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Keys

March 9, 2014

Several years ago I nearly severed the tip of my middle finger in a moment of carelessness in the kitchen.  I was using a paring knife to separate two frozen veggie burgers that I intended to put on the grill for dinner when the knife slipped and sliced to the bone the finger on my left hand. I grabbed boy #3, then a baby, and a towel to soak the blood, and hurried off to the neighborhood ER to get my finger put back together. There, I nursed the baby while the attendants worked on my hand. Halfway through, one of them apologized. “They won’t let us get the good glue anymore,” he told me. “Sorry.” An hour later, my finger put back together with mediocre glue, I went home and finished cooking dinner.

My finger throbbed the rest of the summer. And then it went numb. By the next spring, it was no longer tender to the touch, but I also couldn’t feel anything. At some point, while writing, I realized that I no longer used it at all. My other fingers hopped over it to press the “e,” “d,” and “c” keys on my laptop. My friend Kerry, a physical therapist, told me that I needed to retrain my brain to use the finger. I tried—but it was too much work. It took more time than I had to direct my finger: press “e,” press “r.”  I had too much to do, too much to say. And it was exhausting, getting that finger to work again. It felt as if my left hand were in the home stretch of a marathon. It made my whole body tired.

PianoSo I’ve learned to get along with a finger that doesn’t work right. It hasn’t affected my life, even my writing life, in any significant way. I’m only self-conscious of the awkward hopscotching I do across the keyboard when somebody is watching me type. It’s the piano that I’ve lost. I can’t play with a hand that doesn’t work right. The older boys take lessons, practicing at home on my grandma Heinkel’s Everett, which used to sit in the corner of the long, blue formal living room in her house in Illinois. My grandmother played that piano, as did my mother, then my siblings and me.  But it was my brother whom my grandmother most loved to hear. “I just love a man at the piano,” she’d say, pronouncing it pee-anna in her Midwestern drawl.

I love to listen to my boys play, too. I don’t even mind–because my grandmother would not have, either–that the keys of her pee-anna are often covered in their hand grub. They sit at that piano in their underwear, and their baseball uniforms, banging away at Mozart and Coldplay. Sometimes they’re happy and focused. Sometimes they’re weeping or furious. Sometimes they’re at the piano simply to escape something, or someone, in the house by drowning themselves in their music.

I used to do that, too.  I miss it.

There’s a piano in my mother’s house in Illinois. There’s a piano in my birth mother’s house in Colorado. This is one of those shared traits that the social workers made much of on our adoption paperwork. Both mothers play the piano! My fingers know well the piano in my mother’s house, but they have never touched my birth mother’s. Hers sits just outside the door of the basement bedroom where I stayed two years ago when I visited. In the midst of the emotional whirl of that visit, I longed to play it, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to with my dead finger. I wanted to ask her to play it for me, to connect the mothers and the childhood that was and wasn’t, but I didn’t do that, either. My mother often plays when she is here in Philadelphia visiting us. Her music wraps me up like a child again.

I’ve since started over myself, playing the same elementary music my boys are learning, hoping to retrain my finger to find its way among the keys. Some day, perhaps nobody will be able to tell again that something was lost from me. What you will hear is the put-together melody of tender hard work. It’s as real as anything you’ve ever heard. It’s not a facade. It’s not a stiff upper lip.  It’s not a grin that bears it.  Listen: this is the music of adoption. It is all the notes made amidst loss and found, played by a triad of broken people healed and healing.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2014 12:37 pm

    Last week I was telling Tom B. about your finger b/c he is having surgery (maybe today?) at the hospital where your finger was reattached. It’s weird that you’re writing about it, but cool. We’re always losing and gaining. (And I hope Tom’s doc gets to use the good stuff on his knee, or everyone in the dept. is going to be held together with spit and string.)

  2. March 10, 2014 4:46 am

    Jenny, dear, I always say this, but will again: you have an incredible ability to find connections in the large and small details of your life. It gives me hope for myself. Music! What a blessed and wonderful way to connect with your past, present and future. I have a feeling that one of those boys of yours is going to write music one day and you’ll be able to play it. I felt really close to you during my time in Philadelphia. Just got home now and found this precious sharing. Bless you.

  3. March 9, 2014 3:09 pm

    Perhaps the almost severed finger is like the mother you almost didn’t reconnected with, but did. When I had the ACL replaced with cadaver material in my knee, the surgeon could not avoid damaging nerves there. I have numbness there, but no feeling. The Dr. said it would likely never come back. I have met several people who have regained it through the years. A gift. Just like you connecting with your biological mom. Your piano playing? It can happen. Give it time.

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