I realized the other day that I am missing a collarbone.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. Parts of the body that appear in my writing and reading: collarbone, sternum. I memorized each term for an exam in high school — probably one of those health classes I took to fulfill a graduation requirement — yet my mind blanks. I can’t even remember their approximate location, what they look like, their function. I take to Google.
Collarbone, noun: a long bone that serves as a strut between the shoulder blade and the sternum or breastbone.
Sternum, noun: a long flat bone shaped like a necktie located in the center of the chest.
I try to visualize my collarbone, but I struggle to map its location onto my body, with all its … irregularities? Peculiarities? The process of naming is always awkward. I breathe with my stomach, pushing my midsection outward with every inhale; my rib cage is a protrusion, the bones sharp, skin stretched tight and uncomfortable. Nothing about my body is as it should be. I imagine finding the thing with my fingers — poking, prodding, till I stumble across it. That, too, is hopeless. I don’t have the strength to lift my hands, to reach the column of my throat.
I’ve seen images of collarbones, so I know, technically, what they look like. In a way, they resemble my rib cage: curl your fingers enough, and the nails will catch on the bone, making me wince, swat your hand away. Still, my conceptualization feels … wrong, disconnected from its whole. Something you’d find on a corpse, bleached and forgotten.
I start seeing other people’s collarbones, as if for the first time — my personal care assistant, her 1-year-old daughter’s fist curled against it. Almost to my surprise, my mother has one too. I stare at it during dinner, memorize how it flows into the curve of her shoulder. And there, right above the sternum, the hollow of her throat: another thing I don’t have.
Later that night, I stare at my bedroom ceiling while my dad pumps medicine through my G-tube. “You know I don’t have a collarbone?” I ask, tugging a laugh from him.
“Sure you do.” He pokes it a few times. “See?”
It occurs to me that, out of the two of us, he probably knows better than I do: He has the perfect vantage point, towering above me when I’m in my wheelchair. I peer down at myself, trying to figure out how I missed it the dozens of times I went searching. The bone burns where he touched it, as if suddenly alive, desperate to be acknowledged.
“Oh,” I say. Do I laugh? I don’t remember. “That’s that, I guess.”
That was a few days ago. I’ve already forgotten where my collarbone is in relation to the rest of me. After 22 years in this body, it’s easy to think I know it well, only ever to be surprised. I spent so much time thinking I didn’t have one, that maybe I was born without collarbones, a casualty of SMA. I kind of like it this way, though, hidden away. The only way you’ll know it’s there is if you go searching — and even then, like me, you might not find it. There’s something romantic about the idea that bodies can differ, that differences don’t always equal loss.
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