I have scars. Some are small, dots of white, thickened skin from IVs and needles. Some are grand and dramatic, hinting of glorious, terrifying wounds. I’ve written here and here about where they came from, so I won’t rehash it again.
I always think of that day in May, shortly after my 37th birthday, as the day everything changed. That day, they opened me up from mid thigh to mid calf, removing the mutated, damaged tissue and bone, replacing it with metal and mechanism. They moved muscle and skin to replace the flesh that was collateral damage, leaving me with lines, plates and textures of scar tissue, a road map of horror and pain and transformation, but also strength and life and continued existence.
That is the line, the immutable border between phases, between states of being. There is my life before and my life after. I was not disabled and then, I was. The lines of those scars are the borders between.
Inhabiting my new body was a journey, relearning how to walk, how to climb stairs, how to things that I had done so easily and habitually before. But more than that, how to live in my newly-scarred skin.
For almost twenty years now, I have circled warily around the changes in my body. While I don’t hate my scars, I’m not sure I love them either. They were inevitable. They are eternal. I cannot escape them or change them. But our relationship is complicated. And though I once was certain I would never wear shorts again, I have no problem showing how my body is. Those scars are truth.
And for a long time now, the desire has been growing to adorn them, to take the truth that they are and transform it into art.
In the years since that day, I have adorned other parts of my body with tattoos, all of which somehow reflect the experience of having cancer. The small Chinese symbol, the Red Dragon from Mah Jongg, on my chest that I had done on the one year anniversary of that surgery, that means both “to attain” and also “middle” Both meanings came to be significant. The image of Death, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, for the time she and I walked side by side. The quote from the song Woman in Chains by Tears for Fears, which so perfectly encapsulated how I felt about my time deep in the enemy territory that is cancer.
But I needed something more; I wanted something that would outline and heighten the white line of scar on my calf, something that would decorate it, show it off. And then, as so often happens, the pieces fell into place and the stars aligned.
One of my sisters had a new watercolour piece done, and I’ve always loved watercolour tattoos. I had seen and saved a photo of a beautiful watercolour atom, with four distinct orbitals and bright blue and pink watercolour energies around it. Initially, it was just a beautiful image that spoke to me, though I didn’t know why. I loved the purity of shape and imagery, but as I planned the placement, realized how I wanted the image to split somehow around the scar, I saw the deeper symbolism that slid perfectly into place. Splitting the atom is unimaginable power, as well as chaos and destruction. It is a moment of catastrophic, primal energy that can also give light and heat. It is change at the most fundamental level.
And it was the perfect metaphor. And the artist in Saskatoon who had created two of my previous pieces was available while I was home visiting family.
The morning before the appointment, I was antsy and rumbling with nerves, though the work was easy and right. I did have to explain again that I was not looking to cover the scar but to heighten it, celebrate it. I explained my concept, and she offered suggestions about placement and execution, which crystallized the concept even more perfectly than I had originally envisioned.
Getting a tattoo is painful, but that’s part of the process, part of the ritual. The needle is piercing your skin, injecting the ink into the tissues, making the design become part of you. But it is a specific, transitory pain, dependent on the weight of line or shading, or the part of the body. And in the position I was in, I could not see what she was doing. It was nothing but sensation, varying in sensation depending on where she was inking and the varying sensitivities of the tissues of my leg. And you are changed by it. As I had been changed on that long ago day in May.
I was surprised when the watercolour shading came out deeper, richer and more muted than I had initially wanted, but it came out more stormy and intense than what I had thought. This just made it more right somehow. And in amongst the lines and colours, my scar leaves these inevitable voids, right down to the way she coloured around the dots of the staples that held the original wound together.
The next day, though, I felt ill and off, as if I had eaten something that disagreed with me. There was something in me, something either physical or mental, that needed to be released, expunged. I had lunch with an old friend, then just rested. I was staying with my sister, but that evening, she and her husband were out. Having grown more sure that what I was experiencing was emotional, I used two songs that are powerful and personal to me (Hold Me in Your Heart and Not My Father’s Son, from the original cast album of Kinky Boots, sung by the amazing Billy Porter) to trick myself into an emotional release.
And boy, did it work. Great, wracking sobs, the kind that feel like they’re coming from the earth beneath your feet and feel like they will shake you apart. Not much. Only about ten minutes. But cathartic and freeing.
That day in May of 2000, I was forever changed, forever modified, forever marked. And even though it began the process that saved my life, it was out of my hands. I had no control. But with this new tattoo, I feel I took those scars back. From the damaged flesh, molded and changed, that artist and I made something amazing and beautiful. I have reclaimed that foreign territory.
I have planted my flag, and I am flying my colours.
Born on the prairies, Stephen Graham King has since traded the big sky for the big city and now lives in Toronto. His first book, Just Breathe, tells the blunt, funny, and uncompromising story of his three-year battle with metastatic synovial sarcoma. Since then, his short fiction has appeared in the anthologies North of Infinity II (Pas de Deux), Desolate Places (Nor Winter’s Cold) and Ruins Metropolis (Burning Stone). His first space opera novel, Chasing Cold, was released in 2012, and the first book in the Maverick Heart series, Soul’s Blood, came out in 2016. The second, Gatecrasher, was released in 2017, and the third, A Congress of Ships, is now available!