lighter the longer I have it. When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for perfect strangers to approach me in public places and ask, “What happened there?”
I had the tracheotomy at age 18 months after a croup turned to pneumonia. It was an emergency operation, part of my childhood mythology, the small Mexican doctor with wild hair who stabbed open a hole in my trachea so I could breathe. She had a frantic look in her eye, her hair loose and Bride-of-Frankenstein-like, and she held the sharp instrument up in the air before bringing it down to pierce my throat.
That’s the image I hold of her anyway, an image formed out of the seemingly hundreds of times I heard my parents tell the story. It was the kind of improbable drama — the dying child whose life is saved by a small doctor who is both Mexican and a woman — with a happy ending that held friends and relatives rapt year after year. I loved the attention, standing near my parents, Mom nudging me to lift my chin so everyone could see the scar. A few gentle strokes of her fingers on the chamois-soft skin, rubbing as if to say, “See, it’s permanent.”
In each telling I embellished the imagery. When my parents described the moment they decided to rush me to the hospital, how my lips had turned blue and I’d stopped breathing, my mind’s eye pictured the veins and blood from my body shimmering purple through translucent skin. Or when Mom and Dad said that my hair went from straight to curly “just like that” as I lay in the oxygen tent in ICU, I saw it happening as if in time lapse photography. Like the stockinged feet of the Wicked Witch of the West curling after Dorothy removes the ruby slippers, so went my hair, forming into tiny ringlets all over my head.
It must be natural, I think, for a young kid to turn her childhood stories into morbid scenes, but what strikes me is how much staying power those scenes have. I don’t replace them with more reasonable pictures — a modest Mexican woman with hair pulled back in a bun, a ride on the gurney into a stark emergency room at the hospital. No, my scenes involve my parents bursting through a set of double doors, my limp blue body draped across Dad’s arms, them watching in horror as the doctor plunges a knife — or better, a pair of sharp scissors — into my throat. Or my parents watching in awe as my hair springs up in a bouquet of curl all around my head, like an angel’s.
I don’t have such vivid imagery when it comes to the scar on my knee, although being that I got it at the impressionable age of 12, I did manage to fabricate a mythology around that one, too. I developed a crush on the orthopedic surgeon who did the procedure — my parents said he looked like a hippie, which made him all the more intriguing. In my mind, his golden hair flows out from under a light blue surgeon’s cap and he dons a small silver hoop in his ear. I clearly recall him coming to visit me after the operation, carrying the kind of Bell jar used for canning fruit. Inside is my white globular tumor floating in a yellowish brine. I’m surprised it isn’t perfectly round, like a golf ball.
The scar from that procedure resembles a centipede on the inside of my right knee, and once after a real centipede crawled across my leg while I played hide-and-seek in the coat closet, I decided to tell any kid who asked me how I got the scar that it was left there by a centipede that seared itself into my skin. “That’s how centipedes bite,” I told them, “they burn themselves right into you.”
Kids looked at me with respect after that, but my story fell apart once they began asking all the questions that come with the idea of centipede-as-branding-iron. “What happened to the centipede?” “Well, it dried up and fell off,” I said one time, and then another time, “It dissolved right into the skin, see?, you can still see parts of it here.” Soon I became tired of the technicality of it all, I couldn’t keep the story straight and over time I left behind the centipede saga and kept only the image of my long-haired doctor.
My latest epic scar involves two puncture wounds on the outer bridge of my nose, close to my eyes, that our rooster Lindo gave me when he tried blinding me with his spurs. Lindo and I shared a mutual animosity, he was a beautiful cocky bird who had such an intense hatred that the moment he spied me coming out the door he would strut my way with the intent to fight. I took to carrying a bundle of dried bamboo stalks, which I used to whack him as I made my way to whatever part of the yard I needed to go. He’d come after me again and again until my stalks splintered into pieces, at which point I took off at a full out run.
Ultimately he got the better of me, one evening when I let down my guard. I had gone armed only with a bowl of compost into the bird pen. I bent down to throw a piece of lettuce to the bunny who lived there with the roosters, turkeys, and ducks, and Lindo saw his opening. He flew up at my face, spurs aimed at my eyes. He almost got them, too, and I’m not embellishing when I say that I traumatized my youngest daughter when I stood up screaming, blood streaming like tears down my cheeks.
The strange thing is that no one notices the scars unless I point them out. One time, at a luncheon in China, I sat next to a German man who had the exact same two puncture wound scars near his eyes. All through lunch, I wanted to ask if he, too, had been attacked by a rooster. But I barely knew the man. I tried to imagine every other possible reason he might have carried scars identical to mine. Maybe he’d suffered terrible acne that resulted in two pimples near his eyes. Or perhaps as a teen he wore black leather and sported a purple Mohawk and a piece of bone pierced through the bridge of his nose.
In the end, I couldn’t think of a way to broach the subject without embarrassing us both or drawing attention from the six other European men at the table. However, in my mind, I am certain that the very thing that happened to me also happened to him. Anything is possible.
Postscript: This essay is based on a 15-minute Writing Practice in response to WRITING TOPIC – SCARS. The details that emerged from my Writing Practice were similar to other times when I’ve done timed writing that led to stories about my tracheotomy (specifically here and here) so I figured it was time to polish the narrative. Plus, since it contains important elements of my life story, especially my earliest years, I wanted to go with the energy, hoping it might turn into something I can weave later into memoir.