Throughout my relationship with my Beetle I rebuilt the engine twice, both times stripping it down to washers and bolts and then putting it back together, good as new, some of the parts cleaned up, some refurbished, and others discarded and replaced with brand new parts. Each time I put the engine together again, you’d never have guessed that a week earlier its parts had been strewn about my driveway in a disarray no one would have recognized as a car engine.
My body, however, is different. It wasn't designed to be taken apart, and there really are no parts that you can simply take out and replace—not “as good as new,” anyway. Each time I’ve been taken apart and laid out on an operating table with my bolts and washers all over the place, my surgeon cleaned me up, took out the broken bits, and then did his best to put me together again, as good as new. But each time, the process was more complex than with my Beetle. Each time, there were consequences to the action, and I was never again the same. Despite the skill of my surgeon, there were scars.
Scars: some were visible, like the permanent zipper on my abdomen, spoiling the potential for the perfect abs I’d always dreamed I’d develop some day. Other scars were deeper inside, scar tissue that invaded my body at its core. And, of course, there were psychological scars, which came from the trauma of the incident, the long shadow of death, and the realization that something had been taken from me which I’d never get back. Some of those emotional scars are still present, although not really evident until poked at by a mind trying to remember.
I recall sitting in a Starbucks as I put the finishing touches on my book, What I Learned from Cancer, sifting through medical records and remembering. I did a brief calculation about the spans of time in my cancer treatment and recovery, and I wrote this:
It had been 15 years, 3 months, and 14 days since cancer had been removed from my body. 5,584 days since my abdomen had been violated by the cut of a scalpel searching for the villain amidst the blood. And on that day, the sign reading, “5,584 days cancer-free,” came down and was replaced with one reading, “This body is out of order, again.”
And what was remarkable about the writing was that, 7 years after the incident it described, it drew tears. I sat at my table in the corner of Starbucks for half an hour, and I cried. I cried because that scar—the one I had not even known was there—hurt when I moved a certain way, and because, for a while, that pain would not subside.
The Japanese have an art form called kintsugi, a word which literally means “golden joinery,” and a technique which, for centuries, has been used to repair broken ceramics. Like the human body, pottery cannot be put together “as good as new” once it has been broken; the cracks will always remain. But in kintsugi, gold is mixed with the bonding material, creating a glue which not only repairs the piece back to its original function but also celebrates the repair. The cracks become the beauty in an otherwise ordinary piece.
Every nick, every cut, be it shallow or deep, invisible or substantial, each represents a change in me, a mark in my history. Each is a story, a part of the narrative of my life. With each scar I get to choose, whether to see it as something ugly which mars an otherwise pristine surface or to imagine it as revealing my true golden self beneath, a self born of trauma and turmoil and heartache. And while I am tempted to hide these scars, these imperfections, I refuse to do so. They are, for me, evidence of a life lived. Evidence that I was here and that I would not walk away without a fight.
I have had cancer twice and it has been ten years since the last incision began to turn to a scar. My body will never—can never—again be “as good as new.” Cancer and surgery have made sure of that. But I celebrate my repair. I can look at my scars and celebrate my recovery from crisis as well as all that the journey has made and will continue to make of me. I can show off my golden joinery and believe that somewhere in the breaking, I have become something even better than new.
His latest book, What I Learned from Cancer, is available in all forms at his web store: http://dennismaione.com/store. Shipping on copies of the softcover edition is always free (except to the International Space Station).