Wounded flesh is forever engraved upon my chest. Forty-two years now. Strangers’ eyes are drawn downward to this, unexpected, shocking. “What is that on her chest?” I imagine them thinking. Again and again, they struggle to pull their eyes away, to meet mine. So pronounced with its half-inch wide emblem of invasion, of repair—reddened, raised. Don’t be embarrassed—I want to say—that your eyes keep returning to the scar peeking out from my v-neck sweater. Many have been jarred by the sight; curious about its origin.
When the scar was fresh from open heart surgery, stares were more frequent, more intense, burning a hole through my skin or so I imagined. Perhaps because, in 1971, heart surgery was uncommon, and I was a young college student on leave from classes so the hole in my heart—an atrial septal defect they called it—could be repaired with a Teflon patch. In the years that followed, I imagined the scar—still fresh and red as a neon sign or so it seemed to me—calling attention to itself and me.
From the base of my neck, the scar creeps downward 12 inches, ending with two small perpendicular incisions where drainage tubes rested in the days after surgery. Beneath the skin, sternum and ribs—broken so surgeons could access my heart and, then, wired back together—emitted messages of pain as they struggled to mend.
Some people were more openly curious and blunt in their reactions. Home from the hospital recovering, clothes hanging loosely from my body, I stopped by the ice cream parlor—where I had created spiraling pyramids of whipped cream atop sundaes—to visit co-workers. Perhaps shaken by my pallor and seeing the incision for the first time, my boss blurted out, “Are you going to have plastic surgery?”
Another time, a salesclerk, as she handed me dresses in a fitting room, said, “Oh, my. Did you have gall bladder surgery?”
Worst was when, conducting an interview with a state politician for my college newspaper, he interrupted my questions to ask, “Did someone stab you?”
What teenage girl wants flesh—where so recently breasts blossomed—sliced in half, even when dead by 30 is the alternative? Still, over the decades, I have adapted to this imprint of survival. As the redness has faded and the tissue has softened, the grip of self consciousness has loosened. I embrace inquiries about this scar of mine and, sometimes, when I notice furtive glances at my chest, will even volunteer: “It was heart surgery.”
Susan Cousins Breen’s literary interest is creative nonfiction. She also writes profiles for regional and college magazines. She is a New Jersey native, who grew up in the northwestern part of the state, and now lives in Gloucester County not far from the Commodore Barry Bridge.