By on Aug 19, 2013 in Essays

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Woman meditating with inset of arguing family

One late afternoon in early December, I returned home loaded up with grocery bags, stepped out of the garage onto the patio and swung the door shut behind me, slamming it on my middle finger, ripping off a square inch of skin. Ripples of hot pain ran across my palm, up my arm to my spine. Who knew a finger could generate such a lightning bolt of pain?

At first glance, it looked pretty bad. “Shit!” I muttered. Followed almost instantly by an inner voice telling me, “Oh, come on. It’s not so bad. Don’t be a baby. Find your house key, get in the door, put on a Band-Aid. Calm down.”

So I got into the house, gasping (yes, actually gasping), muttering “shit shit shit.” Put the bags down. Stepped around my two worried dogs. Put Band-Aids on. Pressed the flap of loosened skin down tight. Tried not to look too closely at the black and purple colors, the oozing blood. Hoped I hadn’t sliced off anything but skin. I found a Vicodin left over from my husband Mark’s recent dental work. Still gasping, still swearing “shit shit shit.” Didn’t want to go to the ER. No time for that. Too much to do. Too many people counting on me.

I shouted “SHIT!” once, really loud, as I paced around and around the dining room table, holding the loud finger up in the air, hoping for the throbbing to quiet. The dogs, their dark eyes fixed on my face, walked so close beside me I nearly tripped over them. I paused long enough in my pacing to swallow the Vicodin with a shot of tequila.

I gave up trying not to cry. I sat down on the sofa, dogs at my feet, and let it rip. All of it, the buildup of all those weeks: Amy’s confusion and grief — “I wanted him to know my children”; Tom’s losses — of his career, his independence, maybe his life (despite my low opinion of him, I’d never have wished this kind of suffering on him); my own confused feelings toward this man I’d loved so long ago, later learned to fear and hate.

Mixed in there, too, was how touched I’d been by Mark’s generosity and kindness to Tom, how he’d sat with us for hours in that family lounge, attended all the meetings with doctors and social workers, even took his own ten-minute turns in Tom’s room. Tom would never have shown up at Mark’s hospital bedside or mine or, maybe, even Amy’s. But Mark had shown up big-time for all of us. It was an unselfish act of love, a testament to the strength of our marriage. Such a contrast to his recent habit of taking his iPad to bed with him (with us), thereby avoiding any deep closeness. The sadness I’d been feeling all day, before the finger accident, was also about this: how Mark still held parts of himself away from me.

(Tom had always known how to go deep, how to see beyond the surface. During our marriage, he’d reached me in ways no other man ever had, which, of course, also made me extra vulnerable to his rages. How I’d wished long ago that I could have the insightful, tender side of him without the anger, the explosions. How I wished now that Mark valued the kind of depth that Tom had, that he knew how to go there.)

All of that longing and sadness bubbling up and pouring out along the same channel as the finger pain.

I sat on my sofa, sobbing into my hands, surrounded by whimpering Lab and beagle, an empty shot glass scented with Patrón tequila in front of me on the coffee table. That inner voice trying hard to slow me down, telling me to get a grip: “It’s only a finger, not a brain tumor.” Not a brain tumor. Chanted it. Not-a-brain-tumor; not-a-brain-tumor. Which led me right into chanting the closing words of the Sanskrit “Heart Sutra,” the Buddhist chant I’d learned decades ago in my first meditation group. The one I’d used in labor with both babies and, years later, when the morphine line slipped out of place a few hours after my hysterectomy, and the nurse hadn’t believed me. Gaté gaté param gaté (literally: “gone, gone, gone over,” a reference to accepting the impermanence, the emptiness, of all things; and a call to awakening to reality). I’d chanted these words at top volume for hours that post-op night until I’d remembered I had my doctor’s home phone number. I’d called her, woke her at 2 a.m. She was in my room in minutes, sending a blast of morphine into my IV line, silencing the gatés, saving me from the terrible teeth of that pain.

I wished I had morphine for that damn finger. The chanting, hissed through my clenched teeth, and the yogic cleansing breaths in between the gaté-gaté-param-gaté-parasam-gatés, did at last do the trick, calmed me enough that I could call Mark to come home.

“I’m sorry to be such a baby,” I wept into his shirt.

“It’s okay. After all these years of marriage, I can handle it,” he said. (Damn, what did that mean exactly?)

Mark was annoyed at me for having medicated myself, but at the ER, every staff person chuckled when I said I’d chased the Vicodin with a shot of tequila. By then, the pain had quieted some and I’d stopped crying, although my blood pressure was 170 over some other high number. A physician’s assistant named Dave shot my finger full of lidocaine, turning it into a piece of fat wood (that’s what it felt like), a pain-free stick. Ah. Finally. They cleaned it up, trimmed away the lifted flap of skin, bandaged it, x-rayed it, put a splint over the tip. Turns out, I’d cracked the end of the bone. Dave described all the nerves in the fingertip, and how this sort of minor fracture is uniquely painful. He gave me a prescription for Vicodin (not for tequila — that’s over-the-counter). The lidocaine lasted six blessed hours.

I woke up calm the next morning. Chastened. Slowed down. A little embarrassed about my reaction to such a small injury. Cleaned out, too. Cleansed of that anxious, urgent feeling that had made it hard for me to sleep. It wasn’t anger — anger about being pulled back into Tom’s life or about his mistreatment of our daughter — not fear or sorrow, exactly, either, although all those were mixed in. What woke me night after night was an instinct to save someone, spare someone, throw my body over someone to protect them from a falling tree, a bomb maybe. The instinct to care for everyone around me, to prevent the damage ahead of time. No abuse of my daughter. And no brain tumor. I hadn’t been able to make that pointless instinct stand down since Trish first called and gave me the bad news.

It took that finger pain and all the resulting gasps, tears, “shits,” and “gatés” to finally quiet the firing of those neurons.

I was not grateful to have a big fat splinted finger on my dominant right hand — it made simple things like cooking and washing dishes awkward — but I’d needed something to reset my brain.

I was grateful, though, for the wake-up. It reminded me that I didn’t run the world and couldn’t protect myself or anyone else from all harm, no matter how kind I was, no matter how well I did my job or the dishes or how many miles I ran. A humbling and scary awareness. But, when I can remember it, freeing too.

I am not perfect at remembering it; I am still no master at letting go. But I do sometimes remember that finger pain and make myself slow down. I sometimes let myself off the hook, let it be okay not to be all and do all.


As it turned out, Amy has done a great job on her own of incorporating the good parts of her dad and healing from the worst. Amy’s baby, a healthy boy named Oliver, was born six months after Tom’s crisis. Tom, despite all predictions of permanent disability or death, recovered enough to go back to his own home and job. I cannot say his personality has improved, but I no longer care about that. Tom has been able to fly toBostonto meet Oliver. Amy invited him.

The iPad still sleeps with Mark and me. I am working on loving acceptance.

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Judith Ford worked as a psychotherapist in private practice for 37 years before retiring and moving with her husband and two dogs to rural Wisconsin. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in many literary journals, including Quarter After Eight, Southern Humanities, Lullwater Review and Prism. She has been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes, in fiction and in poetry. She won the 2005 Willow Review Prose Award and was named “most highly commended” in the 2008 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. She has taught creative writing to sixth graders in a private school, adults at the University of Wisconsin Extension, and teenagers staying in a runaway shelter. She currently enjoys identifying plant and animal life on her new acreage, volunteering at the Humane Society, and hanging out with her grandchildren. And, is very proud to announce her return to college, earning her MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


  1. A breathtaking escort through so many familiar and dramatic places. It is a wonder we can get up and water the house plants sometimes. Thank you for sharing this. I Love so many of these people.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Naomi. You lived so much of this with us.

  3. Beautifully written, riveting, so poignant. There is almost no better way for us to shore up our own ragged spots than to have another woman’s story to add to what we know is possible.