There’s not much in the hot desert that stretches from California into Arizona, save giant tumbleweeds, strangely anthropomorphic cacti with upstretched arms for branches, and a long, long highway that is interstate 10, replete with mirages and, every so often, a blip in the road for gas stations. The last time I traveled down that highway the temperature was topping out at 121 degrees. It was July, but this was hot even for July. We– my husband, children, and nephew—had just crossed the border into Arizona, on our way to Sedona for the annual family vacation, when I saw a remarkable road sign. I shouted out: “Did you see that? The sign for Sore Finger Road?”
No one else in the car had seen it. They didn’t believe me. Instead, they all laughed, and my husband looked over at me and said something about my vivid imagination and projecting and excess energy, because I couldn’t drive.
He was right, because on a road trip, I share the driving. I’m a good driver, and I like to be in control. Hurtling down a highway at 80 miles per hour is much more appealing if I am the one doing the hurtling. This time, though, I was confined to the passenger seat for eight hours with a bank of pillows to prop up my heavily bandaged left hand because, you see, I had one very, very sore finger.
I never thought much about amputation until a couple of weeks before that trip, when the middle finger of my left hand was slammed into oblivion by a solid-core oak door. After I stopped screaming, I took stock. There it was, dangling from a strip of flesh, just above the topmost joint, smashed like a pancake. I thought: “That’s going to have to be put back on. And don’t severed parts need to be on ice?” So I filled a bowl with ice cubes and went to sit on the front porch while trying to call someone, anyone, who could drive. I considered driving myself, but discarded the idea immediately: I thought that if I jostled my finger it would come all the way off. I pictured myself having to pull over and look for my fingertip under the front seat, and finding it down there, filthy among the dirt and leaves and food wrappers. So an ambulance sorts made its way over. After a ridiculously long drive to the hospital without the morphine I’d been promised by the EMT—he said the road was too bumpy–I was drugged, operated on, stitched up and two days later was home with a reattached fingertip and a goodie bag of Percocet.
The Percocet is important here, because it turns out that a whole bunch of nerves end in the hand, and concentrate in the fingertips, which is why it hurts so much to slam a finger in a door or drawer. Since my finger had been slammed in a door and operated on to stick it back together, it stayed somewhere between excruciating and pretty painful for the first month. When I was outside, I could even feel the breeze blowing through the bandaging, sending shock waves of pain down into the finger and through my hand. Any blood heading to the finger also upped the throb factor, so I held the hand aloft all the time. I took a perverse pleasure in the fact of my middle finger standing up at attention all the time: a manifestation of my feelings towards just about everything. Percocet, though, made everything go away for a while. Vicodin and morphine had done nothing for me, but the Percocet, and finally, just straight oxycodone, made it possible to sleep and, as the weeks went on, made the tedium of inactivity bearable.
The inactivity did have an upside: I couldn’t do the dishes for a really, really long time. In fact, I couldn’t be near a sink, and had to bathe with great caution, swaddling the hand in layers of plastic, because, my surgeon warned me, even a single drop of water in my wound could lead to a dangerous infection. I couldn’t do the laundry (all that folding and damp stuff!) couldn’t cook (who wants to chop vegetables with one hand? A recipe for disaster! You could lose a finger!) and certainly couldn’t mop or sweep one-handed. I couldn’t do anything that might bump the finger. In other words, I was mostly useless.
What I was able to do was provide temporary vacation companionship for my mother, who was confined to a wheelchair that summer and in a fair amount of pain herself. We sat by the pool in the heat, read a lot of books and really discovered television. One of the only perks of having surgery is that you get to watch TV with impunity. There’s no guilty pang at queuing up the Netflix, no internal chiding about purchasing that film on Amazon. There is just the pleasure of the one-click purchase and the slide into oblivion that on-screen narrative with a side of opioids can bring. Because sometimes, when you are in pain, when injury drags on, when your scope is limited by what you can do, you find yourself alone a lot of the time. Physically alone, but also psychically alone. No one feels your pain like you do. Narcotics and the drug that is television both became something that I had in common with other people, and yet fueled my isolation.
When I did step out into the world, people asked about my Frankenfinger. It was hugely bandaged and I was hard to miss. The finger itself was spectacular-looking. My husband had helpfully taken a photo without bandaging, to share the whole ugly thing at parties: a not-quite human-looking finger with rings of black and yellow stitching and two T-pins coming directly out of the top to hold the bone in place, covered with a crown of crusted blood. I was proud to say, “Oh it was eighty percent amputated and had to be reattached .” I mean, how many people could claim that they had had reattachment surgery? But after the initial oohs and ahs and recitations about what I could and couldn’t do, no one was terribly interested, and many people were repulsed. I can hardly blame them: though the finger was mostly bandaged, it’s awful to contemplate, plus, I wasn’t a lot of fun. That’s the feeling—initially sympathy, a side of repulsion and, mostly, immense relief that it wasn’t your finger, your body, your life. And that sense of relief is all too familiar.
A finger, though, was small fry compared to other reattachments and other kinds of injuries. I mean it wasn’t a hand or an arm—it wasn’t even a whole finger! Yet I felt an inkling of kinship with amputees. Now I see people with missing limbs and I kind of want to say, “Hey, what’s your story?” and “Do you have phantom pains?” People often do have those phantom and not-phantom pains which I discovered in physical therapy. Hard to believe, but there is physical therapy for a finger. I spent some weeks it the hand area of the PT room at our local hospital. There were a number of tasks in physical therapy, starting with rubbing things all over the finger, especially the top. It started with a feather, which sounds easy, but in reality, as the nerves began to regenerate, it was excruciating. By the time I worked up to velcro, I thought I would faint. One man who frequented the hand table had been severely burned, his hand and forearm covered with scar tissue, but he was champ, rubbing things all over that hand, trying to close his fist, while clearly in pain. I couldn’t complain when he was there, so I sucked it up, rubbed that velcro all over my finger, did my strengthening exercises—think finger pushups– and counted the minutes until I could bandage back up and take a pill.
That little white pill made clear, every time, the sweet euphoria brought on by opiods. It was easy to see, once I’d experienced the pleasure and relief of narcotics, how one could go down a road towards addiction. Through no virtue of my own, but a general physical intolerance, I am not so inclined. Yet constant, acute or chronic pain makes drug use seem a completely viable, even sane, option under some circumstances. I wondered about that man with the burns and what he did after PT.
It’s the miracle of disaster: you feel other people’s pain just a little bit better.
Now, long past the acute pain of the injury and recovery, the finger looks like a finger, perhaps as much as it ever will, albeit a little unsightly. Seen palm side up, there is a white line of scar across the pad of the topmost joint. The tip remains numb in places and hypersensitive in others. I can no longer play the piano and typing is distinctly unpleasant if not exactly painful; I often have the sensation of a too-tight rubber band around the top joint. It gets weirdly cold in winter and at times feels like, yes, it has been slammed in a door. Mostly, I’m used to it. Because the finger does not bend at that topmost joint, it extends outward. This isn’t really a problem except when it gets in the way, or I’m driving and holding on to the steering wheel. That finger just stays up no matter how hard I try, and seen from just the wrong angle, it pisses off other drivers.
And speaking of driving, I looked for the sign, but missed Sore Finger Road on the way back to California from Arizona, on that long, hot drive in the middle of that miserable summer. My family laughed at me, but when we got home I Googled the road, brought up the image and made them stop laughing. But they still had a hard time believing it was real, because they hadn’t actually seen it with their own eyes, hadn’t been down that very road themselves.
Adrienne Pilon is a writer, teacher and traveler. She has published in Brevity, Scary Mommy and more.
She lives with her family in North Carolina and sometimes California.