Because my son was born so early and spent the first six months of his life in the hospital, his body offers up a latticework of scars. Dotting his feet are the tiny marks where blood was drawn, hundreds of times; along his ankles and wrists, deeper, twisted scars where doctors cut into veins, attempting to place lines and probes; along his forehead, more signs of pinpricks and IV’s.
At first, with his tender baby skin, Evan’s marks were obvious and startling. As he has grown, they have faded the same way my memories have. I used to know the source of each scar. Today, when I run my finger along them, I often can no longer remember the moment that brought each one.
Along his stomach, though, there are marks I cannot envision ever fading. When I lift his shirt I see them, a six-inch long marvel of scars, starting like a jungle gym at the top of his sternum and ending in something far less orderly: a triangle of deep, circular scars where his belly button ought to be.
These are the marks of my son’s most recent surgery, and of his very first.
Evan’s most recent surgery was performed when he was six months old. Due to his extreme prematurity, my son had difficulty sucking and swallowing. Before we could bring him home, the doctors informed us that he would require a feeding tube. The surgeon went in, placed the feeding tube, repaired a hiatal hernia at the same time and left behind a six-inch scar from sternum to stomach, dotted on either side with no less than twenty stitches.
My son’s first surgery took place six months earlier, when he was only a few hours old. The surgeon arrived in the NICU late at night to perform an “umbilical cut down.” In babies born as small as Evan, the largest artery — and the one most often used to monitor blood pressure — happens to be in the umbilical cord. To access this artery, the surgeon had to cut through what was left of Evan’s miniature stump and sew a probe deep into his body.
This procedure left Evan’s original belly button little more than a tangle of scar and skin, those three pools on his stomach where the other scars end. When the surgeon went to place his feeding tube — the same surgeon who performed the umbilical cut down — I said to her, “I have a bone to pick with you about my son’s belly button!” To this day a child will see Evan’s stomach and ask, “What’s wrong with his belly button?” and, “Why does he have three of them?”
The ancient Greeks referred to the “omphalos” (or navel) as the center of the world. For a mother, there is nothing more totemic than an infant’s belly button, that critical site of connection between her life and that of the baby. When I think of Evan’s three belly buttons, I often think they represent what I am missing: a connection to my son unmarred by medical interventions. But like so many of the mysteries of my son’s life I have come to see beauty in this imperfection. I sometimes wonder, for example, if Evan’s three belly buttons aren’t intentional. One for himself, one for his twin sister who died, and maybe even one for his own sweet mother, to prove to the world he’s hers.