April 24, 2020
On April 24, 2018 I got a tattoo.
It wasn’t my first. I know how I react, how I receive the sting of the needle, the buzz of the tool. I know the excitement of watching an idea come to life on my body. I relish the rush of fear over its permanence followed by acceptance and satisfaction. I have several. This should have been no big thing, no different from the others.
But the body remembers even when we do not.
I’m not an edgy person. My ink is subtle and easily hidden. But this one… the artist had an idea. She laid the stencil down across my chest. It felt bold and scary and it made a statement. Before I could overthink it she went to work.
Her finishing strokes brushed over the small, pink port scar that most days I tried to ignore. The pain was like a gauntlet thrown. I had accepted the challenge and won. I stood up and looked in the mirror and began to cry. Happy but unexpected tears.
Because the body remembers even when we do not.
Bandaged up and on my way, in my car the feelings grew. Big tears, sobby tears, a mix of grief and fear and relief. A catharsis? The whisper of something wanting to shout.
I went on with my day, repeatedly passing the mirror, each time peeling back the bandage with joy and trepidation. I focused on my work, my hands creating human connection. Most days my work is a sanctuary but not today.
Because today my body remembered.
With no room for expression, FEAR the size of which I’d never felt, washed over me like the icy waters that swallowed the Titanic. I wanted to run, to drop to my knees, to scream, to vomit. Emotions I’m not sure I felt even with the words “you have cancer” now demanded recognition. I bit my lip and scrunched up my eyes while my hands and breath tried to belie what was happening to the rest of me.
What were these feelings? Why in this moment? Was it regret? Focus on the ink, the word, the picture, the placement. Did it feel wrong?
No, no, no all was good there! So what was this? Where was this coming from? My body knew what to expect from this minor trauma so why was I spinning out of control? As I probed my soul with questions, the answer came quietly from within.
From my body, in a sigh….
“My scar. That needle penetrating my scar. That bandage covering half my chest that feels so horribly familiar to two surgeries invading me with a little piece of plastic that’s impact was so much more than its size. I remember and now it is time you do too.”
They all told me I would love my port – it would be my friend and save the veins in my arm – the placement and removal would be nothing.
They were wrong.
It hurt for days when they put it in, the sticky bandages that aggravated my skin even more than the incision itself. I hated that bump in my chest that stuck out and never seemed to want to hide. I hated the smell of the lidocaine cream that numbed it so they could hook me up for hours to medicine I needed but that sent me on a physical and emotional rollercoaster for months. It was the right thing to do but it wasn’t my friend. It was a necessity and one I was glad to be rid of.
And now I felt that bandage covering my chest. I felt the tenderness of a fresh wound of my own doing in the very spot that was working so hard to heal. My body remembered when I had not. That one inch scar held my pain and my fear and my hatred for that plastic mountain and all it symbolized.
I had been a trooper they said. I had smiled. I stayed positive. But I didn’t see that my shiny attitude wasn’t the only part of me carrying the weight of my experience.
This body, this vessel, my only true earthly home.
She had been cut, prodded, sewn, glued, punctured, and assaulted in so many ways just so I could have the chance to keep her around as long as possible. And now she was sharing her story with me. Making me remember emotions I let her carry for me when I wasn’t strong enough to do it on my own. Reminding me that she had wisdom I pretended to ignore.
Not by design, but clearly not by coincidence, that day was the one year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis.
It was hubris to think I could escape unscathed, that I was above or beyond a date on a calendar. It was egotistical to think my body would ignore it just because I tried to, when she deserved so much more respect. I am learning that recovery is about more than healing the scars the world can see. It’s about healing the ones that are hidden deep inside and for that I am grateful that my body remembered.
“The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers. Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves. Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.”
— Clarissa Pinkola Estes
(edited from the original version written on 4/30/18)
Amy Hartl is a woman living with a breast cancer history and a mutated BRCA1 gene. She has built a career helping women come back to their bodies and their sense of self through the power of human connection. As We Are Now LLC is her latest effort at helping women recover, reconnect, and reclaim their bodies after breast cancer. She also loves to make homemade granola, listen to Broadway soundtracks, and geek out on Apple technology. She never gets tired of Mexican food, misses her dad beyond words, and wishes she would finally make time to learn how to play the damn guitar.
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