The Marks on Us

10/17/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It is a port wine stain, the mark that covers my right hand, arm, part of my chest and back. The trouble begins right away when they name your most prominent physical characteristic after a stain, the one commonly known as the most difficult to get out. It wasn't until I was sitting in a treatment room discussing my dreadful cancer diagnosis at age 42 that it was referred to as hemangioma, which doesn't sound like something you want any more than a stain. But it's what I got.

When asked about it, I just say "it's a birthmark", usually explaining that it doesn't hurt as children so often fear. Children are the ones who usually have the nerve to ask. And when you are a child, fellow children can be the most cruel. My parents were really cool about it. They never tried to hide it, took me to Duke University to see if it was something we could get rid of, and when the Duke doctor advised against even trying, my parents accepted it and expected me to do the same.

My Southern grandmother, Mammy, always said that it was God's mark on me, a result of my mother getting shocked by lightning while turning on a lamp during a terrible electrical storm when she was seven months pregnant with me, right there in Mammy's living room. That must be why I connected the stain to God. When I was just five years old, I stayed awake all night long in my bed, begging God to remove the stain before morning. If He gave it to me, He could certainly make it go away. After finally drifting off, I was crushed to wake up and find that it was still there. No miracle for me. But I wasn't mad at God. Just disappointed. I had made the effort, He decided against answering my prayer. I figured He knew what He was doing. My first experience with faith, but not the last.

My father told me, as I struggled to understand why God had given me the stain, that He had a reason. He just never told me what that reason was, leaving me, over time, to figure it out for myself. To be honest, I'm not sure my father even had a theory for God's decision to stain me. I think he just couldn't come up with any other answer. I eventually did. Blessed with a dancer's body, and lucky enough to become a dancer, without my stain, my body would have attracted a different kind of attention. I would have chosen different clothing, more provocative most likely (although my husband tells me that when he first met me in college, my clothing was plenty provocative). But there was always the stain. It gave people a start, prevented them from seeing me as having the ideal body. It prevented me from treating my body as a sexual instrument and displaying it that way, which was the culture in my family.

This difficult subject matter is the port wine stain of my book, Silver Platter Girl. Instead of being a proud first time published author, I have been sick with worry over what it would do to a handful of other people whose very personal stories are intertwined with my own, how my children would feel knowing certain things about their parents that no child should have to know, how it would affect my business, and whether it was the right thing to do. No, there has been no celebrating. But I figure that if someone has the nerve to tell, tell it all, every painful detail, then maybe we can desensitize our culture and we will no longer feel stained by what happened to us and by telling what happened to us.

When I feel like I simply don't have the courage to go through with this, I remind myself that 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused and that a child is sexually abused every 2 minutes. 95% of those children know and trust their abuser. Only 25% of the cases are reported and 50% of the time, the child is returned to the alleged abuser's care. 1 in 10 homes are involved with some type of sexual abuse and it is a leading cause of teen prostitution and suicide. These statistics make my personal sacrifice seem small. And besides, I now know why God gave me the port wine stain. Just as I have claimed my birthmark by openly writing about it in my book and displaying it prominently on its cover, I have stopped being its victim. I have made it my own and wear it as my badge of honor, no longer hiding it. What used to be my stain is now my battle scar, proudly worn as a survivor.

The marks on us are not always as prominent, symbolic and external as my birthmark. But we still have to claim them, use them to help us understand ourselves, and avoid allowing them to control us. After all, they are what make us who we are, remind us of where we have been, and become signs on the roadmap of where we want to go. This is what I am working on with my port wine stain. Hopefully one day, it may be cool to display your birthmark, like God's tattoo, just like that woman did who wrote a book about a silver platter.

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