Daddy loved to tell stories, but he never told anyone the story of his hand. We were forbidden to talk about his hand being gone, to ask questions about what happened, to ever be able to offer help in words. It just seemed easiest to not even see that it was missing, so to make reasonable our having no words to describe it. It was a wrist with a surprise ending, a puckering of skin that was sewn closed, the seam forming the horizon. I never got to rub his wrist on purpose to see how it felt, but the skin looked real soft, worn silk-like.
I have to stop even now and remember watching him to know which hand was gone. I remember seeing him shaking hands with somebody just fine, so I know he had a right hand. It was as if his left hand was still there, only we couldn’t see it.
I suppose I could refer to his wrist as a “stump”; as in “My Daddy had a stump.” Even as I practice saying that word it feels unnatural; stumps are what we have in the yard when trees are amputated, but Daddy was the tree, he wasn’t cut off. There was only a major branch stopped short.
I would look for the appearance of his wrist when he was sitting at the kitchen table in his suit reading the newspaper and eating his breakfast before he left for work; when he was driving our Buick and I was in the back seat looking over his tall shoulder, seeing his wrist directing the wheel; when he was teaching me how to shoot a rifle, his wrist steadying the barrel; or in the evening when his wrist was helping hold a book or keeping place on a page. On Saturday mornings he would sit at his desk to pay family bills; the huge accountant ledger open, his left wrist marking the item for his right hand to record dollars. It steadied me to see him that way, quietly taking care of his family.
I could feel the affection of Daddy’s wrist pressure through my spine in the morning when he would give me a quick hard back rub that would almost hurt, waking me up, teasing about my shoulder blade “buzzard wings” that needed to fly. Sometimes I would pretend to be asleep just for the pleasure of his affection. Daddy could do everything a daddy could possibly need to do with just one hand and two wrists, except possibly to teach us that we could talk about pain and loss.
I wonder if losing his hand is why Daddy wrote his name on most all of his possessions, not just his initials but his first name, middle initial, last name. Wrote big. On anything he could lose. Maybe he wondered if he had written his name on his lost hand would it have been returned to him.
I remember wThen I was little, 3or4,I was sitting on the floor of the living room in our house in Prescott, Ark. The early morning sun radiated air through the glass on the front door and the big front window. I loved touching empty air becoming full of flying haloed specks, looking like tiny gold spirits from Sunday School pictures.
Daddy walked from the kitchen into the living room, walking right through the halos, ready to leave for work. “Daddy wait, what happened to your hand, Daddy? … I keep meaning to ask you and then I forget.” He rushed out the living room door into the full sunlight, not saying anything about his hand, not even goodbye. He just left for work real fast.
Mama heard me ask, so she listened behind the door to see if Daddy would tell me something he never told her. It gets confusing and competitive like that sometimes between mothers and daughters. Mama then went into the living room and sat down with me on the sofa to tell me the rule about not asking, which she thought she had told me before but evidently I wasn’t listening at the time.
And to tell me the secret of what happened to Daddy’s hand, at least what his mama told her about what happened. This is the story she was told.
As a boy Daddy was sitting on the old slanty-floored back porch an early morning in fall, cleaning his still-warm rifle; a mound of newly dead rabbits nearby, the heat rising from their bodies like morning mist. The boy sold rabbits to poor people on the outskirts of town, people who couldn’t afford beef. His family needed his money He was 8 years old.
The boy always carefully cleaned anything that was his, even then. Taking care of something so that it would last, so that he would have more than if he had to keep starting over each time. He had checked the gun to be sure it was empty, then put the cleaning rod into the barrel. There was a bullet lodged in the chamber somehow … the gun fired, blowing out the rod, the bullet ripping through his hand.
His Mama came running out when she heard his scream. She treated his wound the way they did on the farm, wrapping his hand in a kerosene-soaked rag as antiseptic. The wound didn’t heal; kerosene wasn’t medicine enough. It got infected, gangrene, hand swollen large and tight like it would burst with red streaks up his arm and a high fever. His Mama got her egg money out of its hiding place, and she and his Daddy wrapped the boy in a blue quilt she had made of feed sacks and put him in the back of the wagon. The mule pulled the wagon over the dirt road of the farm, past the sycamore tree where lighting had forked it into outspread arms, slowly through country roads into the small town of Clarendon, and the doctor.
His own Daddy held him down tight like he was tied on the table while old Dr. Harvey sliced through the boy’s infected flesh, then sawed his left hand off at the wrist bone. Blood spurted out of the severings, flushing the poison, soaking his Daddy with the witness of his son’s blood. Then Dr. Harvey used a needle and boiled thread to sew up the skin like it was a piece of cloth instead of living tissue, and sent the boy back home wrapped in the quilt. Dr. Harvey made it possible for the boy to live, if he could. The doctor had nothing to offer to ease the pain, there was no anesthesia except whiskey and one shot of morphine; no antibiotic,just the boy’s will. It was up to the boy to figure out how to ride the pain.
MawMaw never could get all the blood washed out of that blue quilt, but she had to keep using it anyway.
The boy never screamed since the surprising moment he was shot. I don’t know what happened to the hand that was cut off; I reckon they threw it away in the back somewhere, though it is hard to see a little boys hand just lying in the tall grass. Maybe they spaded a hole and buried it. I think that hand became more important in our lives than it ever would have if nothing had happened to it, or if Daddy had been different. Daddy’s being different is harder for me to imagine than to imagine his not having the accident, harder than to imagine Daddy with two hands.
I think about his being a little boy living on a farm where everybody worked hard, and never ever talking about losing his hand, never talking about being in pain, and nobody talking to him about it. I imagine him struggling to pour a bucket of water in the pump to prime it, to hoe the rows of cotton and corn . . . did he wrap his tender stump with a rag to protect it from the hoe handle until it could callous over? How did he work a pitchfork to feed the cows . . . did he ask his Mama’s help to cut meat at dinner, or did she just know to quietly do it? The boy tried to figure out how to manage without, trying to be sure nobody would give him pity about his lost hand. Trying to be sure he never started crying.
His Mama decided the boy would have to use his head to make a living, since he couldn’t use his hands. She devoted her will and the money she earned selling eggs and pecans to seeing that the boy got the most education and determination she could possibly teach him, and that was a great deal.
He still shot for rabbits to sell because his family still needed the money, and poor people still bought them with some regret and shame, because rabbits were poor people’s meat, not the beef they wanted- Daddy told us the story of what would happen when his customers got a little prosperity: He would come to their door with the morning’s kill to be informed “we don’t eats rabbit.’’When their money got used up again he would be sent a message to return with the necessary. This prideful boy sold what people wished they didn’t need to buy. Our family always used that phrase “we don’t eats rabbit” to mean “putting on airs,” as though a person could wisely deny his own history like yesterday doesn’t write today.
The boy still left home six years later, somehow jumping into a moving freight train, holding himself against the frame of the open door with his endless arm so as he could wave goodbye with his good hand. He somehow did whatever he needed to do to stay alive and to leave home, and he did it all with never talking about just having one hand. He was heroic in that way.
He would often keep his arm bent with his wrist into the edge of his pants pocket, like his hand was in the pocket. People knew him for years without knowing he didn’t have a hand in there, only a secret. I think about the effort that is a part of such concealment; keeping that secret was important enough to be aware of his body in that way all the time. When somebody was trusted not to ask questions, then Daddy would choose to reveal what could be seen. Daddy was so powerful he could control what people would see when he wanted to, which was most all of the time.
Daddy always looked down on complaining or blaming anybody else for misfortune, “poor-mouthing.” Said it showed little character. My brother and I wanted his approval more than we wanted the distant hope of comfort and support, so we tried to always hold ourselves accountable. He taught us it was an important part of character to work with what was given and bring it to its best. When something went wrong, Daddy said the first thing is to ask was whether it was a permanent problem or a temporary one. “Most worries in life are temporary, so should be treated as such,” he said. I wonder if the permanence of losing his hand is what made most other problems seem more fleeting.
He did allow himself to cry at sad movies; Mama said after he sobbed all the way through “The Sound of Music” that she didn’t want to go to the theater with him anymore, it was just too hard.
Daddy mentioned his missing hand to me once in my whole life. I was 20. He had been mowing the back yard when something got tangled in the lawn mower blade. As he tried to untangle it, his right hand got caught, cutting a finger real bad, almost off. He drove himself and Mama to the hospital, because Mama was too upset to drive. Daddy told me later, “I was worried, because I didn’t have any extra fingers to lose.” I listened real close in case he would say more, but he never did. That is as close as we ever got to talking about his missing hand.
I took the only photograph ever showing the evidence of Daddy’s amputation. I took it at the beginning of his last great battle before he died, when his handsome face was already swelling in protest against the invisible radiation. He and Mama had come to stay with me and my family, to have me take care of them while he wordlessly fought death. The statistics of medicine provided the war news of the day; how many X’s of radiation can be borne; which would die first, Daddy or the cancer. My Daddy died first, but that came two months later.
In that last picture Daddy was sitting on the sofa in my living room, talking to his grandchildren. It was the last evening he was able to sit up independently, he who never asked for help. He had a blanket folded over his lap. I knowingly, wordlessly, stole from him this forbidden image, stealing the evidence of his loss for my keeping. The photograph shows his left arm bent, elbow resting on his leg for support, his wrist propping his cheek. The cancer had already spread from his esophagus, wrapping itself like a kudzu vine around his carotid artery as it traveled up into his brain. He couldn’t defend himself anymore. A year before he had lost his power to speak, when a doctor had again cut out a diseased part so the rest of him might live. Weeks after the photograph was taken, Daddy went blind from the radiation. He mouthed the words to us, “Am I blind?” He never cried, never mentioned it again. He lay on a bed trapped without speech or sight, without the strength to conceal his losses. Most of the time he went deep inside himself where no one could find him, where maybe he couldn’t even feel what they could see. Especially where he couldn’t see their grieving. He just couldn’t abide grieving.
When I let myself really think about it, I reckon I’ve come by my struggle against grief and the fear of pain quite naturally, like something î inherited from generations past, along with dark hair, brown eyes, an inward-turning foot. Like a chemist, I try to figure out just how much grieving I can have and still be sure I’ll be all right the next morning. Titrate the dosage. So when I grieve for what I’ll never have again with Daddy, I’ll name it “the grief of never again being able to hear Daddy’s stories.” That sounds sad but OK, a luxury I don’t have, and everybody can do all right without luxuries. That’s why they are named that, and not necessities.
But I will grieve for the loss of the necessity of him my whole life.