Monday, January 12, 2009

Reverend Gren's Holey Finger

I have a hole in my finger. Personally, I am fascinated by it; but knowing that most people get a little nauseous when they see it, I do my best to conceal it from friends and customers. Most days I remember to put a Band-Aid on it, but when I forget, I spend my working hours bending my left middle finger under my hand while I type so as not to disturb the little old grandmother who has come to our store for a loan.

I guess I should qualify my statement. The hole isn’t really in my finger as such. That implies impaled flesh, and that’s not what I’m dealing with here. It’s more precisely a hole in my fingernail. It’s one of those injuries that make people a little queasy to look at but that’s about the extent of it. Having never lost a fingernail before, I would have assumed it was a more painful ordeal. It certainly looks painful. But the truth is that my left middle finger feels no different than my right. This leaves me totally free to marvel at the oddity of how my body is dealing with this injury.

The body’s ability to heal has always impressed and mesmerized me. Its ability to rebuild itself to a state that is almost indistinguishable from the pre-injury condition is just shy of magic to me. And something like this, this slow-motion restoration, gives me time to watch and wonder what will come next.

It began as little more than a slightly smooshed finger while building a stack-brick wall around our mailbox in early October. You see, the previous owners had surrounded the mailbox with decorative lava rock, and my wife thought it would be even more decorative to have some flowers sprouting from that rock. I agreed with her easily since it didn’t really involve me. Some money spent on bulbs, sure…but mostly it just meant I’d get to look at pretty blooms when I get home from work. Who would complain? She would simply scoop the pebbles aside, shove the bulbs down there and walk away; waiting for nature to work its tiny miracles. And that’s how it would have been at our old house. Our old house with its rich topsoil deposited by the muddy Missouri River and left untouched when the house was built 70 years ago. But here in this new house nestled in the suburbs of the St Charles explosion that metastasized in the 1980’s, there is no topsoil. It was hauled away by the same trucks that brought the concrete and asphalt to the trees and farmland; sold by Bob Whitaker as he unfolded his curved streets and cul-de-sacs to make room to plop down his little, green, plastic houses. And so, when my wife donned her gardening gloves and cleared a small circle in the lava rock, all that greeted her was clay.

She returned to the house and announced that we needed to buy some dirt to pour around the mailbox. Reasonable, I replied…but difficult. The stonework edging that was currently holding in the red rocks was only three inches high and already packed to the hilt. Where would this new soil go? The obvious solution was that a deeper space would need to be dug for this new dirt. And having dug this space, the old edging would certainly not be up to the task of containing this newly enlarged space. So, new stone work, more rugged and sturdy would need to be purchased and installed.

My wife’s eyes pleaded and suddenly this project very much involved me.

Fortunately, I was up to the task. Not only do I secretly enjoy a day’s hard labor, but I had also just purchased a 2005 Subaru Baja (white with leather seats and a sunroof) and had yet to come across a good reason to use that bizarre, little truck bed.

I was meticulous. After the digging, I tamped and retamped each layer of crushed stone foundation, leveled and releveled each brick. It was somewhere in the midst of the leveling that my middle finger found itself between two bricks.

I may have cursed a bit.

Always conscious of the possibility of loosing a nail, I walked to my open tailgate and rubbed firmly on the point of injury. It’s true that I often get strange looks when I do this.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” people will ask as I grimace.

“Oh, it hurts enough to make you pee,” I always reply...which is the exact reply my father gave me when he taught me this painful trick. His theory was that by continually rubbing the smashed nail, you prevent blood from pooling, thereby preventing the loss of the nail. Better, he reasoned, to suffer momentary pain than a protracted period with no fingernail. Although I have never attempted to prove this theory, I have religiously maintained the tradition. Consequently (or maybe coincidently,) I have never lost a fingernail, a distinction that will soon need an asterisk at best, a complete refutation at worst.

I completed the wall and it was a thing of beauty. We included a chicken wire floor for the planting area to keep moles and other burrowing animals from disturbing the bulbs. I washed my hands of the task and declared it good. Over the days, however, a small semi-circle of deepest purple appeared at the base of the squished fingernail. It was not sore in the least and was pretty easy to disregard, so I thought little of it. The small amount of blood would dry, I reasoned, and be broken apart and dissolved at my body’s own pace. I went about my business.

The purple grew. I reasoned that the blood was being flatted; marched toward the tip of my finger to be ejected like a splinter. I continued to ignore the coloration, but received ever more questions as it became more and more noticeable. It became more difficult to convince people that it didn’t hurt…not in the slightest. I would tap it vigorously to prove my case, leading only to more wincing from my unconvinced audience.

Then, last week, I gave up trying to convince people of the painlessness. Not that the injury became more painful…just that, well…the aforementioned hole appeared and no one was willing to believe that the nail could be anything other than agonizing. With that said, I feel I should warn my more squeamish readers that the next few paragraphs, while still painless to me, are a bit more graphic. If you’d like, you can skip down to the paragraph that begins “I have no idea what will happen now.” Conversely, you are welcome to the details.

I noticed that the very back of the nail, where the purple had originated, was surprisingly thin. Just a rice paper thin wisp of an idea of a fingernail. I pushed the cuticle back a bit and found the nail just faded away to nothing, leaving just the dried blood there from months ago. While the nail itself had clung on stubbornly, the finger’s ability to grow new nail seemed to have been nixed from the collected blood. Unexpected this was…and unfortunate. Would my fingernail fall off from the back forward? I’d never seen such a thing happen, but who knows. If that was true, I reasoned, I might be able to clear the way for new nail growth, allowing my body to grow a new nail before the old nail fell off; a slick piece of healing that would leave me nailless at no point during the process. I peeled back just a bit of the old nail, thinking to clear out some of that blood. A few chunks fell out, revealing soft skin below, visible through a squarish hole at the base of my nail.

It was at this point that I got nervous. Should I keep picking at the injury? Was I making it worse? Perhaps I should go back to my original theory of letting my body handle this, I thought. And perhaps I’d done enough already and this small hole would relieve pressure, giving the rest of the nail a chance to cling to life.

I reverted to my waiting game.

I have no idea what will happen now. Will the new nail grow from the base forward? Will the soft skin beneath simply secrete a new nail? And in either of these cases, what will the remaining old nail do to help or hinder this reparation? I wait to find out and walk about with a violent violet rainbow on my nail; pink above and pink beneath like some miscolored manicure depiction of my fair city’s arch.

As I said, I am astounded by my body’s long trek back to a healthy, non-descript fingernail. I watch with detached curiosity to see how this disappears, as I know that it must. In the meantime, I’ll keep the offensive sight of my disfigured finger, my grisly reminder of my attempt to bring flowers and beauty to our neighborhood, away from unsuspecting onlookers. A Band Aid here, an awkwardly turned hunt-and-peck there, and a picture of it viewable only through this link…for those of you who may have been curious to find what’s under the surface of this impish Gren.