The scar was like someone had been in a hurry to get a scoop of ice cream out of the container, like those high school kids who worked behind the counter at Graeter’s on a busy August afternoon when the line for black raspberry chip snaked out the door, dug into my abdomen, crooked and jagged with a big chunk missing. I could scarcely look at it, really only by necessity, when I had to peel away the oversized gauze pad to clean the wound in the shower, and still never directly, kind of just peeked down in the general area, which was a wide general area, squeezed out some warm soapy water from the wash cloth, attempted a halfhearted dab or two, and then cautiously positioned myself under the showerhead to rinse, wincing and squinting although it didn’t hurt at that point, save from some dead skin and scabs that got pulled off with the gauze. It was just the thought of it, the thought that it was there, the thought that I had been laid out and opened up like that.
It wasn’t my first scar. I had lived. I was forty-four. I had been scarred before, inside and out. But those other scars were sharp, crisp, straight lines, pink and puckered, and had healed over. This scar, on the other hand, was anything but: an expansive swath of a cut left to heal from the inside out because of the constant threat of infection, in case the doctors needed to get back in there on a moment’s notice, which was how this had all started to begin with, a consequence of the surgeons having to rush to reach into me and stop the chaos that was ensuing, apparently had been for longer than anyone realized, my colon leaking like the hull of a capsized ship, spilling toxins throughout my body, saturating my failing organs, “a belly full of stool” as one of the surgical residents succinctly described the situation several days after the operation, when I was lying stiff and motionless and dumbfounded on a rigid hospital bed in a haze of morphine and whatever else was dripping into my vein from the IV stand perched over my shoulder like a cartoon pterodactyl, which was how I saw it, one of many hallucinations during that week in the ICU along with visions of precocious children playing about me (visions of my future children perhaps?) and my long-deceased grandfather sitting vigil in the corner, and so many vibrant colors and breathtaking images, a tranquil beach scene on the ceiling, swaying palm trees and squawking seagulls, diving into a crisp, cool pool of mango-flavored Gatorade because I was thirsty, unbelievably thirsty, but the doctors would not allow me to drink, and all the music, from the calliope symphony created by the impressive, intimidating, science fiction-looking beeping and buzzing and humming and murmuring machines I was connected to that monitored everything about me and streamed the results to the nurses’ station on the other side of the sliding glass door to what I swore was country music being performed live out in the hallway, something classic and traditional, a duet, a man and a woman, maybe Kenny and Dolly, or George and Tammy.
You just laughed at me and my medically-induced ramblings, a welcomed divergence of comic relief in what was otherwise an especially dim stretch in our life together. I was told over and over during my convalescence that I was “a very sick young man” – the “young man” I didn’t mind, given my age and how I felt so much older, but the “very sick” part I didn’t need to be reminded. I already felt it. I already knew. We both did. Although you never let on, would never acknowledge, not in my presence anyway, that my situation was as dire as it was. You become the strong one. You had to be. I was broken. You were right there, next to me, throughout, turning the cramped hospital room into our home away from home, lugging in your stuff, clothes and toiletries and games and books and snacks, and setting icons around, the Virgin Mary glancing down at me sympathetically, and taping all the get-well cards that kept coming in from people you had to tell me who they were on the wall opposite me, above and beneath and on either side of the dry erase board where my nurses wrote their names and the date and their instructions for me that day (“sit up today,” “get out of bed”), none of which held much meaning to me. I just stared out, blankly ahead, unfocused without my glasses and straining to stay awake. You supervised the nursing staff and the cleaning personnel and the transport team that would whisk me away, to get x-rayed, or for procedures, or once, much to your displeasure, and inexplicably, in the middle of the night to be weighed by some pulley system contraption (to calm me, you helped me find the humor in it – “good hospital, terrible hotel”). You consulted with the doctors, taking copious notes in a spiral-ringed journal you had bought downstairs in the lobby shop, notes that you would later read back to me when I was lucid, relatively speaking, with all of the best intentions to keep me informed, even if I never really could comprehend any of it, too drugged up, too dazed and confused, just too out-of-it, my mind shifting into neutral to protect me from what my body had gone through, and still had ahead, not wanting to alarm me anymore than I was. My surgeon assured me, almost apologizing – yet he had no reason to since he did save my life by the way – that he would “fix it,” the scar, during the next operation, at least make it a little more presentable, a little less gruesome, and that he would fix me, too. I had no idea how and could not fathom it, could only lie there and trust that everyone knew what they were doing, and that this would all, somehow, turn out alright in the end. But the scar would always be there, in some form or another, and that was okay with me. I had earned that scar. We both had.
In a way, and for a long time, I blamed myself. It was my body, after all, that suddenly decided to attack itself, my stupid intestines that had succumbed to this disease, my fault that we had to cancel the Valentine’s Day dinner we had joked about for so long – a $10 heart-shaped pepperoni pizza from Bearno’s, where we had our first date eight years or so ago, and a $150 bottle of Opus One that a vendor for my company had given me for the holidays. I was the one who got sick, who thought it was nothing, a bug or the flu that was going around, or a touch of food poisoning from that bison burger I had eaten over the weekend that could have stood to stay on the grill a bit longer, (my mom thought it was stress), and that it would pass. But it didn’t pass, it got worse. I got worse, no matter how much you rubbed my stomach and kissed my forehead and fed me chicken broth and wobbly cubes of lime Jell-O. A couple weeks later I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis – and I had never been so eager to get a colonoscopy, but I was desperate to find out what the hell was wrecking my body so – and twenty days after that, and some fifty pounds lighter and so incapacitated I could barely move on my own, an entirely different person from the runner, the triathlete, the athlete, I was being wheeled into a cold and empty operating room late on a Monday night as a team of doctors and surgeons scrambled to come together to remove what was left of my disintegrating colon – and how I had fought to keep it, the attorney in me, even then, arguing in defense of such a useless body part – and save my life, or our life.
It was my illness, although you, in a cruel twist that life sometimes dished out, God’s little practical jokes I would say when I was particularly bitter and discouraged, in those weeks and months firmly entrenched within my recovery, which seemed endless, and was painful, and I had nothing to do all day but wait to get better and contemplate my uncertain future, suffered from colitis as well, longer than me, had been diagnosed shortly after we were married, so I knew what I was dealing with, knew what I was up against. But mine progressed a lot faster than yours – I had always been an overachiever, my little joke to our GI doctor when he told me that my condition, my swift and sudden demise, only occurred in less than ten percent of all UC patients – and for that I was glad, would not have wished this on my worst enemies, and that was saying a lot. This was still our crisis though, our tragedy, another pothole in our journey (remember when I got fired, blindsided, a few months before our wedding and was out of work for over a year?) and it would ultimately be just the two of us fighting this thing after the last of the cards and flower arrangements and visits and home cooked meals graciously brought over wrapped in foil or tucked into airtight Tupperware with scribbled writing on yellow post-it notes that told of the contents.
You put your life on hold, moved into the hospital with me every time I had surgery, each of those three “car wrecks,” my surgeon’s spot-on metaphor for the series of gut-wrenching, pun intended, operations I had to endure, curled up in one outdated, unyielding, uncomfortable chair after another, eating take-out food from Styrofoam containers and feeling bad about it – although you had absolutely no reason to since you did save my life too – for eating in front of me because you knew I couldn’t eat, or when I could I was limited, had to be content, and I wasn’t, to merely inhale the heavenly aroma of the greasy fried chicken fingers you sneaked out of the box and quickly stuck in your mouth, chewing tight-lipped and quiet and with an urgency to get it down and done with before I could wallow in my self-pity. You studied every move of my ostomy nurse, the gregarious former hockey player with a penchant for comic books, who was entirely not what I had expected when I first heard the exceedingly foreign term “ostomy nurse,” so that you could tend to my stoma – which you wanted, and I persisted in resisting, did not want to be any more attached to it than I needed to be, to call Stan – upon my discharge, and until I was well enough to bend forward toward it and had overcome the numbing shock of seeing a piece of my intestine that seemed to have its own personality and did whatever it damn well pleased poking out near my waistline, making it difficult to wear normal pants – although least of my worries. Once we got home, you camped out downstairs in the living room with me, our “slumber party,” for those first several months when the task of climbing the stairs, even in our modest two-story Cape Cod, was as daunting to me and my ravaged body as ascending Everest. You changed my bandages and my ostomy pouch as I lied all the way back in that awful electric lift chair we rented from the medical supply store and stared up at the stucco pattern on the ceiling, longing to be running around the loop at Cherokee Park, as hard and as fast as I could, as I had been doing the Saturday morning right before I got sick and feared I might not ever be able to do again.
You were unstoppable. You did it all. You made sure I always had something to drink because I had become prone to dehydration – and I guessed I should have paid more attention in my high school biology class or during my brief tenure as a pre-Med major because I had no idea that the colon was responsible for absorbing fluids into the body – and enough to eat to build up my strength, which I was reluctant to do because eating would inevitably lead to my ostomy pouch getting full and then I would have to empty it, and I could never seem to do that without spilling everywhere, like the mint chocolate chip milkshake for Easter that came out as fluorescent green goop that stained my pajama loungers, the ones emblazoned with Sesame Street characters you had bought for me at Target to lift my mood one day when I was down and which I boldly wore out in public for our strolls because who would say anything about it, a grown man wearing something like that, in the shape I was in, brittle and beaten and hunched over a walker, and I dared them to. You filled out my disability forms, argued with the insurance companies, paid the bills, and eventually managed to return to your job and your career, the both of us struggling with separation anxiety, and you still read to me at night to help me fall asleep. You heaved cases of flavored water and gargantuan tubs of peanut butter from Costco, mixed up protein smoothies with your own special recipe that I could never replicate, and helped me wash myself in the sink – until I could trek upstairs to shower.
You stuck with me, without a word, without batting an eye, without so much as a giggle, unless it was a giggle we were sharing, our own sick inside joke – the way kids laughed impishly when they squished slugs in the backyard or farted at the dinner table – when the most revolting, repulsive, repellent sounds and smells and substances erupted from my body, a body I no longer seemed to have any control over. I never felt more disgusting, more disgusted, yet you still told me you loved me. And you prayed for me and rallied everyone else, everyone at church and at work and your innumerable Facebook friends, to pray for me too, even when I hated God for what He had allowed to happen to me, on His watch, when I would have expected Him to do a better job of having my back. But, as it turned out, He did have my back, always did, it just took me awhile, typical, to realize it. He had my back the moment I spotted you singing up in the choir loft, when I happened on into your church that Sunday, at the last minute and on a whim, just had a feeling I needed to be there, and while I might have told Father Atty I was only visiting, I ended up staying, and within an existence I often thought was replete with poor judgment, that was one of the best decisions I had ever made.
At the end of it all, that lost year that really wasn’t when I thought about it and processed everything and allowed myself to learn from it, about resilience and perseverance and faith, my surgeon was right, and he did fix me, put everything back inside me that was supposed to be inside me and rendered my body fully functional again (“not the way God created you, but close”) and he fixed my scar, turned it into more of what one of the nurses in the hospital that last time thought resembled a road map spread out across my stomach, warped and bumpy, leading south for awhile then making an abrupt, erratic turn west, and then southwest, and heading out somewhere completely unchartered, until the road gently faded away. And that was okay with me. That somehow seemed fitting, and right, a perfect depiction of how it had been. The scar made it look like I had been through a lot, and we had.
Peter Stavros received a bachelor’s degree in English from Duke University, and he studied creative writing on a graduate level at Emerson College and Harvard University. His work has appeared in The Courier-Journal, Literary LEO, and various news and business publications.
“Scar” is adapted from Peter’s recently completed memoir detailing his struggle with ulcerative colitis to raise awareness of this chronic disease that affects so many yet can be difficult to discuss.
Peter lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife.