From the day I learned to write until I was 52 years old, I wrote with my right hand. Then, in April of 2018, due to intense repetitive-stress soreness in my right hand and wrist, I began teaching myself to write with my left.

I’ll never be the same.

I write my first drafts longhand rather than type, and I couldn’t just rest my right hand; I was in the middle of a novel. So, every morning I opened Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor, and transcribed an unfamiliar poem with my left.

Knowing how to write with my right was no help at all. Holding the pen in my left, I couldn’t even imagine my usual way of writing the letter A, let alone any of my flourishes and shortcuts. What my left hand did was try to write the way I was taught in elementary school. At first it was spindly, more like the writing of an old person, but over time it began to look more like that of my fourth- or fifth-grade self.

I didn’t feel like a child as I wrote, though. I felt thoughtful, partly because I could only grasp a few of the words I was transcribing at a time. So much of my mind was wrapped up in forming the letters. This meant very close reading, leading to revelations that wouldn’t have arisen on faster reading. But I’m sure this thoughtfulness also stemmed from accessing different brain areas, and from a slow emotional reveal that I will get to in a moment.

My right wrist healed, but I continued using my left hand. At work on my novel, I found my right handwriting too brash, too loud. Then I had an essay to prepare. For expediency, I decided to use my right hand. I put the pen down to look something up, and it was a while before I realized I had picked it up with my left hand when I began writing again.

All this I told my therapist, Audrey. We had some interesting conversations about opposite-hand writing in therapeutic situations. Then one day, it occurred to me to ask her, “You know about my stump, right?”

She didn’t. Audrey and I talk via Facetime, and my hands had never been in front of the camera long enough for her to notice.

For years I was under the impression that the drive belt had been whirring when I touched it – that its movement had been the fascination – but my mother corrected me when she heard me telling the story as a teenager.”

When I was one year old, my family lived on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix, where my father was working for the Peace Corps. Our water supply was in a cistern under the house, lifted into the pipes by an electric pump outside. One day I was in the yard under the supervision of Iona, who came to help my mother with my older brother and me. She was hanging laundry, so she didn’t see me approach the water pump, and she didn’t see me reach out to touch the drive belt, but she did hear me react when two of my fingers got caught in it. So did my mother, in the kitchen.

For years I was under the impression that the drive belt had been whirring when I touched it – that its movement had been the fascination – but my mother corrected me when she heard me telling the story as a teenager. The pump only came on when someone turned on a tap or flushed the toilet. “I washed my hands!” she cried. “It’s my fault!’

But there was so much more to the moment than the washing of two hands and the damaging of one. I thought I knew the rest of it. I thought the doctor Mum rushed me to told her someone could probably reattach the severed tip in Miami, but the next flight wasn’t for four hours, so we did what we could on Saint Croix. I thought the tip was discarded, and the doctor sewed the skin at the top of my tiny stump together and mended my ring finger, which hadn’t been fully severed.

In June of 2019, though, my mother died, and in amongst her saved letters I found some her own mother had saved, including the one my mother, barely 28 at the time, wrote to her parents about the accident:

“As Iona turned back to hang up the clothes, Alison went to the pump, put her hand under the belt, and it started to run. Iona screamed to me, and clung on to the belt. I ran out of the house and tried to get Alison’s hand out of the machine and it came out, but minus half of the top joint (including the nail) of her third finger. The details now are so horrifying that I don’t know if I should tell you, but I think I have to. I plunged her hand into some iced boiled water that was in the fridge, then I found her fingertip, and then I drove her to the clinic, which is where the nearest help was. By the time we got there she was covered in blood (it was about four miles). They bandaged her there (at this time I was still hoping that the tip could be saved and sewn on) and I kept screaming for a doctor and there were all these stupid fat slow nurses telling me to calm down. They finally decided that we should go to the hospital in Christiansted by ambulance…”

I have no conscious memory of this incident. When I’ve imagined it, I’ve always seen myself from a distance of maybe ten feet or more, always from the left side. I imagine my mother realizing she’s going to have to complete the severing of the top of my middle finger in order to release my hand from the pump’s grip. I feel her squeeze her eyes shut and tug, as if I’m her. I don’t feel my pain; I feel my mother’s. Most often, though, I just see my little blonde self reach out, then there’s a jump in time and I see my mother rushing me to the doctor. I imagine her terror and guilt at war with her effort to comfort me.

When I asked Audrey, “You know about my stump, right?” she shook her head, eyes curious, and I held my left hand up to my desktop webcam. I watched her study my fingers. “Ooooookay,” she said, “this makes so much sense.”

Baby Alison, Toby, Mum and Harcourt the cat in Saint Croix, courtesy of the author

We had been talking about my fears for many months, one of which is triggered by physical intimacy. Various inappropriate touches and frightening revelations in childhood seemed to explain it, and I don’t discount those, but I can see how that day of pre-verbal trauma casts a long, long shadow. Since then, I’ve instinctively hidden my damaged fingers by curling them loosely into a fist. I often leave my index finger out, though, perhaps as an undamaged outpost. I wasn’t really aware of this until I started observing myself. Sitting in the passenger seat of the car, I’d look at my right hand, palm flat and fingers splayed on the top of my right thigh, and at my left, balled up, index out, resting on the inner curve of my left thigh. If I uncurled my left fingers with my right ones, I felt a chill in my chest, a flutter of fear. Surely my left fingers could have opened themselves, but my dominant hand understood that its opposite didn’t want to. I have often been divided in my heart, but being divided like this in my body – well, being so aware of being divided in my body – is new.

I soon started waking up in bed with my left hand open flat on my left thigh, my right hand in a fist. A bit later on, the right index finger was out in just the way the left had been. Although leaving my left hand open was becoming easier, my subconscious couldn’t let the openness be complete. I’d been holding that position for too long.

As a child I didn’t want to be disgusting, but I did bring my finger out when I wanted sympathy. I’d also reveal it if I saw someone with a similar loss. Intact people who notice, though – they tell you about the people they know who have had accidents. Those of us with minor stumps hear lots and lots of stories of major ones. Such stories always diminished mine to me, not just because of the difference in size, but also because all those people I heard about could remember what they’d been through. That had to be worse, right?

Audrey looked shocked when I told her I’d lost only a tiny part of my body; why should it feel like a big deal? It took a while to allow myself to admit that I had been terrified, a feeling I couldn’t share at the time, and which I couldn’t share for over fifty years because whenever I imagined the moment, I did so from a safe distance, and the camera stopped rolling just before contact. Audrey said, “After experiencing pre-verbal trauma, some children start having tantrums, or nightmares, or become clingy, or regress to needing diapers again if they’ve already been toilet-trained. Do you know if you did any of these things?”

I knew I didn’t. My mother had told me how quickly I learned to protect my left hand when I took a tumble. She wrote the same in the letter to her parents:

“[S]he is absolutely remarkable. She does everything with her right hand and if she falls she uses the heel of her hand to get up again. Having her around is the best thing for me at the moment, for she is totally unconcerned, although she seems to want to be carried more and seems to be sucking her finger a little more than usual, but she’s just as happy and full of fun as ever.”

“You soldiered on,” said Audrey, nodding.

Yes.

Next to my keyboard during that conversation was a black-and-white photo taken not long after the accident. I’m sitting on a bird-shaped kiddy toilet seat holding a little book between my thumb and bandaged left fingers, pointing to a page with my right index finger. My mouth is open; I’m ‘reading’ out loud. At first what struck me about the photo was the business-as-usual look of it. Then I dropped my eyes to the bandages and imagined the fingers under them. Small, yes. Capable, yes. But mangled. I looked at the dimple at the top of my chubby cheek. “Poor little thing,” I said, and, finally, felt.

Afterwards, I stood with Andy by the kitchen sink and began recounting the salient points of the conversation for him. Before I got very far, I found myself saying, “Oh! Oh!”, and then suddenly sobbing into his chest. I had finally imagined the moment of pain and horror. I had been, at last, in my body, at pump level, safely between Iona in the yard and my mother in the house, on that quiet, sunny, Caribbean morning, when all was well, and then there was noise and movement and pain the size of the sun and, perhaps, the need to protect myself, even from people I loved and who loved me, for the rest of my life.

In the middle of writing this piece, I turned to a blank page at the back of my notebook to remind myself how it feels to write with my right. It feels wrong.”

Until this process, I had never thought to wonder why I touched the pump with my left hand. Writing with my right hand had never before been uncomfortable, and there was no call to contemplate whether left-handedness was cut off from me with that little bit of flesh and bone. When the question finally surfaced in my mind, I suddenly felt giddy with possibility. Maybe I used my left hand because it was closer to the part of the pump I was interested in, or because I was sucking on my right pointer. But the giddiness was intense, and not to be ignored.

In the middle of writing this piece, I turned to a blank page at the back of my notebook to remind myself how it feels to write with my right. It feels wrong. It feels like I shouldn’t do it, because the voice in my head changes subtly, and I want to give the voice of my left more time in the open. Perhaps the best way to describe how different the two hands feel is to tell you that I once took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which assessed me as being equally as introverted as extroverted. I’m talkative, enjoy being on stage, and tend to be the first to ask a question in a group. But I need to withdraw, and I enjoy being alone. I love thinking without talking. My right hand is me in public. My left hand is me on my own.

In that notebook, I wrote out a little rhyme my unambiguously introverted father had written out in all caps and without spaces and left on my bed when I was nine or ten – something for me to figure out, complete with a funny line-drawing of a walking man. It said:

ISAWAMANGOFORAWALKHEWALKEDDOWNTOTHESEA
ANDWHENTHATMANCAMEBACKAGAINISAWTHATHEWASME

He had never done anything like that before, nor did he ever again. I don’t remember asking if he made up the rhyme himself. I do know that it has come to mind very often since, but this is the first time I’ve understood that it was more of a gift to me than either of us could have imagined.

We become ourselves by walking to where the churning is, and then returning. This couldn’t have been more apparent than after a trip to the coast of Mexico in February where a wave upended me and slammed the left side of my face into the sand. I had my eyes open as it happened, and part of me was able to register the beautiful greens within the roar and the terror, before the crack. I had a friend who broke his neck in a swimming pool, and wondered if I’d be able to find my feet. I could. I felt for my teeth. They were there. I staggered out of the water and was ministered to with an ice pack, two aspirins, a glass of seltzer water, and a large shot of tequila. I lay on my beach chair watching with one eye as vultures wheeled on the hot air against a bright blue sky.

Being fine, if bruised and sore, made me grateful to the point of elation. I went back in the water every day, and thoroughly enjoyed my vacation. That said, photos of me silhouetted against the orange water as I took a dip at sunset show my hands in fists. And I noticed yesterday that when I crossed my arms, my left hand was no longer open on my right bicep, where it had rested for many months. It wasn’t even closed there. It was behind my elbow. With my libido.

It takes a while to come back from the churning sea. I’ve still got distance to travel, but not because I’m not intact. I’m as whole as my circumcised brother is whole. I’m just, finally, grappling with the whole.

 

Alison Jean Lester is the author of the novels Lillian on Life, set in the US and Europe, and Yuki Means Happiness, set in Japan. She is currently at work on a novel set in Worcestershire.
alisonjeanlester.com
@A_J_Lester

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