A History of my Body

b y Michael Dennis

Old wives would have you believe that your hair comes from your mother’s side of the family. Most of the men on my mother’s side of the family are bald. I’m fifty-two years old and still have a mostly full head of hair. It’s grey, almost white, with a few traces of dark brown. I consider myself lucky to still have hair at all. My father is bald. Cueball bald. Golden eagle bald. Right now my hair is a couple of inches long and that is a good thing. When it is short you can see the large scar on the top of my noggin.

When thinking about the history of my body, it occurred to me I should start at the top. I’m five foot two and a half inches on a good day. Five foot three on my best. On the top of my head I have a scar I got in Grade 4. It happened at the Lions Pool. Many communities in southern Ontario had pools sponsored by local community groups and ours was splendid. It didn’t cost much to go and it was well-supervised. I had recently mastered swimming (I could get across the pool without drowning) and was starting to test out the diving boards. That I am terrified of heights now may have started with the high diving board at that pool. The first few times I simply walked off the end of the board and fell straight down into the pool, which seemed a mile away. By the time I was doing somersaults, the height had ceased to matter. I was flying off the end of the board. Soaring in pure and perfect glee as gravity was temporarily neglected.

It was about that time that three young girls from my public school class sat down at the side of the pool with their little brown legs dangling in the water. They were sitting on the edge of the deep end, just off to the side of the high diving board. I started to do cannonballs. Throwing up as much water onto them as I could. With each jump I got closer to the edge, splashed them more, got more laughter out of them. I was astonishing. Judges would have wept sweet tears had they seen the arc I carved into the air with each and every surrender I made to the gods of free air. Of course I had to do a somersault, a flip. And my first was a thing of beauty. Mere inches away from the feet of the now-cheering girls.

It was my last dive that gave me my first scar. The scar on the top of my head. The top of my head and the start of this history.

I remember leaving the board in the same manner as all previous dives. I arched my back, pushed my head forward and spun into the air with all that blue underneath me. Some of my luck abandoned me because I over-rotated. I would never have had a clue what the term “over-rotated” meant back then but I do now. I over-rotated and plunged toward the space between the legs of Jenny Wilson and Elizabeth Benson. My head grazed the side of the pool. Anything else would have meant instant death.

My next memory was of sitting in the shower room at the pool with one of the lifeguards. People were buzzing about and when I sat up blood filled my eyes. I wasn’t in any pain and that was the last thing I remembered until I woke up at home.

That was the first time I broke a bone. My skull. A hairline fracture on the very top of my noggin.

The second time I fractured my skull I was in Grade 5. My friends Dave and David had talked me into going to play mini-putt golf. I was the smallest and youngest of the three and was delighted to have been included. We had played seventeen holes and were waiting to play the last. The game had been fun. Usually when the three of us were together, David used it as an opportunity to tease me and gain favour with Dave. I didn’t mind so much because it meant I could still tag along. On this particular day, both Daves were treating me just fine. We’d all had a good laugh and a fun afternoon. The eighteenth hole had a ramp at the end where the hole should be. Depending on strength, skill, accuracy and mostly luck, you would hit your ball onto the ramp where it would eventually find its way to one of three rings, each with a hole at the bottom. The top ring was an ace, a one. The second ring a two, the third a three. But. If you hit the ball hard enough it would go off the end of the ramp and over a three-foot fence. The other side of the fence was the far edge of the driving range. There was no danger of being hit by a ball but there was always a surplus of balls that had rolled to the edge of the field.

A couple of older teenagers were playing in the group in front of ours. We were standing behind them and behind the putting tee of the seventeenth when all my lights went out. The young man on the tee had taken a major-league driver swing with his solid steel putter and driven it into my forehead with his follow-through. It didn’t hurt, but it made a hell of a thunk. My lights came back on in the coffee/pro shop backroom. The kid who’d hit me was white as a ghost and shaking. The adults around me were deeply concerned. In the ambulance, the driver turned over his shoulder and asked if I wanted the siren on. Of course I said yes.

Fractured skull just at the top of the left orbital lobe. The scar is hard to see now because as I’ve aged I’ve wrinkled. But it is a dandy. I was in the hospital for several weeks. When I was released and able to go back to school, I still had a large bandage on my head and covering my left eye. I arrived back at school during lunch hour one day. My class was in the gym practicing for a large Centennial celebration. They were all on the floor and dancing, so I was led to a bench by my teacher and sat waiting for the music to end. When it did, my classmates turned to see who had entered the room. At first it was just silence. Then one or two girls started screaming.

Apparently I was still badly bruised over most of my face. I was sent home and stayed there until the bruising went away.

My hearing isn’t what it used to be. When I worked at Ford back in the seventies I had to take a physical that included a hearing test. The doctor told me my hearing was above average. Now I have tinnitus. A constant ringing. There are several theories about where this comes from. I suspect that having my skull fractured twice might have something to do with it. Along with the fractures I had several concussions. A couple were accompanied by a broken nose. The ears are now at sixty and eighty per cent, according to my most recent test. Working in noisy places like a car plant and a copper mine must have contributed.

My nose was broken the first time playing lacrosse. The second time playing basketball. The third time playing rugby. The fourth time was basketball. Fifth and seventh times were from fighting. The sixth time was hockey. I had an operation on it back when I was still in my twenties. The idea was that after the operation I would be able to breathe out of both sides of my nose. No such luck. The last time I broke my nose was the worst. I was living in Czechoslovakia. I had a new girlfriend and she had an old lover. He broke into my apartment one night and showed me what an angry Czech ex could do. I know he broke my nose. Pretty sure he broke some ribs as well.

Getting ahead of myself with the ribs. Just under my oft-broken nose I have several small scars. Above my nose as well. Most of these are from hockey (sticks and pucks) or basketball (elbows). Being so short in a game of giants meant that my head was at exactly the same height as the flailing elbows of most of my opponents. I once had to get stitches, seventeen of them, on the inside of the mouth and onto my lip because my best friend’s older brother, who is now a surgeon, elbow-smashed me in a friendly game on the court at Jackson’s Park. Lots and lots of stitches.

Three years ago I had the end of my tongue cut off. Seriously. And did it ever hurt. It started with a normal, regular checkup-type visit to my dentist. I am a big suck and complain constantly at the dentist but he is a kind and gentle man. We were doing our normal banter when he suddenly sounded serious and asked me about a small growth he detected on the tip of my tongue. I hadn’t noticed it. He immediately called an associate who was a specialist in such matters. The next day I was in the chair at the specialist’s. He seemed like a nice man until he pulled out the pliers, pulled out my tongue and said: “Mr. Dennis, this is going to smart a bit.”

No fucking kidding. There were five needles of freezing, each of them damned long and sharp. I could hear them going into the soft muscle of the tip of my tongue. I could have seen them if I could have opened my eyes. I couldn’t close my eyes tight enough. It was a kind of squelching sound. Perhaps similar to a skewer being introduced to a big piece of raw beef. Because the sound was occurring right at the tip of my tongue, it was being amplified by my cavernous mouth and echoed throughout my skull. It is a sound I never need to hear again. Then the bastard (in truth I liked him a lot, his manner was kind and firm and correct and he had a great sense of humour) cut the end off my tongue. I felt each stitch and each tug of the thread. When he was finished, the end of my tongue looked like the nose of a mouse with extremely long and very black whiskers. The end of the tongue is a very inconvenient place to have stitches.

You can no longer see that I am missing most of one of my front teeth. The part of the tooth that is missing may still be embedded in the wall of my high school gym. It was during a varsity basketball game although I don’t remember the other team. Our gym had walls on three sides of the court and then an open area with stands for fans on the fourth side of the room. The odds were against me, and when I dove out of bounds to save a loose ball there was only three feet of floor between the edge of the court and the concrete wall. Didn’t feel a thing. But when I headed up court, my couch called time because he could see I was bleeding. My tooth had gone through my lip before it stuck in the wall. Chipped tooth. Stitched lip. Little scars under the nose.

I’ve never hurt my chin.



Although there was this one time when I was bowling for Big Brothers. It was a charity event and I was being sponsored to bowl for twenty-four hours straight. I’d chosen a pair of train engineer’s overalls and a T-shirt as my apparel. After several hours the brass metal clips on the front of the bib had rubbed against my chest sufficiently that I had a large blister above each nipple. It was a small thing and a long time ago. But they were terribly painful and one of the strangest injuries I’ve ever had.

Broke my right elbow twice. The first time was playing basketball down in Windsor. I was a decent little ballplayer and was on a team where every other player could dunk the ball. Every player. And so could I on the day someone brought a small two-foot trampoline. It was ecstasy. It was glorious. I was seriously out of my depth. The play I broke my elbow on had me doing a two-handed dunk. I smacked into the rim with my forearms as I’d seen the others do. But it was new and untested ground for me. I was way up above where I should have been and when I hit the rim it straightened me out in mid-air. I remember thinking on the long drop to the ground, flying parallel to it, that this was going to hurt. And it did. I put my elbow out to break my fall, and it did.

The second time I broke my elbow was on my nephew Alex’s scooter. Don’t ever mention a “bunny hop” in front of my lovely wife. When I fell, no one believed me when I said I’d broken my elbow. My nephew still laughs about it every time I see him. My patient wife took me to the local hospital and I was vindicated. I was broken. Nothing hurts quite like a broken elbow.

My dear friend Luba will tell you one story about how I dislocated my left thumb, but I will tell you the truth. In a truly deserved drunken haze she attempted to ride me like a surfboard down the top flight of some very narrow stairs. We were in Montreal and visiting other drunken friends. The next morning I woke up with my thumb facing in the wrong direction and smarting a little. My right thumb got ripped backwards as well but I can’t remember where or when. Isn’t that the damnedest thing? Most of my fingers were broken playing basketball and lacrosse. All of them at one point or another. In high school it was the supreme test of my typing skills to manage with fingers taped, one to the other, after jamming them. To jam a finger isn’t the same as breaking it. It is a common basketball injury, though. It can happen when you misjudge a ball coming toward you. Instead of somehow bringing it into your cupped hands, your extended finger takes the full pressure of the ball on the tip. If your hand is relaxed nothing happens. But if your finger is fully extended it is like all the knuckles in that finger, all the joints, are cracked and collapsed at one time. It makes the most curious sound and you know instantly your finger is screwed. It will turn blue. It will swell up real big. Having one jammed finger is a drag; two makes for a very clumsy approach to life.

Two years ago I was barbequing a lovely steak in our backyard. My wife had gone out for the evening. It was summer and a perfect night. I saw a few clouds on the horizon that looked like rain so went into the house to close the windows. In doing so I let the window in our bedroom fall onto my right index finger. That sounds so gentle and civilized. The end of my finger looked like a squashed grape. I now have a scar that circumnavigates the end of my finger like a small white ring of smooth and perfect skin. It makes the full circle but for about a quarter of an inch.

My other fingers have had their share of stitches and mutilations. The trimming knife from the top of a corkscrew got the knuckle of my left index finger for several stitches. A curtain rod got my right thumb for seven or eight. It is a tiresome litany of little indignities.

The weekend before I started Grade 9 I broke three ribs. One of them punctured my liver. I was playing lacrosse, and a very big boy hit me hard, in the ribs, with a clean check. Being a small boy in a big boys’ game had a price. When he hit me I was behind my own net. I ran toward the bench, which was at the centre of the floor. I passed out about five feet from the bench. Woke up in the hospital. That was in Rexdale, Ontario. The people in the hospital were very nice to me.

As a sidebar it occurs to me that I’ve been in hospitals in Windsor, London, Peterborough, Toronto, Oakville, Kingston, Montreal, Dryden, Ottawa and others I can’t remember. Almost always received excellent care. My knees were fine until I was in my late forties. Now I’ve had two surgeries on my left knee and am waiting for a third.

My first knee injury came three weeks after the last time I broke my right leg. I was in a cast and wearing pyjamas. Rising to get to the bathroom, I stumbled on the long leg of my pyjama bottom. They don’t make pyjama for sort people. When I stumbled I tore up my left knee. I knew it immediately.

Six weeks after the first surgery I reinjured the same knee. I was in bed at the time.

The second surgery worked but revealed that I have lost almost all of the cartilage in knees. This is going to require another operation. In the meantime I’ve been getting injections of artificial cartilage in my knee. That smarts.

My ankles were rebuilt when I was in my early twenties. Up to that point I’d had twelve broken ankles and countless sprains, tears, pulls. The operation was called a bilateral Watson-Jones procedure. The procedure is no longer used. But it worked well. They fillet your leg, drill some holes and reroute tendon and ligament like they were going to tighten the laces on a shoe. It meant six months in casts and a wheelchair and then another few on crutches. The first time I went out in public without my crutches was to a movie in Toronto with my old friend Bruce. We parked near the theatre but on the other side of the street. It took me four lights to walk across the street. One for each lane of traffic. Bruce couldn’t stop laughing. I was happy to be upright after months in the chair.

Most of my ankle injuries were from basketball or soccer.

My first broken leg was from a high school basketball game. The cheerleaders later told me they heard the crack at the other end of the gym. I had gone up for a rebound and when I came down, my shoe found a small space between two of the floorboards. When my shoe wedged itself into an immovable position, something had to give and it was my leg, just above the ankle.

I once broke the bone that goes to the little toe in the foot. I had been doing chin-ups and dropped to the floor. I felt a sharp pain in my foot but didn’t think too much of it. It was gym class. I showered afterward and then went to my next class. By the end of the day my foot was sore. By the time I got home the swelling was such that my mother had to cut the laces off the boot I was wearing.

The scar on my shin is from the time I was stung by a wasp. I was working in construction and we were building a bridge over a canal. It was summer and hot work. At the time I was grinding the rough edges of a recently poured sidewalk. I was wearing blue-jean shorts, work boots, a helmet. The first sting was just above the crack in my ass. I had been bent over with the huge grinder between my legs. When I sprung straight up from the first sting, the grinder’s big stone wheel ground into my shin. It didn’t cut. It just cleaned a swathe. Grrrrrunnnnnsch. And then a small segment of my shin was missing. But I was more concerned with the wasp that had just stung me for the second time. This time was even more alarming because when I stood up he went down. The second sting came from between the cheeks of my ass. By now the severed section of my leg was starting to kick in and let me know I’d been wounded. Now I’m hopping on one leg as blood pours out of the other, I’m screaming bloody murder and trying to take off my pants at the same time as I’m trying to grab my wounded leg. The wasp or hornet or satan’s little helper was still in there stinging.

I was stung five times. Slept on my stomach for a couple of weeks. Was the laughing stock of my construction crew.

I have the cutest toes you have ever seen. My feet are almost perfect.

Michael Dennis is an Ottawa poet. His most recent book is Coming Ashore on Fire (Burnt Wine Press).

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply