I lost my fingertip in January while carrying a wooden boat across icy ground. When I slipped, the gunwale came down on my hands. About a half inch of my middle finger lay in the dead grass, which might not sound like a lot until you look at the geography of a hand—the cut went to the white crescent setting in the cuticle. I wish I could accurately describe the feeling of picking up the fingertip—how immediately protective I was, holding it in my palm, cupping it like I’d found a songbird egg; how I felt it was both numb and not numb because it was then an object, not part of my body anymore. It was of my left hand—my writing and painting hand.
“We have to go,” I said to my friend carrying the other side of the boat.
The surgeon couldn’t sew it back on. Before I was put under, he said if he couldn’t graft the skin from the lower part of the finger, he’d bend the finger and attach the open end to my palm, cleave it free later. I woke up to it not sewed to my palm but erect with a bulb of bandages, an aluminum plate apparently shoved under the nail bed.
Weeks of dreaming animals were chewing my hands. Waking up one night sure that someone was holding my hand. Pain in the most creative ways: buzzing that felt like sound, pinches, bites, whirs, reenactments of the amputation, pins and needles, burning like my finger was in a candle flame. Mostly, a hammer going, Pay attention here, here, here, here, here, on my fingertip. When I called the nurse to ask if the pain was normal, she said, “Your fingertip was exploded off.”
It took a century before January became that cold. As in, the week I lost my fingertip was the coldest stretch of days in Massachusetts since 1918, which is why the ground was so slippery, all moisture hardened to ice. A few days before I was carrying the boat, Mount Washington, one hundred and fifty or so miles to the north, tied with Armstrong, Ontario, for the second coldest place on earth, with a wind chill of negative ninety. There was a brief January thaw, the warmth of winter’s yawn, before the jaws snapped shut again. Mattresses of sea ice floated into the river. The high tide left waxy skirts of ice up on the dock pilings. The birds quieted down. I watched a fox walk across water I hadn’t seen freeze since my childhood.
The house was too cold. I was delirious with pain postsurgery. The wood floors stung my feet when I got out of bed. So I moved into my parents’ house, a quarter mile across the bay—partly because of the cold, mostly because I couldn’t wash the dishes or drive a car or cut an onion or open a jar of peanut butter.
My mind was too soft with pain and painkillers for reading, and with no Internet at the house, I’d turn on the television and watch the evening news. An ecstatic weatherman ranted about the cold snap—“snap,” like the sky had broken, a stick bent too far by the hands of winter. The weatherman flapped his arms at a long blue necklace slung low through the January days laden with sapphire low points: Sixteen. Fourteen. Twenty-one, eleven, twenty-three. He nearly yelled, rapturous, delivering the bad news everyone already felt pressing in all around them.
To stave off cabin fever, I made it my daily task to find the snowy owl that had recently arrived on the moors. She was most often on the ground, on a hummock, her white body luminescing. There’s no bird so mammalian as a snowy owl: coal-black eyes, hunched over, tall as a baby. I shouldn’t have followed her from the moors to the beach to the marsh. To be outside in this centurial cold. Inevitably, my finger nub would be in a vice of pain—maybe the metal plate had chilled to some unforgiving temperature. I’d stick the finger in my mouth, breath through the bandages, track home, light the stove, and hold my hand over the flame until the pain softened.
“Is not January the hardest month to get through?” Henry David Thoreau writes in his journal in 1854.
After failing to enjoy almost any part of television, this book (The Journal 1837–1861, edited by Damion Searls) was the only one I had the attention span for. I skipped to his winter entries to see how he might better describe these weeks that I was finding more and more painful to endure. “The surface of the snow in the fields is that of pretty large waves on a sea over which a summer breeze is sweeping,” he writes on January 22, 1853, also in description of the snowfields spread out in front of the house.
And so this became my habit for the historic cold month: look for the owl, light a fire at home, read a few journal entries. Watch the fire break into itself. Fall asleep under the vague effects of oxycodone. Wake and read another few journal entries.
I underestimated the scope of loss—half an inch isn’t so big, really, on the body. But this is the character of grief, I’ve learned. Grief generates more than you started with. Sometimes I’d unwrap the bandages to look at what used to be my fingertip and was now a bloodless sore, skin sandpapered down. I learned that the tiny white crescent that remained of my nail was called a lunula, a little moon. Two lines of stitches dovetailed across the tip. What an uneasy feeling to be repulsed by a part of my body I used to love—for who doesn’t in some way love their hands? “I must confess there is nothing so strange to me as my own body,” Thoreau writes in February 1842. “I love any other piece of nature, almost, better … I am like a feather floating in the atmosphere; on every side is depth unfathomable.”
Depression isn’t the word for that January. It was more a thinning, a shortening of spirit. Thoreau puts it better in his winter of 1842: “My soul and body have tottered along together of late, tripping and hindering one another.” Why was it so comforting to read this hundred-fifty-year-old account of winter and loss? Perhaps to acknowledge the immortality of weather. It was the weather report that the man on the evening news couldn’t give: an interpretation of what negative numbers have on the skin and soul and home. Thoreau writes in 1855:
Our thermometer stands at -14 at 9 a.m.; others, we hear, at 6 a.m. stood at -18, at Gorham, N.H., -30. There are no loiterers in the street, and the wheels of wood wagons squeak as they have not for a long time—actually shriek. Frostwork keeps its place on the window within three feet of the stove all day in my chamber … I was walking at five, and found it stinging cold. It stung the face …
The coldest night for a long, long time was last … People dreaded to go to bed. The ground cracked in the night as if a powder-mill had blown up, and the timbers of the house also … Must leave many buttons unbuttoned, owing to numb fingers. Iron was like fire in the hands … The cold has stopped the clock … Bread, meat, milk, cheese, etc., etc., all frozen. The latches are white with frost and every nail-head in entries, etc., has a white cap … This, i.e. yesterday, the 6th, will be remembered as the cold Tuesday.
The temperature kept dropping. You cannot fight winter in New England. There’s something too powerful in it, even practically. It exacts millions of dollars from northern cities in snowplowing; it cancels school; it injures those with bad footing. The language of cold is a language of violence—gripping, snapping, pinching, numbing. The fear of falling temperatures is manifest in the way cold resists being a verb. While days in spring continue to warm, in summer to heat up, and in fall to cool down, what do they do in these painful winter months, in this downward swoop? Freeze isn’t the word, as freeze implies some end point. It must stay an adjective, padded with verbs, a line of separation: the days are getting colder. When a friend from Sierra Leone called, I said, “The days here are still … ” I paused. “Coldening.”
You can be imprisoned by it, or you can do as Thoreau did—put on a pair of skates and marvel at the hats of frost on the nailheads. At the end of January 1854, he writes this paean to cold:
Last night I felt it stinging cold as I came up the street at 9 o’clock; it bit my ears and face, but the stars shone all the brighter. The windows are all closed up with frost, as if they were ground glass … The winter, cold and bound out as it is, is thrown to us like a bone to a famishing dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it … It is true it is like a cow that is dry, and our fingers are numb, and there is none to wake us up. But the winter was not given to us for no purpose. We must thaw its cold with our genialness. If it is a cold and hard season, its fruit, no doubt, is the more concentrated and nutty … I knew a crazy man who walked into an empty pulpit one Sunday and, taking up a hymn-book, remarked: ‘We have had a good fall for getting in corn and potatoes. Let us sing Winter.’ So, I say, ‘Let us sing Winter.’ What else can we sing, and our voices be in harmony with the season?
Cuts leave scars. Amputations leave nothing, only the air above it, a new bit of air. Below is a weird shape that does not resemble what is—I notice only then—the truly elegant form of a fingertip. Each one is like a tiny hull, a bow of a ship planked in ridges. Fingerprints. The planking of my left middle fingerprint is gone, smudged now with scars and grafted skin and somehow turned inside out, as if stirred through the middle and frozen into an eddy. Left and right:
Losing your fingerprint has its significance: “There appear to be no external bodily characteristic, other than deep scar and tattoo marks, comparable to the persistence of these markings,” Francis Galton writes in Finger Prints, the 1892 book that gave the first comprehensive analysis on what we now take for granted as our individuality expressed in these ten points. He exalts the longevity of the fingerprint, the signature it has on a person from birth, which no age or sickness can change—even death, in the right circumstances: “The marks on the fingers of many Egyptian mummies, and the paws of stuffed monkeys, still remain legible.”
Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin and a collector in his own right, owned around fifteen thousand fingerprints that he studied. There is no other external mark, he argues, that can vouch for a person’s individuality like the fingerprint. Not a signature (forgery). Not looks (twins). Not voice. Even eye color can change. Nothing but papillary ridges forming, in his language, patterns of “tuning forks,” “double eyes,” “deep spirals,” and innumerable types of whorls, arches, and loops. Characteristic of some nineteenth-century science writing, Galston’s book doesn’t shy away from the poetry in discovery:
It is no violent misuse of metaphor to compare the ridges [of fingerprints] to the crests of mountain ranges, and the depth of the blackening [ink] that they ought to receive to that of newly fallen snow upon the mountain tops in early autumn, when it powders them from above.
I lost the geology of my finger, now a wash of snow down a fractured mountain crest, cut with surgical scars.
When something is gone, it’s hard to measure what’s lost. The finger used to be longer by—how much? I drew 1/16-inch marks on my right middle finger, held the left finger against it. Exactly 7/16 of an inch shorter. I couldn’t help but notice other near half-inches in my day: a chocolate bar, a pill, a stack of pennies, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.
Spring is coming, but still the cold is unrelenting—winter clawing back. When I go outside, I still wrap the finger in a bandage. The cold still hurts it.
Recently, a German woman I was seated beside at a dinner party pointed to the bandage and asked what happened.
I told her about the boat. The slippery ground. The stitches. The metal plate. How I need to wrap it against the cold because it felt permanently sunburned, nerves destroyed and numbed.
She shrugged. She said I could have lost all my fingers. I agreed.
“Glück im unglück,” she said. “In bad luck there is luck.” I agreed.
She might as well have said, “Let us sing Winter. What else can we sing, and our voices be in harmony with the season?”