What I Saw In My Mother's Stretch Marks
These are my stretch marks. I made them.
I wrote those words in the notebook I kept last summer, right next to where I had been keeping track of my mother’s vital signs.
When you go to a hospital room day after day, week after week, certain things become routine: the greeting of nurses, the checking of status updates. You become accustomed to seeing a loved one in a strange and otherworldly state. But then other things grab your thoughts and turn ordinary into extraordinary.
I’d arrived in my mother’s hospital room for the day and I was struck by her body, this shell that had carried her for 60 years. To say it had given her a hard time was an understatement: breast cancer, then kidney cancer, liver failure, and finally a metastatic brain tumor. And she wasn’t always kind to it, either: an adulthood of smoking, a decade of drinking, a lifetime obsession with baked goods, and an allergy to exercise. She made no excuses and never felt sorry for herself, at least what she showed to me.
It had been a couple of days since our last good conversation. She wasn’t opening her eyes anymore or eating, but she was fidgeting. She must have been scratching her belly because her kelly green shirt was pulled up to just beneath her remaining breast. Her belly, round with fluid, was there for me to see.
For a fleeting moment, I felt I should turn my eyes and cover her up. My mother was self-conscious about her body. The only evidence she’d ever gone anywhere near a two-piece bathing suit was a red-toned, square photograph, the kind with the rounded corners, from her teen years. Showing a 5-foot-10-inch frame with killer legs, it was probably taken a couple of years before I was born. But in my lifetime, she blech-ed and ew-ed about her extra skin that had stretched three times around tiny human beings, wrapped herself in one-piece suits and beach cover-ups, and tugged at any shirt whose hem was cut a bit too high.
But in that moment, in the quiet room, with just me and her and some unplugged machines, thick, white, jagged lines shot up from both sides of her body like bear claw marks in a tree, and I could not pull my eyes away. An intensity I can hardly describe, a surreality, pulled me in and I could feel all of the emotion of our 40 years together etched out on her skin.
The intensity of motherhood was held up to me, the most natural and beautiful sign, at a time that I most needed to feel a connection to this life that would soon be leaving me.
This is what I saw in those marks on her belly: I am her baby. I was her sleepless nights. I was her heartburn. I was her breathlessness and inability to find a comfortable position in bed. I was her wish for the last four weeks to just get here already. And then, there we were — a lifetime of joy and support and struggle and bond and laughs and cries. And she would soon be taking my marks with her.
Stretch marks are nobody’s wish. I get it. Stretch marks, C-section scars, sagging and uneven breasts, and the endless list of battle wounds from creating and bringing life into existence can wreak havoc on a woman’s psyche. I know that the moms who bemoan their stretch marks in no way detract from the love of their children. It’s normal in our society to feel like we should cover something up, cut something away, or stuff something fuller. We are human beings apart from our babies, and we want to feel good about ourselves.
But what if, just for a moment, when we’re running our fingers across these marks sticking out from swimsuits or flopping out of jeans, wishing we could do something about them, we think about what our little ones see? One day, our babies may grow to look upon us and our scars and see not ugliness or misshapen figures or things that need to be fixed. They may look upon our stretch marks and feel a connection and bursting love and gratitude bared plainly upon our skin.
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