By Randon Billings Noble
When I can’t sleep at night my hand strays across my belly and fingers the stretch marks on my side.
One is particularly deep. I poke my fingertip into its crater and wonder what I am actually touching, what layer of skin or tissue. I consider how it was slowly torn from the incremental and unremitting growth of pregnancy. What relentless power, to rend the body, even its skin.
I remember the day I discovered my stretch marks: Christmas 2010. I was seven months pregnant – with twins – and thought I had stretched this far without a ripple. But the bathroom mirror in my parents’ house hangs lower than my own. I could see below my equator. It was like looking at the far side of the moon – a place long held secret, now revealed to be pitted and pocked, like a wind-ridged desert, or a tree trunk ravaged by woodworms.
I sighed. This was not a gift I wanted.
The body that once held two human beings now holds memory. The memory of the undeniably gorgeous body I had at 16. Of the Indian summer that same-but-different body had at 36 – lithe and strong and fitter than it had ever been after many hours and two ranks of Aikido. The memory of the afternoon the twins were conceived, and the morning they were born. Of the first birds of spring that sang outside my dawn-dark window. Of my incredulity at the twins’ size, beauty and immediate, discrete personhood. Of the disbelief that I was finally delivered not only of them but also of the physical burden they placed on me: over 15 pounds of baby and perhaps another 15 of their accouterments. I was also delivered of their constant presence and my inability to ever to leave them – even for a moment – not for a stiff drink, a pot of coffee, a winter evening walk, a full night’s sleep. The morning they were born my body was freed, my soul ever more bound.
Well, my body was almost free.
It took days to peel away the glue left from the surgical tape covering my incision. It took weeks for the stitches to dissolve, and one appointment to have the last one pulled out with a tiny flash of unexpected pain. It took months for the scar to fade from a wet red, and years before it dulled into a thin purple line. The loose skin and map of stretch marks will not go away unless I choose to cut them away. I don’t choose that.
I don’t choose that because I believe that this is what happens to bodies – they carry and stretch and age and scar. I believe that this is an important part of being a human being, and that changing my shape through surgery would somehow alter who I am, and I don’t want to alter who I am because of a dissatisfaction with the way one aspect of my body looks. This is what I look like because this the way I’ve lived. I would sooner cut away my fast walk, my peculiar handwriting, my particular singing voice.
I mourn the body I have lost. But it is like mourning my time as a single woman when I married. Or a childless woman when I became a mother. This kind of mourning is often misunderstood, but it is necessary. I loved my life when I was young and free, the many adventures I had and the mistakes I made, the romances and the irresponsibility and the knowledge that my future was wide open: anything was possible. But then I met my mate and happily traded all those possibilities for this one rich certainty. And when we decided to try for a child we traded our joint possibilities for a different kind of certainty: we knew that our life would never be the same. Our past lives are worth mourning, and mourning them in no way diminishes the life we live now. One person encompasses many lives.
The origin of the word capacity comes from the Latin capere, to “take or hold.” After my body no longer held the twins its excesses subsided. The fluids I had retained slowly drained away. My ankles reappeared. My uterus returned to the size of a pear. My incision healed. My belly tightened. I drank a lot of coffee and a little bourbon, took long walks, slept lying down instead of propped up, did cobra pose in yoga, zipped but couldn’t quite button an old pair of jeans.
Now at night I lie in the dark and feel the marks that stipple my skin. These spots and blemishes, these symbols and signs, these imprints and impacts. They remind me that I have been stretched to capacity – beyond capacity – and then managed to stretch further still.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; Propeller Quarterly; HER KIND, a blog powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.
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