“I can’t wear this.”
I stare at the pretty new pink and black gymnastics suit eight-year-old Zoë is holding, take a breath, and silently count to five.
“I need sleeves. Please? I have to have sleeves.”
I let out the breath, glad I waited. She is pleading, panicky. This is about her shoulder.
Zoë had shoulder surgery last year to remove a mole. Our trusted pediatrician, the dermatologist, and the surgeon all agreed — better safe than sorry, they said — but now, a large scar has taken the place of her medium mole, and the scar is growing. Along the path etched by Dr. C’s scalpel, instead of thin white scars, the rejoined skin has swollen into thick, angry pink ropes that are now growing faster than the mole ever did.
This is called a hypertrophic scar, or a keloid, depending on whom you ask. Connective tissue cells begin multiplying to repair a wound, and for some reason, they don’t stop after the healing. Zoë’s surgeon assured us that if she wore silicon bandages eight hours a day for a while, the scar would flatten and soften, but a year later it remains gristly, pink, and bulbous. Poor Zoë had looked forward to the day kids would stop pointing at the furry spot on her shoulder and asking, “What’s that?” Now it’s worse.
I say, “Scars are good, they show how tough you are.” She lowers her head and looks away, which is what she does when I’m not letting her have her own feelings.
“You are beautiful, smart, funny, and kind,” I say. “People who make fun of a scar aren’t worth your time anyway.”
“My best friend makes fun of it!” she crackles, “I hate it! It hurts, and it looks bad, and I wish I never was born!”
I don’t know how to respond to this without giving the wrong message. I want her to be strong and defiant, to tell those kids, “It’s part of me — learn to love it!” But she’s embarrassed and hurt and needs to fit in, and I understand; the scar disturbs me, too. Its color is loud, like an accusation. Against my best instincts, I allowed this man to cut my baby. I did it to protect her, but instead I’ve harmed her.
Her skin is my own; my blood flows there, and as if we are one, my skin is troubled now, too. Last week, I was in my dermatologist’s office. Four-year-old Cleo sat on the chair next to me, whispering to her doll as the doctor took my hand in hers and ran my fingers along the bridge of my nose.
“You feel that?”
I nodded. The scaly, dry patch had been there for so long, I barely noticed it any more.
“Does that area ever get peely?” the doctor asked.
I frowned. “Yes . . . why?”
She was nodding. “It’s called keratosis. It’s pre-cancerous, but nothing to worry about. If you let it go, it would turn into a bleeding sore that never went away.”
“The good news is, there’s a new cream that will clear it up, so we don’t even have to freeze it off — it’s totally painless.”
I’m pre-cancerous, I thought. I need a cream.
I had known this was coming. When I was 11, Marilyn Carlson and I lay for entire afternoons on the hot concrete pool deck in our bikinis, alternately applying suntan oil and peeling long, papery sheets of skin off of each other’s backs. Sometimes I got so burnt the pain reached deep beneath the surface, a throbbing, dull fever-ache that lasted all night. In the bathroom before bed my Ma, about the age I am now, turned confidently to the product of the era and tenderly applied soothing, cool Noxzema skin cream to my young shoulders. “Oh, honey,” she’d say behind me, her voice small and full of dismay as I tensed against the shock of cold on my scorched skin. I loved her attention, her patient, gentle hands on me, delivering relief in this seasonal ritual.
A doctor once told me that we Lockharts were not genetically fit to live at this latitude. By the time she retired, Ma had her own skin issues. Her dermatologist froze growths off of her scalp, her face, and, oddly, the backs of her fingers, which had rested atop the steering wheel of her Honda Civic through decades of commuting through the California sunshine. Small, brown spots appeared on all ten fingers, like a row of seedlings sprouting up every year, and every year, the dermatologist harvested them. Ma took this as confirmation that pollution was destroying the ozone layer and quietly wrote another check to the Sierra Club.
After she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I discovered Ma had missed her last several dermatology appointments, but while her calendar skills had dwindled, she still worried about sun exposure. She stashed tubes of SPF 50 the way an alcoholic stashes bottles — in pockets and under beds, in the recesses between couch pillows — and furtively applied it (sloppily — she spread it on but not in) before every excursion. “Did you sunscreen the kids?” she’d anxiously inquire, pulling her ever-present greasy blue hat down around her ears as we left for the park, and then when we got there she’d repeat, “You’d better sunscreen the kids.” Her maternal instincts were intact, though her brain was disintegrating just as surely as her skin was.
I thought about how the cells of Ma’s brain and skin had differentiated from the same germline back in Grandma’s womb, and now they were both filling with junk. The doctors could remove the little growths from her fingers but not the senile plaques accumulating like microscopic scars in her temporal lobes. And the answer was always emphatically yes: I had sun-screened the kids. I’ve become as compulsive as the demented when it comes to that.
We take care as best we can. Ma put me in the fresh air and sunshine so I’d grow strong and healthy. I put Zoë under the knife to protect her from cancer. Our bodies go haywire — with senile plaques, gristly pink connective tissue, skin weak and permeable, as tender as a soap bubble about to pop. But damaged or not, skin plays a key role as we muddle through. I can still feel Ma’s strong, freckled arms around me, her firm kiss goodnight, her tentative fingers spreading Noxzema across my shoulders; I carry with me the feel and the smell of Zoë’s and Cleo’s soft cheeks, which I kiss every night as they sleep. Skin is for comfort.
As Zoë holds out the gymnastics suit, I kneel, hug her to me, and lay my weathered cheek against her smooth one, stilling both of us with the contact. When we draw apart, I kiss each of her soft, narrow shoulders with equal care and head to the basement to find a suit with sleeves.
Sybil Lockhart is a compulsive journal-writer. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood Literary E-zine. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and two daughters.