My daughter, the starfish.

I have been waiting several months to write this entry because I wanted to be able to begin it this way: Maren made a full recovery and is completely fine. Mitch and I, on the other hand, are a little traumatized.

In November, I was teaching math in my second grade classroom when the classroom phone rang. I glanced down and recognized my husband’s phone number, and I’ll admit that I felt a wave of annoyance, not that sudden drop of the stomach that everyone always talks about when they just ‘knew’ that something was wrong. Instead, I was just mad that Mitch was calling me in the middle of a math class.

I picked up and he said, “You need to meet me at Maren’s daycare immediately.”

NOW my stomach dropped. I cleared my throat and said, “Is everything okay?”

And my husband– my rock– said, “Leave right now.” And hung up.

I turned to my cooperating teacher and said, very shakily, “Something happened to Maren. Mitch says I need to meet him right now.”

She waved me out the door. “Go, go go go. Call me later.”

I don’t remember grabbing my keys, or getting to the parking lot, or even starting the drive. My phone rang again, jarring me out of the sea, and Mitch’s voice was on the other end.

Maren’s left hand had been caught in a door at daycare. Two of her fingertips had been amputated. Mitch was with her now, and the ambulance was on its way.

I think that Moms have a little bit of a mental ticker going on constantly, and every time we have a new experience we check it off our list, and tuck it away so that we know what it’s going to be like next time we have another moment like it. Like the first time your baby has a high fever, or the first time they have diarrhea up to their shoulders at a restaraunt, or the first time they put a pea up their nose.

This was one of those experiences for me. The first time something really, truly awful happened to my precious baby, and my first thought was, “Thank God. It’s terrible, but she’s alive. Thank you God.” For parents, the business of economizing our fears in emergencies is very commonplace.

“Do you have her?” I demanded—my adrenaline turning to anger now.

“Yes, she’s right here in my lap.” He said, and I felt like cold air was creeping into my body, starting in my stomach and radiating out.

“Why isn’t she crying?” I asked, and there was a long pause.

“I think she’s in shock.”

By then, the ambulance had arrived and Mitch told me to meet them at the ER instead of daycare. We pulled into the parking lot at about the same time, and then I was running, running, and running. The distance across the parking lot seemed insurmountable to me, as if every inch of air separating me from my daughter was a steel cable holding me back.

An EMT held his hand out to stop me, but then he looked at my face and called to the others, “Mom’s here.”

Mitch was holding Maren to his chest, his hand clamped tightly around a wash cloth that was on her hand. She had tear tracks down her round cheeks, but no tears. When she saw me, she held out her other hand and whimpered, “Mama.” And then laid her head back down on Mitch’s chest and took a deep breath.

We were ushered immediately into a room, and were swarmed with nurses and aides. While they brought in lights and tables and clean gauze, I realized with dread how much blood was soaking my little family.

The doctor came in and said, “Okay—let’s see what we’re dealing with here.” And Mitch took the wash cloth away.

I can’t really describe what I saw—not only do I really not want to, I physically can’t. Because if I hadn’t seen it in real life, I would have thought it wasn’t real. I stared at my daughter’s hand and thought that I was looking at some awful Hollywood trick with make-up and plaster. And then, when Maren’s heart beat, blood gushed out. And then she started screaming.

I don’t want to diminish the relationship between a Dad and his daughter—obviously I don’t know anything about it—but I do want to address what it feels like to see your daughter in that kind of pain from a mom’s perspective. At that moment, I was acutely aware of my own fingers. I flexed them, and they burned—it felt wrong and horrible, treasonous, that I had fingers on my hand at all.

I also felt a tug in my center, as if my womb was reaching out for my baby, wanting to keep her safe and sound, protected from the ugliness in the world like she was when she was in my tummy. When you build a baby inside you, you have a very beautiful–but visceral—understanding that all of her body parts were once a part of you. It’s the reason that mom’s will sometimes be in the next room and miss their baby, or have a sudden fear that they forgot her somewhere even when she’s in the backseat. There is no other relationship on earth like this one—she and I used to be just I.

When she was injured, I didn’t just feel scared and hurt. I felt personally offended in a way that I’m not sure I can verbalize. I was seeing red as I looked around the room—how dare the universe let this happen to my baby.

They re-wrapped her hand and let us know that applying pressure was keeping the pain at bay, but they were going to bring her something for the pain shortly. We asked if she could have something to drink (it was just before lunch time) and they said no, in case she needed to go into surgery. The two of us did our best to soothe her—balancing the line between validating her fears and pain while also distracting her from them—and waited.

I called my cooperating teacher and told her I wouldn’t be back for the day. She was awesome and gracious, and I promised to call her later.

Then I made the much more difficult phone calls to our moms.

I made both phone calls, and so got the full benefit of hearing our Mom’s voices struggle through sheer panic, trying to find strength. I thought (not for the first time) about how awful it must feel to be the parent of an adult child. I will always be my mother’s baby, and I’m sure that there will always be a part of her that wants to shield me from all the bad things in the world. But I’m a mother myself, now, and so all my Mom could do was tell me it would be all right, and to call her later.

When they came in with the pain meds, I made a decision that I don’t think I will ever forgive myself for—even though I know Maren will never remember it. I was feeling very sick and didn’t know if I could stomach seeing her hand again, and asked if I could leave the room while they gave the injections. They let me out, and the door locked behind me—and so I stood useless in the hallway and listened while they put needles in Maren’s open wounds. She screamed for me the whole time.

When the door opened again, I ran back in and resolved not to leave her side again. The medicine took over, and she fell asleep, cradled on Mitch’s chest. Finally, he and I could talk.

He told me that he didn’t know how it happened, he had been so angry when he got to daycare that he didn’t want anyone to talk to him (now that it’s all over, I sometimes think with some dry amusement about this exchange—and I’ll admit that I feel a little sorry for whoever had to make the phone call to Mitch. I’ll bet they were puking in their mouths when he showed up). With Maren asleep, Mitch and I let our guards down a little bit and cried. Mitch said he wanted her to just stay asleep so that she wouldn’t remember anything, and I assured him that she wouldn’t remember anything, she was way too young to carry a memory of this with her (but sometimes I don’t know. Just last week I asked her if she remembered where she got her owie, and she said, very solemnly, “Door.”).

While she was sleeping, doctors and a plastic surgeon came to look at her fingers again. The surgeon recommended that she have an X-ray, but that regardless of the outcome she should simply have the tips re-attached. At her age, he told us, surgery was very risky because of the anesthesia, and in any case, it may not work much better than just re-stitching in the first place. We nodded our heads. Mitch’s eyes were worried, but as Maren started to wake up for her X-ray we smiled at her and talked to her about Sesame Street.

When they came in with the X-ray, they asked me to leave. I told them I wanted to stay, but they were very firm. If there was any chance—any chance at all—that I could be pregnant, staying for the X-ray could be the worst decision I ever made. So I stomped out of the room and watched through the window.

Maren sat in Mitch’s lap and they wrapped him in a lead vest. Mitch talked in low tones to Maren while they stretched out her hand and put it on the flat gray surface.

Does anyone remember Maren at about nine months? She had the most marvelously huge round head. She could crawl, but not walk, and she spent most of her days sitting up, with her hands always reaching for something, looking around with wide-eyes. We had her pictures taken at around this time, and one of the proofs that took my breath away was the first one the photographer took. She had that wide-eyed look; and a very serious expression on her face—plainly terrified, but trusting us that we wouldn’t leave her alone with a madman.

This was exactly how she looked right then, stretching out her hand and looking up at the camera. They took a few pictures, and then let me back in the room. The EMT’s came back into the room. They had just dropped off another patient and wanted to check on Maren—that’s the effect my beautiful baby has on people.

The short end to this story is that she lost some bone in both tips of her fingers, but because Mitch had called 911 so quickly, rather than taking her to the ER himself, most of the tissue was salvageable. The ER doctor stitched both tips back on. They wrapped her up like a taco, with only one arm out, and Maren sang songs and told jokes with us while they stitched. If she looked at her hand, she remembered she was hurt and would cry, so we sat on her right side and she just kept looking at us. Almost immediately, blood and feeling returned to the tip of her middle finger. Her ring finger was still touchy—within a few hours, the flesh was turning white. The doctor warned us that because of the way the finger was severed, it was possible that the ring finger tip might not take—and might just fall off.

They bandaged her hand and gave us instructions to keep them completely dry. We went home and bought ice cream and rented movies. I sat down with her on the couch and didn’t want to let her go.

A few days later, she was fitted with splints and given new bandages. We withdrew her from daycare, and set up babysitters for the next few weeks while I finished student teaching. In the meantime, Mitch was finishing up his career as a restaurant manager and getting ready to transition to his new job in Minnesota. We packed our apartment, and got ready to move.

Three days before we moved, Maren was fitted with new splints, and the surgeon looked again at her fingers. He was encouraged by a tiny little island of pink on the tip of her ring finger—he was sure this meant that the finger had re-vascularized and would make a full recovery. He told us that at this point, the ‘dead tip’ was working as a biological dressing, which was better than any bandage. He was absolutely amazing, answered all our questions, and was very patient with Maren—even though he did not work in pediatrics normally.

Last week, I was changing her bandages. The middle finger was all ready completely healed—it looks a little marred, but we all think that once the skin is freshened up and the nail grows out no one will even know that something happened. But we were all waiting to see what was going to happen with her ring finger, which was black, flaky, and threatened to come off every time we changed bandages. Even though our surgeon had high hopes, he had also told us that until the tip came off there were no guarantees, because there was no way to check what was going on underneath.

While Maren played with stickers, I pulled the band aids off—and stopped cold. I could absolutely not believe what I was seeing. The dead tip of Maren’s finger was in my left hand—black, shriveled, and ugly—and in its place was an entirely new tip, complete with a finger nail. Guys—it was like the thing just GREW BACK.

When I took her to a follow up a few days later, our new surgeon reached down for her hand and said, “My God, it worked!”

It’s only been a week, and all ready we are starting to see all the signs of the amputation disappearing. Our surgeon joked that if she married a hand surgeon, he might not be fooled, but otherwise, no one will probably ever know what happened. Not to give this more of a touchy-feeling ending than it all ready needed… but Maren was all ready a miracle. If she had lost both fingers, I would have been thanking God that it wasn’t worse…. And then this. I feel so…. humbled…. and grateful and like the universe is a beautiful, beautiful place, because my daughter is happy, and healthy, and whole.



1 Comment

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One response to “My daughter, the starfish.

  1. Jess

    You write so beautifully. I cried and cried while reading this. So glad to hear Maren’s hands are healing.

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