A stitch in time
Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Looking back, a year later, I seem to have lost the thrill of that shock. No sensation of pain. Blood oozed, squirted sluggishly, then flowed freely between the fleshy cliffs of the wound. I went to the fridge, took out an ice-cube. Blood all over the fridge door, the floor, dripping off my fingers. I went to the sink, ran the cold water, doused my hand in well water and ice. I could feel it then, a chaotic shrill pain, running through my hand in short, sharp electric shocks. I glanced at my little finger and saw white bone.
I tore a sheet from the paper towel roll: blotting paper to red ink. It sopped up the blood and overflowed in seconds. Another sheet. I bound it round the ice cube and tried, one-handed, to tighten my hanky round the paper. Impossible: the ice cube kept slipping. I looked at the floor: more blood. I looked at the telephone: neighbor? Police? Ambulance? I grabbed the hand towel, folded it in four, and bound it tightly round my hand, clutching the loose end in my fingers. I hurried to the door. Looking back, I saw a trail of blood spots and the cat, nose down, busy licking them up. Left hand held high to try and slow the bleeding, I drove to emergency.
Triage: the first nurse tossed the blood-soaked kitchen towel into the garbage can. “You won’t want this any more,” she grimaced. She took off my amateur dressings, and the blood started flowing again. “Are you on blood thinners?” “No.” You must have cut a vein.” “This will hurt,” she said, and sprayed some ‘stuff’ on my hand. It hurt. I tried not to wince. She tied my finger up tight, put my arm in a sling with the hand held high, and sent me back to the waiting room,
An overweight white male sat there, grinning at me. “Hurt?” he asked. “Yup.” “Much?” “It’s okay.” He stood up, put his hand in his jeans’ pocket, and turned his back on me. I could see the crack of his buttocks over the top of his pants. They bowed and bagged at the knees. He hoisted them up, the crack disappeared, the pants slipped back down, and the vertical crack smiled out at me again. “Here,” he showed me a packet, half concealed in his hand. “Try these. They’ll take away the pain.” “No thank you.” “They’re good. I take them. I get them off the street.” I took notebook and pen from my pocket and started to write. The guy shrugged, put whatever it was back in his pocket, and started to whistle.
The waiting room smells were different from the those of the triage room. In with the nurses, I had sensed their body warmth, their sweat at the end of a long day and at the beginning of an even longer night. I could feel energy, happiness, though I cannot explain what they smelled like. The air seemed to throb with positivity, good will, bustle, hope, and determination. Perhaps it was the cleanliness, the medicinal smells, the disinfectants, the cotton swabs, the fresh, clean bandages, he sense of teamwork and companionship. It smelled and felt good in spite of the occasional unwholesome odor drifting out from the plastic bag where my blood-soaked hand-towel languished along with pads and bandages bearing witness to my loss of blood.
Outside in the waiting room: a different world. A sense of boredom and hopelessness filled the air. Bodies slept slumped over in chairs. The room smelt of stale sweat, dank clothes. An old man, isolated in the corner, reeked of urine. Some sipped coffee as they waited their turn, its bitter acidic odor similar to that of morning drinks on an overnight transatlantic flight with the same sour stench of too many bodies cooped up in too small a space. Sandwich wrappers and discarded gum packets littered the floor and rustled when disturbed by shuffling feet. Distant babble of nurses and attendants. A TV high on the wall tuned to the 24-hour news on CBC muttered its words quietly from on high. One lady had brought an orange with her and, as she peeled it, its bitter-sweet perfume made my mouth water and I was forced to swallow my own saliva.
Luck was with me and I didn’t have to wait long. A nurse called my name and her arm swept me into another surgery where a young man washed his hands, dried them on a paper towel, and encouraged me to sit down. He took my hand, placed it flat on the table between us, and began stripping off the dressings. When he came to the last one, I started to bleed again. “This should have stopped,” he said. “Tell me about it,” I replied. His eyes sparkled. “I’m sorry, he said, “but this will hurt a little bit. I am going to have to freeze your finger before I sew it up.” “Do it,” I said. He opened a sterilized packet, took out a needle, shoved it into a small bottle. “You’ll feel a little twinge, but the needle carries its own anesthetic, and it won’t take long to bite.” It didn’t. I flinched at first, but by the time he pushed the needle into my finger a second time, I couldn’t feel a thing.
He peeled back the skin, began dabbing and squeezing, and quizzed me again about anticoagulants. He chatted away, happy as a budgie on a perch, and I soon warmed to him. “This might hurt,” he said, as he inserted the needle, and threaded my laceration with a thin, blue thread that he knotted, then snipped. But it didn’t hurt. I couldn’t feel a thing at all. “Is your anti-tetanus up to date?” “I don’t know.” “This might be the tough one,” he said, referring to the third needle. It wasn’t.
I walked out of the hospital and drove home, elated. When I opened the door, I looked for bloodstains on the floor. Not one. The thin, pink, sand-paper rasp of the cat’s tongue had cleaned them all up. And there she sat, in the middle of the corridor, eyes glowing, licking her paw, waiting for me.
Commentary: I revisited Triage once again. My memories, a year later, are clearer, yet more distant. Have I managed to capture that experience in A Stitch in Time? I very much doubt it. So what have I captured? I just don’t know. What I do know is that the whole process of remembering, rewriting, re-configuring has been fascinating. That original setting down in words has been the starting point for four different departures, four different journeys back into the past. One of them took place last Sunday, verbally, as I was recounting the experience to those who were with me in the Saint John Free Library. Memory: what does it mean? How do we change it? How does it change us? Are our memories ‘real’, in the sense that they are accurate and permanent, or do they change as we age and color them, sometimes with a rose-tinted hue, sometimes with the deepest shades of grey and black? I cannot answer those questions. I do not have that particular skill set. But I can ask them of myself and I can set them before other writers so that they, too, may set out on similar journeys and enjoy themselves and their past as I am doing.