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Cuts!

by Elizabeth Rau


Elizabeth Rau is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. Her personal essays and articles have appeared in The Providence Journal, The Boston Globe and The Baltimore Sun.

Not long ago, my son cut his finger. I was upstairs, tapping away on my computer, when a friend rushed into the room full of urgency and bad news. My first thought was that Henry had a paper cut. Kids can be dramatic; mine certainly are. Any time they see blood, even a tiny amount, they run for help.

I found Henry half way up the stairs with a paper towel wrapped around the index finger of his right hand. He was calm, almost indifferent. Surely, this was a minor cut. We walked into the bathroom and I removed his wrapping. As tap water washed away the blood, I realized the enormity of what had happened.

The tip of his finger was gone.

 In an instant, my face turned ashen. I told myself not to panic. To try to stop the bleeding, Henry shook his finger as if to flick off a bug, and red drops splattered over the white tile. Maybe it was my rapid-fire instructions or high-pitched voice; Henry could tell something was terribly wrong.

“Don’t worry, Mom,’’ he said, with confidence I could only envy. “I’m going to be O.K.’’

The first fall is always the hardest. Flashback to the fall of 2001: Henry’s older brother, Peder, is in the living room scooting along on his Thomas the Train ride-on. He’s traveling at a good pace – molasses-slow – but I think he’ll have more fun if he speeds up. I give the rear bumper a little kick with my foot, the toy flips over and down goes Peder, chin first on the hardwoods.

Before then, my boys’ milky skin had been marred only by scrapes and bruises that healed quickly. I could tell right away that this cut was different - the skin parted easily, like the top of an envelope sliced open with an emery board - and the cut was deep. Six stitches in the ER.

Peder was fine that night. I felt lousy: It’s my fault. Why did I give him a push? What was I thinking? We need rugs. The next day, I bought some cheap rugs - ugly black and gray threads that looked like hastily-crafted potholders - and unrolled them on the floor.

I didn’t stop there. I looked around the house and saw danger at every turn: the sharp edge on the window seat; the hot-to-the-touch radiator; the 11 stairs to the second floor; the banister on the landing with the 10-foot drop.

I went on a shopping spree at Home Depot. I bought gates for the top and bottom of the stairs. I bought safety locks for the windows on the second and third floors. I bought rubber padding so thick and durable my sons used leftover pieces for baseball bats.

I am certain people walked into my exquisitely baby-proofed house and murmured, “She’s neurotic,’’ but I didn’t hear them. I was too busy locking the gate. My husband’s uncle, the frugal octogenarian, considered my purchases frivolous and suggested the unspeakable: Buy a playpen.

Despite my defensive efforts, the accidents continued and with an alarming regularity. 1) Peder climbed over the gate at the top of the stairs and tumbled down, nose over foot, in a series of descending cartwheels. (He popped up and laughed; I mixed a stiff drink. 2) Henry fell against a door jam and split open his head. (Three staples and a scar only the barber sees.) 3) Peder lunged at three fluffy floor pillows leaning against the dining-room wall and crashed into the baseboard. (Seven stitches and a fossil scar above his brow.)

There were more, too numerous to count. We became best buds with the receptionist in the emergency room at the nearby children’s hospital, which, barring an ice storm, is exactly 9 minutes and 42 seconds from our house and, yes, they finally got valet parking.

All of these mishaps led to a great realization: I have little control over my sons’ lives. I can guide (don’t climb too high, wear your seatbelt, eat apples, not chips), but I am not all-powerful. Stuff happens. The branch breaks. The truck runs a stop sign. The virus finds a home and thrives. My soft fatalism allowed me to relax a bit – and then Henry cut his finger.

 There is nothing quite as disconcerting as seeing your child without his fingertip. A part of him is gone, just like that. The revelation hit me so hard that afternoon my first thought was to find what was missing. Maybe they could stitch it back on. I got down on my hands and knees and gently teased the rug, as if looking for a lost contact lens, and when I found what I wanted, I put it in a baggie – with ice.

  On the way to the hospital, Henry asked if he would need stitches. I don’t know, I said; hold the towel tightly. I asked him, once again, how it had happened. Henry and his friend were playing. Henry was taking apart a toy (always, the tinkerer) and he needed to pry off a piece of plastic so he looked for - and found - the pocket-knife we had bought days earlier, mostly for the tiny flashlight in the package. It was on the top shelf in the kitchen, but Henry found a chair.

As we sat in the waiting room at the hospital, I scolded myself for leaving out a pocket-knife and, then, for buying it in the first place. I told the nurse about my baggie. She either thought I was nuts or understood the unrelenting force of a mother’s love.

“Hmmm,’’ the doctor said, as she inspected the cut. “This isn’t so bad.’’ It would hurt for a few days and, magically, the skin would grow back. Henry would have a perfect finger again!

I rejoiced. Henry wept, not for the joy of regeneration, but because of the tick-tock of the clock that got closer and closer to the start time of his den meeting. The Bears were scheduled to gather at 6:30 in the basement of a church and Henry wanted to be there. The kind doctor worked swiftly.

We were only 30 minutes late. Everyone knew about the incident thanks to Peder, who is also in the den and cannot resist a good tale. Henry, his eyes pink with tears, did not want to talk about it. He only wanted to be a Scout: To do my best.

He kept his hand with the bad finger in the pocket of his sweatshirt to hide the injury and by the end of the meeting he was smiling. He was with his fellow Bears. They were playing hide-and-seek. He was not the counter; his brother was.

That night, I put Henry to sleep and after he nodded off I threw the pocket-knife in the trash. The finger healed in a few weeks, just as the doctor said it would. Henry continued to wear a Band-Aid for the next two months, long after it was necessary, as a reminder, I suppose, of his great adventure.


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