So this happened.
And in the great scheme of things, it is a mere annoyance, I have reminded myself dozens of times since Monday evening. No one died. No one died and stayed dead. (Thanks again to the speedy action of strangers who resurrected my fella after his heart shimmied like an aspen, felling him in an airport, blessedly before we got on a plane.) No, it was just klutzy me stepping into a slight hole, and my left knee and right thumb taking the worst of it… skinned knee, sprained right ankle, broken right thumb now swathed in hard purple. Because if you’re gonna have a cast in your early old lady-hood, make it a purple one.
I was pissy for more than one reason. Not again, my brain moaned. You’re gonna miss Linda’s reading, it intoned. Her first poetry book debuts tonight. “No,” I said aloud. “I can still make it.”
I took inventory, right there on the ground. Torn left knee in the nylon navy pants purchased at a Target in Hawaii after the fella’s resurrection. Scraped knee for sure, though I couldn’t see it in the waxing dusk. Felt a slight tweak in the right ankle, but it seemed walkable. And then I caught sight of my right thumb, its base already starting to bruise. The tip shouldn’t be pointing out like that, should it?
That’s when the “oh, shit” escaped my lips.
There was no one around, so I painfully rose, tested the ankle—yep, good to go… it’s been tweaked so many times I know when it’s not walkable—and limped to my car. Sighed. Decided not to call Dick yet and drove straight to Kaiser ER. Parked way too far away… no parking anymore near the ER? That’s dumb. Limped my way in, stood in a much-too-long line for a Monday evening for a half hour until I got to the window. Apparently I looked like a serious case to the triage nurse because in minutes a young RN stuck her head out of massive double doors to the inner sanctum and called my name.
As I limped back to where she had me sit, the young RN looked at the paper I’d handed her and into my face and said, “Do you teach at Sac City?”
Dick says we can’t go anywhere to eat in Sacramento without encountering one of my former students. But this was the first one I’d seen in an ER. I looked at her tag: Mary Jane Perry.
“I had you for… maybe mass media?” she guessed.
“When?” I said, of course not remembering her.
“Oh, it must’ve been ’93 or ’94. I had a different last name then.”
I smiled. “That was my first year teaching full time at City,” I said. “Way back in the last century.”
Mary Jane smiled at me. “You were one of my favorite teachers,” she said, and just like that I knew I’d been delivered into the right hands.
In that way the universe does, the right people tended to me that evening. The ER doc, born when I was a sophomore in high school, was named Roger Yang.
“My father was a Roger, but he was born in 1930,” I said after I was seated in his exam room. “That’s more of an old-fashioned name. When were you born?”
“1974,” said this Roger, and I could hear my father’s chuckle somewhere deep in my brain. “I don’t know where my parents got it.” He paused. “Roger Moore was big then.”
“007,” I said, and we nodded at the same time.
As we chatted, he said that he went to high school with another Roger Yang and, in one of those supremely more-than-coincidence kinda ways, both this Roger Yang and the other one became ER docs. For Kaiser. The other one in Southern California, this one in Sacramento.
“Huh,” I said, as the NorCal Roger gently touched my busted thumb.
“Yeah, weird, huh?” he grinned at me.
So NorCal Roger sent me for an x-ray and was relieved to find that, though there was a tiny chip in the first knuckle bone, it was not bad. He offered me anesthetic (“yes, please,” I said) before he yanked my thumb back into place.
“That’s gonna need a cast,” he said, holding my tingling thumb after he reset it.
“Can you put it in a Velcro brace thingie for now?” I asked, using the technical term.
Roger called for Mary Jane who came in like a soft breeze. “I’ll go see if I can find one,” she said.
“We don’t have those here,” Roger said, “but she’s good. She’ll track one down.”
I smiled. “I really need my thumb.”
“Yeah,” Roger said, “but I’m gonna send you to an orthopedic doctor who’s probably going to want to cast it.” He saw my face. “Maybe not,” he added. “It’s a very tiny bone chip.”
Mary Jane returned with the Velcro brace thingie, which cradled my tingly thumb like an infant. She cleaned up my boo-boo knee. My ankle wasn’t bothering me at all… until I had to hike back to my car.
Before I left, MJ, as she said to call her, walked me to the big double whooshing doors to the waiting room. We hugged. She had told everyone who saw me during my two-hour visit that I’d been her teacher. I told her how happy I was that she’d gone into nursing.
“Yeah,” she said, “I finished in communications at Sac State, but I didn’t know what to do with that.”
“I could’ve suggested some things,” I said, “but I’m glad you didn’t ask me. I’m so glad you ended up here. Thank you for everything.”
We hugged again, and she waved me goodbye.
Two days later the orthopedic doctor sternly told me when I tried to bargain my way out of a cast, “Bones don’t negotiate. You want full function in that thumb, it needs to be immobilized.”
The question mark beamed from my eyes. “How long?”
“Four weeks,” he said. “We’ll take it off and see how it’s doing then.”
He did not guarantee that it would only be four weeks. Guarantees are for new cars, and it turns out it’s not only the bone he was concerned about. It’s the ligaments and tendons that have been stretched in ways they’re not meant to stretch. They need to be kept in place for a while.
But I felt laid low by this news. I’ve had casts before—notably one on my left wrist that soared nearly up to my armpit—that hobbled me. And it’s mid-semester, I’m the only journalism writing teacher, there is no sub for what I do, I’m on a computer or grading papers many hours a day… and I had learned over the previous two days how important it is to have two functioning opposable thumbs. Very.
I had learned that without my right thumb it was difficult, if not impossible, to:
- write remotely legibly/grade papers
- start my car
- turn a key in a lock or a doorknob
- use scissors (which, apparently, I do several times a day)
- trim nails, even with a clipper, since my left hand hasn’t learned how
- tweeze body hair
- put or or take off a bra
- button or unbutton, especially one’s own pants
and worst of all,
- type without holding my right hand high awkwardly above a keyboard, and
- use a mouse, especially to highlight things on a computer, which I do, literally, hundreds of times a day.
And while I am willing to learn to use my left hand to mouse, it had been slow going. I work about 60 hours a week as it is, and I could not imagine doubling the time it took to grade papers by hand or on the computer, put together PowerPoint lectures or many other tasks.
A cast was going to make all that even more difficult.
I was sent back to the waiting room to ponder my fate and wait for the orthopedic technician (aka cast man). I moped in a chair with my Velcro thingie, which, in a fit of pique, I ripped off my hand to study my swollen bruised thumb and feel sorry for myself.
I had plopped myself in a chair next to a woman sporting a worn-looking cast on her leg watching the lovely scenery to peaceful music on a screen high in a corner. As I sighed, she leaned over. “I get mine off today,” she whispered.
It was all I could do not to say the rude thing I was thinking.
“I like to guess where this is,” she said, nodding at the screen. Wildflowers, rocks, big waterfall. Easy peasy. Dick and I go there most years in May.
“Yosemite,” I said. “Bridalveil Fall.”
She beamed at me, a perceptive student. “And that?” I followed her gaze to the wildflowers. I knew them, had seen them often in Yosemite, even in summer. But the name didn’t come. I used to know that, I thought.
“Columbine,” she said. “It’s all over my yard.”
That surprised me. “Isn’t it too hot here for columbine?”
“Oh, I don’t live here,” she said. “I live in the mountains, way up Highway 50. We have a lot of shade.”
“You came down here today?” I said.
She smiled. “It’s only about 90 minutes.”
I felt the universe’s you-think-you-have-it-rough nudge in my ribs. I turned my head to look at her, this female Buddha/Quan Yin next to me delivering a message I needed to hear. My late friend Julia Ellen Cook’s voice echoed in my head: Honey, there are no accidents.
A medical assistant emerged and called for Jean. The woman next to me said, “That’s me.”
“Hogg?” said the medical assistant. “Jean Hogg?”
I almost let it pass, let Jean take my place in the cast room. But.
“I’m Jan Haag,” I said.
“Oh,” said the medical assistant, coming to show me the paper with my name on it. “Jean Hogg?”
“Close enough,” I said and followed her into the cast room where I’d been before. It has two stations for the cast men (and women) to work. A young man in a wheelchair had had his cast removed, and a young woman was trying to shove his obviously hurting foot into a walking boot. His face contorted in pain as he tried not to yelp. It didn’t work. Little yips escaped the poor guy.
“Janis Haag?” said a gentle voice, pronouncing it correctly.
And I looked into the face of an older man who seemed familiar. As I sat on the examining table covered with the ubiquitous paper, I realized that he had installed a different cast on me once upon a time. I couldn’t remember his name, but his kind chocolate eyes and gentle hands had years earlier molded wet gauze that hardened around my broken left wrist. He held out a cane horizontally, decorated with different colors of gauze.
“Your choice,” he said.
I didn’t say what I was thinking: I don’t want this. Let me just use the Velcro brace thingie. I looked for a good ten seconds. Not screamin’ pink. Black was too severe, even if it did match my mood. The teal was kind of nice. But…
The young man across from me, his sore foot now shoved into the walking boot, panted like an overheated dog. I tried not to look at him.
“Purple,” I said, thinking, it’s my color, it’s the color of the last cast, the highest chakra, the color of Hawaii’s last queen.
“Good choice,” said the Cast Man. “I’m gonna make you a nice cast.”
He gently took my hand and looked at my thumb, explained that he would leave my right fingers free but that the cast would go up to my elbow.
“Does it have to go that high?” I asked, revving into high maintenance gear.
“Where was the break?” asked the Cast Man.
I pointed to the tip of my thumb. “Way up there.”
He smiled. “Let me go ask your doctor,” he said.
And he did, returning with the same smile. “I can do you a shortie,” he said, which made me smile.
He asked what I did and I told him. “Oh, dear,” he sympathized. “I’ll make sure you’ve got lots of wiggle room in your fingers.”
I asked how long he’d been making casts. “Thirty years,” he said. “Started in the army. Then I retired.”
I looked surprised. “But you’re here,” I said with a flair for the obvious.
“They called me back,” he said. “I work here and there when they need me.”
And he cut two layers of black sock-like material to put against my skin, including a thumb sock. “When you see this again,” he said, placing the sock over my thumb, “it’s gonna be good as new.”
That made me smile as his capable hands sculpted layers of gauze into what would harden into a protective shell for my thumb. “The magic healing cast,” I said.
He kept winding layers around my upraised hand. “That’s right,” he said. “The magic healing cast. You got it.”
And just like that, the Cast Man cast his healing spell on my busted digit. I heard the voices of the universe chuckling at me again. I have sent you nothing but angels, it whispered.
Because apparently I needed to remember again to trust that helpers will arrive when needed, that they will lend a hand when you’ve broken part of yours, that for all the inconvenience, there are blessings bestowed—some by people who have known you in a previous life, some by those new to you, and many, many by the ones unseen, working overtime on your behalf.
And I thanked the Cast Man (whose name, I was later reminded, is Henry) and walked into a sunny morning, not quite fall, pleasantly warm, my new cast still damp and very, very purple.