How I came to Love my Broken Body
I will not try to fool you or myself by saying that physical beauty no long matters to me. Smooth, supple bodies full of strength, youth, and vitality still draw my attention and appreciation. They still invoke envy. But, I can say that the focus of my appreciation and envy has shifted from what such a body looks like to what it can do, to how it must feel to move with fluid grace and strength. That, I envy.
Born sixty-nine years ago into a world which prized women’s bodies almost exclusively for their looks, I was fortunate to be the daughter of a man who had been raised by women. My father’s father died when he was five years old. They lived on a ranch south of Great Falls, Montana. My grandmother, her mother, Clare, her sister, Ruby, and her daughter, Julia, were my father’s caregivers. It never occurred to him that women couldn’t do, in his own words, “whatever they damn well pleased.”
Thus, I was a girl exposed to very mixed messages regarding my body. While my father was a rather shy guy, he consistently went to bat for me when I wanted to do what society told me I couldn’t do. He petitioned the newspaper company to get a paper route when I was twelve, even though girls weren’t allowed. My interest in architecture was enough for him to screw up his courage to speak in public, going before the school board to successfully move me from home ec class to mechanical drafting, where I became the first and only girl. When, as a junior in high school, I parlayed my stint as one of Montana’s representatives to Girl’s Nation in Washington, D.C., into a lookout job with the Forest Service in spite of their resistance to hire women, he proudly supported me, visiting often, although it was an ordeal getting there. Most importantly, I saw strength and confidence reflected in his eyes.
Yet, in spite of such strong support from my family to follow my own path, I still felt the need to be pretty. The sexist culture of the fifties had its way with me. My mind happily found my body wanting, comparing my roundish figure with my big “Burkhardt” German hips and small breasts to the many more seemingly stylish girls in high school. At times, my critical mind was relentless in finding fault, focusing on my blemishes and stirring up inadequacies.
Getting away became my way of repudiating the constant call to be something other than what I was. Hiking, fishing, and camping with my family brought joy to my body, rather than condemnation. Far from the madding crowds, surrounded by nature and animals I felt no need for comparisons. I rejoiced in my body’s ability to run, climb, sweat, and immerse me in the dirt, the weather, the water, and the many wonders of the natural world. As it turned out, these physically demanding diversions, this finding joy in the natural world that often demanded serious exertion to attain, became a central and critical part of my life and laid the foundation for my endurance in the face of many medical challenges.
I sometimes jokingly say that while some people have collected charms, artwork, or stamps throughout their lives, I have inadvertently been collecting diseases and health issues. My penchant for adventure and my thoughtlessness regarding risks have left many marks on me—or, rather, on my body.
Eating whatever interesting thing was offered on the streets of South America in the 1970s, I spent months with severe amoebic dysentery and brought home a case of TB. One in one-hundred-thousand patients gets toxic hepatitis from the TB medications, which, of course, was me. It put me in solitary confinement at the University of Washington while I was in graduate school.
While working in Kodiak, Alaska, (it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there) I had a motorcycle accident during a storm, which prevented me from being med-evaced to Anchorage for surgery. The local doctor fixed my right knee as best he could.
At the ripe age of thirty-one, I discovered cancer in my right breast, which had spread to my lymphatic system. I learned that it could—or could not— have been a result of some of the experimental medications I had taken in South America for the amoebic dysentery. A mastectomy and 20 months of chemotherapy ensued.
The list goes on and on. Multiple miscarriages with two live caesarian births (the high points of my life and well worth the medical complications). A tumor that completely blocked my lower bowel and necessitated three abdominal surgeries, using first a colonoscopy, then an ileostomy, five nights in ICU, leaving me with a weakened abdominal cavity that has since sprouted several hernias, one of which became “incarcerated” and needs fixing (my 11th surgery is scheduled for next month). Three months ago, I became the owner of a new bionic left knee with two metal rods. I now carry a card informing airport security officials that I set off alarms.
As a biometrician who loves numbers, I decided to pull out a tape measure and add it all up. I have 49 inches (4’1”) of scars, which is 2 inches shy of my total height. My widest scar is 3 inches. My abdomen resembles an abandoned gravel pit. You can get a general impression of what the land used to be if you squint your eyes to ignore the gaping holes and dirt mounds interrupting the contours. I am, of course, missing my right breast. To complete the devastated look of my upper right quadrant, my bicep sports the imprint of a full set of horse’s teeth from having been picked up, shaken, and dropped by a stallion. Plus, my right rotator cuff is shredded and does not keep the ball of my arm in place, giving me a “notched” shoulder.
There is just no kidding myself. There are no “alternative facts” to conjure an escape from this reality: my body is a wreck. It is less attractive then the local junkyard. My uncovered body would not only scare children, but send adults running as well. Except for my truly loving husband, who, through all of my hospital stays and home convalesces, has stood solidly by me.
However, unlike the vehicles lining the fences of the local junkyard, my motor keeps right on ticking, taking me places, moving me down the highway of life. With a little bubble gum and baling twine—in the form of my new knee and an abdominal binder to help keep my guts in place—I will soon be back in the saddle, riding my horse, hiking the Montana mountains, and traveling where I may.
What a trooper! My durable body has never received any real TLC from its owner. My attitude has, at best, been simply to expect it to keep up, get with the program, get up and move on after each assault. I am only now realizing that it might need a little concerted attention; that I might actually have to alter my expectations and give it some consideration.
And could I have asked for more? Would a perfectly formed, exactingly proportioned version of a female body have served me better? Is it just possible that my mixed-message girlhood was the essential element? Was my lifetime of getting outdoors in the sun and the snow and the rain and the heat, in part, my response to escape society’s unreasonable demands for alluring good looks and continual comparisons? Did that serve to push me to run the miles, ride the horses, hike the mountains, and float the rivers that built my body’s strength and allowed it to endure beyond all reason? I’ve been a cat with nine lives, going on number twelve. What did I do right?
Who knows. I only know that I do, indeed, love my broken body. It amazes me, and it has garnered my full attention and affection. I owe it much, and I now strive to do well by it. It continues to connect me with the best in life. I thank it daily for hanging in there with me. And I am confident that, together, we have many more miles to cover.