My mom has great stories. I mean, she was born in Glasgow, Scotland as World War II was ending, and she grew up playing in bomb shelters. She looks like Little Orphan Annie and talks like Begbie. The woman has stories. Trust me.
Well, as a wanna-be professional storyteller, and with all the writing practice I’ve had over the years, she and I started talking about teaming up on a memoir of her life and times. We agreed it might be entertaining, sad, and probably hilarious. We started getting together for sessions–sitting down together with a tape recorder between us while she told her stories–and the plan was for me to put it all together in book form someday.
Unfortunately it’s been tough to keep up with the sessions (life is busy, yo), so the project has stalled, but nevertheless I want to tell you one of the stories that she told me during one of our initial get-togethers.
This is about Heather. Not my daughter, mind you, but her namesake and my sister.
I am the youngest of five children–four boys and one girl. Heather was my oldest sibling, and she only lived to about three months old. As a boy I knew of Heather in the same way a kid knows about a distant relative or a grandparent long passed. She was just part of my family’s history. But growing up, I didn’t know the following story:
My dad missed the beginning of it. He was in Chicago on maneuvers with the National Guard–one weekend a month, two weeks a year–sitting at a hospital with his detached left ring finger on ice. His wedding ring had gotten caught on the back of a truck as he was jumping out and his body weight pulled the finger right off. It was trampled by dozens of boots before it was recovered.
While waiting for the finger to be sewn back on, an officer told my dad to leave Chicago and go back to Detroit; there was something wrong with his daughter. No one knew at the time, but Heather had developed a brain tumor. She’d stopped moving in her crib and her skin had gone cold. My mom rushed her to the children’s ward.
My dad arrived in Detroit to find himself in another hospital, his detached finger still on ice. They were keeping his daughter alive, all the while trying to figure out what was wrong with her. Had someone dropped her? Had her bottles been properly sterilized? The police came. They questioned. My mom was hysterical.
And it was a children’s hospital, they told my dad. If he wanted that finger reattached, he would have to take it elsewhere.
He would wait.
They would wait. Seven days. They slept on plastic couches in the hospital hallways, skipped showers, and lost the lines between day and night as they awaited news of their daughter’s worsening condition. There were no Ronald McDonald houses or anything like that. They ate what they could. Friends brought clothes.
My dad’s detached finger started to go bad. Gangrene. It was either go have surgery or throw the finger away, so my parents left their daughter for a few hours and traveled to my dad’s third hospital that week. The finger was sewn back on. Leeches were attached in an attempt to pull blood through the dead flesh. They had wanted six kids. They’d agreed it was the right number for them. A big family. Heather was their first. My only sister. The leeches didn’t help. The finger was gone. My dad’s wedding ring is in a jewelry box on a dresser in my mom’s bedroom, still bent into the oblong shape that truck had left it in. It didn’t fit the nub that was left behind. It used to crack me up when my dad and I would play golf together and that one missing finger on his golf glove would flap in the breeze. It looked like a curly twig from a white birch or something. I busted his chops about it.
On the way back to the children’s ward my parents stopped at home to take showers and get something to eat. My mom was standing at the precipice of painful knowledge. Her daughter wasn’t dead, but she would be. They’d spent three years trying to conceive her. She told my dad, “Jay, if our daughter dies I won’t be able to try again. If we’re to have any more children, we have to try while Heather is still alive. We have to try now.”
“You mean, right now?”
So they tried. My dad was missing a finger and their daughter was in the hospital, but they did what they could to rekindle hope for their little family.
Three days later, Heather died. My mom fought the knowledge. She screamed in the faces of those who had done what they could for her kid. She screamed in my dad’s face. There was no explanation, and if no autopsy was performed, there never would be.
“You will not cut into my baby girl.”
But they had to know.
Brain tumor, the doctor’s said, when the autopsy was done. It was there from conception. One in a million, they said. Inoperable, even if they’d known about it.
My oldest brother was born nearly a year to the day after my sister was born. May seventeenth for Heather, May fourteenth for him. Just three days shy. He was conceived on the day my mom insisted she and my dad try for another child while their dying daughter was still alive.
As a parent myself, I’m in awe of the courage it must have taken for my parents to act on that day. I look at my two little girls and think of how different things could have been. Had my dad’s finger not been ripped off, they may never have left the hospital until Heather was gone. They may never have had another child. Poof. My brothers are gone. I’m gone. My daughters are gone.
But it didn’t happen that way. It didn’t happen that way because, in the face of the worst possible thing my parents showed bravery.
My dad is gone now. It’ll be twenty years in September. I still think of that little nub finger and how it used to make me laugh, that crazy curl of empty finger inside his golf glove. But that finger wasn’t empty. My life was in there.