By Rebecca Kuder
“Will her fingertips ever grow back?” my five-year-old daughter Merida’s friend Sophia asked me.
Her mother Vanessa and I were perched on the sofa, watching our children perform a play. Created by three young acrobats clad in butterfly and fairy wings, the play featured flips on hanging rings, trampoline jumps, and tightrope walking. The children wore red, green, and goldenrod silk squares tied around their heads, like pirates. Sophia’s older brother William wrapped more silk squares around small yoga balls, and launched them at intervals behind the scene, the rushes of color making a backdrop of motion. Sophia had stopped mid-jump, to ask about fingertips. The other children had also stopped.
“No, they won’t grow back,” I said.
“Does she remember?” Sophia asked, her voice quiet.
“Ask her,” I said.
“Do you remember?” she asked Merida.
“Did it hurt?”
She nodded again.
The air tasted sacred. Next to me on the sofa, I sensed Vanessa’s breathing, as I felt my own: careful, waiting, listening for the questions, listening to the children.
Vanessa said, “Does it look like she has any problems doing anything?”
Sophia and her brother William quickly said, “No!” as Merida monkey-scaled one of the basement’s iron support beams, beams that hold up the house.
On July 5, 2011, my daughter Merida, then three-and-a-half years old, had an accident. She was riding in the back basket of an adult-sized tricycle. While the tricycle was stopped, she reached into the grooves of the tricycle’s rear sprocket just as the rider started pedaling. Part of each of the four fingers on Merida’s left hand was detached. Her middle and ring fingertips were too damaged to be re-attached; the surgeon closed the wounds on those fingers with blue stitches, contouring them as well as he could. The surgeon re-attached her pointer and pinkie fingertips; the re-attached tips would serve as biological Band-Aids. The re-attached tips weren’t intended to remain in place, but were to help shape and heal the tips before eventually hardening, shriveling, loosening, and then detaching.
Her thumb was unharmed–excellent in terms of the ultimate function of her left hand.
These two theatrical friends got to know Merida a couple of months after the accident, when she still had blue fringy stitches on each of the four fingers, and before the re-attached pointer and pinkie fingertips, which Merida called her “chocolate tips,” fell off. We live in a small town, and their family had heard about the accident before school started. Sophia and William were particularly curious about her hand, and in their sweet, caring, childlike way, asked blunt questions stemming from that curiosity. As they got to know Merida, and as she adapted to using her changed left hand, its difference faded from prominence.
When I was in graduate school, Eloise Klein Healy, the first poet laureate of Los Angeles, talked about revision, about beloved lines of poetry that don’t fit or don’t work. I recall her saying she keeps a jar to hold those scraps of paper, those darlings, rather than throwing them away. I do this with my prose: cut and paste the bits I love but can’t use into a fragments file, rather than deleting them. There is something important about honoring these pieces, something about preserving them, even if we never need them again, or they have no use.
Along the shelf of her toy kitchen, my daughter kept cups, bowls, and other small, useful vessels. Among the things were an empty fountain pen inkbottle, and an empty jar from vanilla extract. After the first bit of blue stitch-scab came off from one of her middle fingers, she wanted to save it in what she called a bit jar.
We decided first on the inkbottle. But later, after more blue fringe had come off, she needed the inkbottle for a meal she was serving her baby dolls, so she poured all her bits into the vanilla bottle. Because the neck of the vanilla jar was too narrow, I had to extract the bits with tweezers, when, ultimately, Merida decided that the vessel that previously held ink would now permanently hold her bits. Into the open top of the inkbottle, she put these parts of her healing, the bottle left open because, “they need air.” We waited months for her re-attached pointer and pinkie tips to slough off. The necrotic chocolate tips, which were part, and not part, of her pink-beige hands, were bound for the bit jar.
After her accident, she would nurse, and touch me with her left hand, tips stitched and prickly. Her hand felt foreign, like a baby animal’s paw. A tactile reminder for me of what I felt inside: I am a mother bear. Her body needed no reminder. This was now her hand. One hot day as Merida was healing that summer, we had gone to the Raptor Center at the Glen Helen Nature Preserve to see our favorite bird, the rescued, one-winged bald eagle, Solo. It was Solo’s lunchtime, and he rapped his talons on his feeding dish near a meal of dead rat carcass, to scare off flies. Soon after that visit, at home, Merida tapped her fingers on the table, and her hardened chocolate tips sounded like Solo’s talons.
Four months after the accident, all of the blue stitches, scabs, and both of the chocolate tips had fallen off. Her hand was simply her hand again. Her new hand. It occurred to my husband to preserve the chocolate tips so they wouldn’t rot. He asked his friend, a hunter, how to perform this tiny taxidermy. His friend suggested salt. Coincidentally, I had taken a secondary bit jar, an empty glass saltshaker, to Merida’s school to keep in her cubby. (Thinking about what would happen if her bits came off while she was there, I wanted her to have a safe place to keep them.) My husband and I discussed salt: to buy cheaper salt for the purpose, or to use the pricier sea salt we use for food? It was such a small amount; we decided to use what was in the cupboard.
Children are scientists. My daughter was matter-of-fact. “Yeah, we can put them in some salt.”
Salt in tears, salt into wounds, salt to keep these tender parts of ourselves that hurt, that break, that fall off, parts like chocolate tips and blue-fringed stitch-scabs (Stitches blue! One of her favorite colors! After the accident, people asked if she got to choose the color, but no, in the five hours we had to wait from accident until surgery, in the trauma room with her detached, found fingertips on ice, no one asked which color stitches my baby would prefer.).
The bit jar now holds the scabs, blue-stitch fringy, like small, dark caterpillars, from her partially amputated ring and middle fingers, and her chocolate tips from the other fingers. The blue-fringed scabs, the chocolate tips, these bits of ourselves, we must protect and honor and keep, and marvel as a child would: look at that, like a caterpillar on top of your now-shorter finger, my dear baby love, look at your beautiful chocolate fingertips, my sweet girl! How strange to make these horrific facts fun, how strange to translate the horror, the heartbreak of what medical records refer to as “traumatic amputation” of the four fingers on her dominant hand, to transform them into words and images of childhood, caterpillar, fuzzy friend. And chocolate, her favorite treat.
The “will they grow back?” question hadn’t appeared for a long time. When it came up during the children’s play, my family was preparing to move to a new house. I hadn’t looked at the bit jar for a while, but in thinking about the move, I knew I couldn’t simply pack it like other delicate fragiles: the dead fingertips were too sacred to lose (even temporarily) in the depths of a cardboard box. On moving day, I wrapped the bit jar in paper and nestled the package in my purse.
There are the brown and blue bits in the bit jar, and there are ghosts: the fingertips the surgeon couldn’t re-attach. Those precious bits are long lost to the medical fire; at least I imagine a fire, an incinerator from that night’s hospital burn. That long night in 2011, I asked the waiting room attendant if we could have them, if we could take home what they couldn’t re-attach.
“Surely that’s the strangest question you’ve had all day,” I told her, in a sort of apology.
She called Surgery to ask, but no, it presented a health hazard, and was not protocol to let us take home these spent pieces of my daughter. They were her fingertips, and then they were biohazard.
After the surgery, during the long heal, I purchased copies of her hospital records. I read half of the thick packet, and then stopped. It was too much. I will resume that reading eventually; time does help, if not fully heal. Healing is a process, not a destination. Some pieces of my daughter’s story are burned, gone. Some have faded. The innocent, curious questions from friends don’t smart like they used to, though on the sofa that day, while the children paused their colorful fantasia to ask about fingertips, I was grateful that Vanessa sat so gently in that moment, breathing in, breathing out, befriending my soul, and listening to the questions asked. I was grateful for the safety of being among friends so that we could continue the healing process. I was grateful for Vanessa’s perfect response: does it look like she is hindered by this accident? No.
Any human with mileage knows that we all have wounds, scars. Some are visible, some are not. I know this. When it comes up, I will teach my daughter this notion until it sinks to her core. As Jack Hardy used to sing, before he died, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…how many of us ain’t broke, how many of us ain’t died a thousand broken hearted lives? How many of us, amen, ain’t got a broken heart to mend?”**
Soon after Merida’s accident, when she met Sophia and William at school, Vanessa reminded Sophia that she had met Merida the previous year at dance class. I recall Sophia at dance class, tall for a four-year-old, sweetly crossing the large room to hug Merida—a gesture from a stranger who would someday become a dear friend. But when Vanessa reminded Sophia of this, Sophia was clear, said she had never met Merida before. Vanessa told me later, “I wondered in her little mind if she could not acknowledge the pre-accident knowledge because then the injury and physical change would become more real.” If Sophia had acknowledged it, there would have to be a before and an after. Vanessa thought Sophia wanted only to know this Merida. This makes sense to me. In some necessary way, I can imagine for Sophia this trick of brain or memory minimizes her friend’s loss. It was an act of tucking things into tidy compartments, as children do—constantly finding places to contain their small collections, close lids, or zip them up, to keep the marbles and feathers and shiny things safe. Always finding our bit jars.
A few months after Sophia asked about her fingers, Merida was playing with another friend who had moved to town after the chocolate tips had fallen off. Their playing centered on a fictional impending storm, and how to protect themselves and others from its imagined threat. Her friend noticed Merida’s fingers, maybe for the first time.
She said, “Merida, your fingers are really small.”
“That’s because I cut them off,” Merida said. “But they have special storm power, so that’s good.”
How many of us ain’t broke? Merida sings this song, too, singing our human story, sonic vibrations healing her own.
**Song: Willy Goggins’ Hat; Written by: Jack Hardy; Registered with BMI in 1997
Rebecca Kuder’s novel, The Watery Girl, was chosen as one of ten finalists for the Many Voices Project at New Rivers Press in 2014. Her stories, essays, and poems have been published in West Wind Review, Mothering Magazine, The Knitter’s Gift, and Midwifery Today, and forthcoming in Resurrection House XIII, an anthology of which editor Mark Teppo writes, ““Thirteen” is the first month of a new yearly cycle, wherein the old skins have been shed and the newborns are still learning to walk.” Rebecca holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing in the individualized masters program at Antioch University Midwest, and serves on the Board of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. All of Rebecca’s work (writing, teaching, living) is rooted in the centrality of storytelling to our collective humanity. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with her husband, the writer Robert Freeman Wexler, and their daughter, Merida. Rebecca blogs at http://www.rebeccakuder.com. She is working on a new novel.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She has been featured on Good Morning America, NY Magazine, Oprah.com. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon. Jen leads her signature Manifestation Retreats & Workshops all over the world. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) On instagram/twitter @jenpastiloff.
**Jen Pastiloff and author Lidia Yuknavitch are leading their groundbreaking “Writing + The Body Retreat” Jan 3o-Feb1 in Ojai, California. Email jennifer at jenniferpastiloff dot com to register/apply.