In early 2010, while cooking, I badly sliced the tip of my middle finger. Now I know that it definitely needed stitches, but at the time I didn’t think I needed to go to the hospital. As a child of two medical professionals (a doctor and a former nurse) I had an unearned confidence about such a simple wound—I thought that if I applied enough pressure, and kept it bandaged for long enough, it would heal on its own.
But the standard treatment failed. With horror I realized that as the injury was healing it was actually healing in two parts. I had visions of going through the rest of my life with a cleft middle finger, or—worse—losing the smaller piece, which was starting to look worryingly necrotic. Either way, I’d be forever marred by my stubbornness.
One of the classes I was taking at the time, Beginner Russian, required that everyone write in pencil. All of our assignments were handwritten, I guess because of the separate difficulty of acquiring and learning the Cyrillic keyboard. Though I use a knife with my right hand, I write with my left, and so that was the hand that I had cut through, right in the spot where I normally applied pressure when writing, which meant that I had to hold my pen or pencil differently to avoid aggravating it.
In Russian I let the homework pile up and did it in big batches, rather than every day, like you were supposed to. I never went to any of the conversation labs (the idea of that made me anxious) and, aside from counting out the score in Russian when I played squash, didn’t make an effort to keep the vocabulary fresh. I mostly coasted off the fact that the classes were every day, so I could learn enough to keep up just by being present and paying attention. In other words, I was just okay.
So for the exam I was rightfully nervous. It also didn’t help that when I had redressed the bandage on my finger that morning, the two pieces of my finger appeared to be more distant than ever, having somehow acquired a thick, purplish skin right where the knife had separated them. It was like watching the evolution of a new species. I put on a fresh band-aid, tying it as tightly as I could without cutting off the circulation, hoping that this time, miraculously, it would finally heal.
And it did—but not for that reason. I was so anxious that I wouldn’t be able to get through the material for the exam that I gave up any pretense of being careful with my wound and wrote the way that was natural to me, pressing so hard into the damaged finger that each side split and sealed itself firmly into the other. It wasn’t my intention, but it worked.
A friend recently reminded me that time heals all wounds. For the most part, that’s true. But sometimes time will heal things in a funny way. It will keep the pieces separate. And in those cases what’s required (if you want them to be whole) is instead a kind of pressure—enough to break the skin and fuse the pieces together afterwards.