I was two-and-a-half years old the day my father lost his left hand. I have a picture of us taken in the summer of 1970, a few months before it happened. We’re sitting on a yellow swing that was attached to a wooden frame and placed among the mature maples in our front yard.
And in the picture my mother is young and beautiful, with smooth dark hair and strong brown eyes and a beatific smile that I envy; and I am sitting on her lap with my hair pulled back in a pale pink bow to match my pale pink dress, wearing white knee socks that look as though they are cutting off the circulation to the rest of my body.
And my dad, who captured the picture by putting the camera on a tripod and setting a timer, is also young. Handsome. Clean cut and dressed in a dark suit, tilting his head toward us with his left arm extended behind us and resting on the back of the swing, so that his hand is visible just beyond my mother’s left shoulder.
He worked as a chemist at a cellophane plant back then. He was a sixth-generation farm boy, equally comfortable shearing a sheep in record time as he was puttering about an enormous lab, cluttered to over-flowing with all its scientific paraphernalia. I marveled as I got older at his complexity, that he could be perfectly at home amid fragile glass pipettes and stainless steel balances when I daily observed him as a gardener, a hay-baler, a man with dirt under his nails.
Anyone who has lived among farmers will tell you that the enterprise of agriculture is a dangerous one. Tractors roll. Silos full of grain become suffocating quicksand. My mother has always been adept at anticipating and avoiding risks, and she saw my father’s continuing practice of farming as unnecessarily ripe with them. She grew up hearing the story about her great-grandfather, the one who died after being trampled by his own bull. My dad didn’t have to take such chances, she thought. She couldn’t understand why he would.
When the first Saturday in November rolled around and my father headed out to harvest corn, she made her feelings known to him. She would tell about it later – the crystal clear directive she gave him and the way he dismissively responded. She would repeat the words she said to him, and they would reverberate across the years as though sent into a void.
The corn wasn’t harvesting cleanly that year due to blight. He repeatedly reached down with a gloved hand, gingerly brushing away debris from the machinery. At some point, he reached down and his hand did not return to him. He felt the tell-tale tug on the fingertips of his glove instead.
“Don’t get your hand caught in the corn picker,” she had said.
“I won’t, Dear,” he had replied.
I wonder about that moment sometimes. I imagine the sickening feeling that accompanies those instances when a split-second decision cannot be undone or rewound. I can almost feel the sinking of my gut and the surge of electricity lighting up my veins. I think of all this, and I try to imagine how my father found the clarity and the strength to do what he did next.
His father and brother weren’t near enough to see him or hear him above the noise of the machine in which he was ensnared. Unless he did something quickly, he might lose more than just an extremity. Somehow retrieving a pocket knife with his free hand, he finished the job the corn picker had begun, and severed his own mangled fingers.
You would think the world stops in such a moment as that. But it never does.
My mother took me to see him days later in the hospital, while he was recovering. He was sitting in a wheelchair, dressed in a robe. I handed him a bag of orange slices, the sugared candy ones that stick to your teeth. And in my innocent lack of awareness about what had happened to him and what must have been happening to him still, I could not have appreciated the significance of what he did next, though I would recognize it later.
As I handed him the bag of candy, he smiled. My husband, who remembers nothing before the age of five, wonders how I can recall this. But I do. My father, in the midst of all his loss, did what he always does. He shrugged off the implication that anything remarkable or extraordinary had occurred, looked at me with a bittersweet expression, and smiled. And yet the man who is almost never at a loss for words had nothing to say.
Convicted perhaps by the admonition he didn’t heed, my father went on with his life as though nothing had changed. As though nothing had been severed or destroyed. Ten days or so after the amputation, he thought himself ready to return to work. The medical officer at the plant where he was employed escorted him right back home.
Scientist. Farmer. Photographer. Mechanic. He kept working. And planting. Tinkering and exploring. He would teach himself to play traditional fiddle music, reversing the strings and fingering them with his right hand. He would learn to carve and assemble the very instruments he plays.
I have never heard him complain. I have never seen him give the slightest indication that he cannot do something he would have done with two whole hands. It never even crossed my mind when I was growing up that he might be categorized as “disabled,” and it is only when his appearance is so readily acknowledged by others as conspicuously incomplete that I remember what he does not have. He has, in my estimation, lived his life in such a way as to take in something far greater, though less tangible, than what he lost.
Elizabeth Ray holds degrees from Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky. She works as a public health advocate for a nonprofit agency serving children, youth, and their families. An avid family historian, she finds inspiration and relevance in the stories of the past. She is a seventh-generation Hoosier with equally strong ties to the Southeast Region of the United States. An artist, writer, and public health advocate, she is currently at work on her first novel.