Some Scars Never Heal

A ping-pong-ball-sized lump on my abdomen was the least of my problems

I like scars. Behind a scar is a story. Scar stories can be intimate and revealing. A straightforward answer like, “I fell on the playground at 3,” could elicit more questions: “What happened next?” “Were you scared?” “What did your mother do?”

My only scar for most of my life was a quarter-inch white, smooth line above my right knee. It’s from the May Company department store escalator in Panorama City, California, when I was 7 and my mother pulled me back as I descended because she saw a dress she liked. You can’t blame her.

Those days, they had everything you need in a department store including an emergency medical kit that happened to be in the same area where I was taken when I wandered away from my mother so they could announce through the store that a little girl was lost. A large bandage was placed over the gash on my knee that probably need stitches and my mother went back for the dress. Looking at the scar reminds me that I was a little lost girl.

Two years ago, while the worst snowstorm in years brought the east coast to a halt, I was standing in front of a mirror at a Florida resort frowning over myself in a bikini (as women tend to do no matter how feminist or great-looking they are). Then I saw what at first I thought was a trick of shadows, but was in fact a ping-pong-ball-sized lump on my abdomen. The lump was malleable — like I could grab it and remove it, if were not contained by my flesh.

“Lipoma,” said my doctor. “Are you sure it’s not cancer of the upper slightly left abdomen where no organs reside?” I asked. She suggested I have it removed and biopsied, but she was sure. Lipomas are benign fatty tumors that usually occur in people over 40 and may be hereditary, said my Google search.

Quick side trip to 2004: My mother called me while I was parking my car at the supermarket. “Are you sitting down?” she said. “Sort of,” I answered. “What’s up?” My mother never called. We had a difficult relationship. “You have a brother,” she said, as if she were a 70-year-old giving birth.

I was the first person who met Russ because I lived in Massachusetts and he was in New York and the rest of the family was in California. He told me it took a detective years to find us. My mother gave him up for adoption when I was just over a year old. She was a teenager. He had a different father than I. She gave birth to him in a home for unwed mothers, which means most of my first year was not with my mother but my grandparents. His existence changed my whole childhood.

I thought about Russ while I lay in the Florida sunshine, ghostly pale in my mid-winter bikini, trying not to examine my new growth. Russ was an attractive guy, dark-skinned from his Latino father, otherwise a dead-ringer for my Russian-Jewish mother. That was the first thing I noticed, with a bitter resentment for this latecomer who resembled my mother, while my half-sister and I resembled our fathers. The second thing was that he had large bulging orbs up and down his arms. “Lipomas,” he told me when he caught me staring.

The surgeon marveled that I reached my mid-50s and never had surgery or maybe she was placating or infantilizing me because I was a chicken. “I want to watch. No, I don’t want to watch,” I said. “Are you going to show me this lipoma thing?” I asked.

I chattered away nervously until she sternly shushed me and mixed some numbing potion. So I lay back, my feelings hurt. She made an incision, poked around, and then reached into the orifice she carved into my body.

“You know that painting by Caravaggio, 'The Incredulity of Saint Thomas'? I’m Jesus and you’re Doubting Thomas.” I said, as she pulled from the incision what looked like something from my Jewish grandmother’s kitchen — a matjes herring in sour cream or a chicken liver. I screamed and covered my eyes. “I can see your abdominal muscles. I got the entire thing,” she said, as she beckoned over the nurse to have a peek.

I took a picture of my scar and sent it to my friend Jenny who also likes scars. “It looks like you were in a knife fight,” she said. “As a cast member of ‘West Side Story,’” she added. We laughed.

I never saw Russ, my half-brother, again. My mother used me to check him out, but then made certain I would not have a relationship with him or his family. But that’s another story. “Family is not blood but loyalty,” I always say. Lipomas aside.

The next time I have a chance to explain why I have a scar on my stomach, maybe I’ll say with a smile, “A knife fight.”