The scar, the shirt, the water, the gator

The other day, we went to the beach with our first overnight visitors to our new South Carolina home.

Our friends, who we’ve known for nearly 40 years, wanted to visit Hilton Head and maybe take a quick dip in the Atlantic.

I love walking on the beach, but I’m not crazy about actually getting in the water.

Many years ago, we spotted a large alligator swimming in the Hilton Head surf, which is surprising given that the ugly lizards prefer fresh water. Naturally, swimmers fled for safety and we all watched in awe and fear – well, maybe it was only me that was afraid – as the gator lazily made its way through the water. I mentioned to a lifeguard that seeing a gator in the ocean was kind of scary and he said, “If you knew what was swimming all around you in the water, you’d never go in.”

My philosophy since then? Never go anywhere where the things you eat can eat you.

But my friends were anxious for a swim and I wanted to be a good host, and I figured as long I could keep myself inside the person farthest out in the water the sharks and gators could snack on them while I beelined it for the beach.

So off to the beach we went. When we got there, however, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a shirt I could wear in the water.

I don’t like taking my shirt off around people I don’t know. I don’t like taking my shirt off around people I know. I don’t like taking my shirt off.

The reason? When I was 17, I had a tumor removed from my left breast. Well, actually, I had the entire breast removed, which left a 6-inch long worm of scar tissue. As a teen, I kinda saw the scar as a badge of honor, and the shirt came off at every opportunity, even in church, which embarrassed my mother. As an old man of … uh, old … I see the scar as something people are staring at.

My friends and the woman who says she loves me told me I was being silly, that nobody was staring at my scar.

I disagreed. Yes, they could have been staring at my white, whale belly. Or they could have been staring at my startling good looks. But it was the scar.

Before the surgery to remove the tumor, I believed that the surgeon would simply go underneath my nipple and cut it out, leaving the remainder of the breast intact.

I didn’t ask enough questions.

What the doctor did was open incisions above and below the nipple and carve out everything in between, sew me together and send me on my way with the horizontal scar and a dent in my chest.

The stares notwithstanding, I’m lucky. Not many men get breast cancer. It’s less than one percent of all breast cancer cases. Women bear the brunt of this insidious disease. Many lose their lives. Many more lose their breasts. If losing a breast has affected me as much it has, imagine how a woman who’s lost hers must feel.

My scar is ugly. The dent leaves me off balance. People stare. Little kids run screeching for their parents.

Which is why whenever I go swimming I wear a shirt. It’s easier than dealing with the thousand eyes that follow me.

Of course, I’m not gonna lie, they still follow me. Except they’re not thinking, “What’s up with the scar?” but, “Why is that man with the startling good looks wearing a shirt in the ocean?”

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