I stood at the front of the room ready to start my speech. Then I paused. “No. No!”, I thought! “Excuse me, may I have just a minute”, I asked the judges. “I’ll be right back”, I said, rushing from the room without waiting for an answer. I went out in the hall and found her. I grabbed her hand. “Come on”, I said. “Come now. I’m ready to start.” “I don’t want to make you nervous”, she said. “No. It’s OK. I want you to be there.” We hurried back into the room; I walked to the front, took a deep breathe, and started.
I don’t remember the actual question I was supposed to address, but the speech had something to do with Spain. It was my last extemporaneous speech* at my last regular season high school forensics competition, and my mother had driven from Urbana, Ohio to Wright State University in Dayton to surprise me. She wanted to hear me speak.
For four years she had watched me leave on Saturday mornings and some holidays to compete in forensics tournaments around the state and in neighboring states. This was the first time she had come to one of my tournaments. Parents rarely did. No one typically watched these rounds of competition, just the participants and the judges. This was the first opportunity she had to hear me speak. Because it was so unexpected, I was apprehensive at first. I was surprised she was there and honestly thrown a little bit off balance.
I had made the final round of girls extemporaneous speaking**. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to do my best with her in the room. I might be distracted, unable to concentrate. But as I stood up there to begin my speech, I knew this was an opportunity that wouldn’t come again. I knew I had to let my mother hear me speak. I wanted my mother to hear me speak.
As I began my speech, I smiled at my mom. Then confidently and with clarity I spoke for 5 to 7 minutes on whatever the question was about Spain. I knew my material. I knew the argument I wanted to make. The words flowed out of me easily. I was good. I was satisfied. My mother got to see a reasonable representation of what I had been doing all these Saturdays for all these years. I was so happy she was there.
I went on to win that tournament. My mom got to see that as well. I competed in Little and Big Districts and placed 2nd in the State that year, but in many ways, the most important speech I gave my entire high school career was the one on Spain in front of my mother.
* Extemporaneous speaking involved preparing a 5-7 minute speech with personal research in 30 minutes on a current events related topic, typically around public policy, global issues, or politics.
** There were separate categories for girls and boys in extemporaneous speaking at that time.
On Saturday mornings, when I didn’t have high school speech tournaments, I would ride my bike to Grandma’s house, wash her hair, set it in pin curls, dry, and style it. I loved this ritual. It was my time with Grandma and a chance to show her my love.
Her hair was gorgeous, pure white, fine, and soft as kitten fur. She kept it short, only a few inches long, but rolling thin strips into curls and securing each with two bobby pins took a while. Once every strand was contained, she sat under her bonnet hair dryer; I would check every 10-15 minutes until it was dry. To check, I’d unpin a curl, unroll it to check for moisture, and re-roll it if it was damp. When her hair was dry, I would gently unpin each curl and run my fingers through it. Grandma didn’t have a lot of patience for my playing with her hair, but she did love the freedom of the pins being removed. When all the curls were loose, I would gently brush and style her hair. Sometimes she had me secure it with hairspray. Other times she just kept it free.
On one Saturday, I was moving a little slowly when Grandma called. Mom burst into my room and commanded “Get up. Grandma needs you. Take the car.” Half-awake I replied, “I’m coming. Just a few minutes. All I have to do this morning is wash Grandma’s hair. I’m just a little tired. Mom.” “She needs you now! There’s been an accident. She’s cut herself.” I leapt out of bed and threw clothes on as fast as I could. “Take the car”, mom demanded, throwing the keys to me. I drove the 6 blocks to Grandma’s house as fast as I could. The 3 minutes it took to get there were interminable. I parked along the side of the house, leapt the curb, ran up the steps, and burst through the door. I heard water running in the kitchen sink. “Grandma, I’m here.” When I entered the kitchen, there was blood from the table across the floor to the sink, a lot of blood. Grandma was holding her left hand under the faucet. What looked like an impossible amount of bright red blood flowing into the water stream from the deep gash between her thumb and index finger. “I was cutting a potato and the knife slipped. “Ok” I said. “Let’s wash it out with soap and I’ll get a towel.” “I feel woozy, Grandma said. She looked pale and as if she might faint. I gently washed her hand and quickly packed a clean washcloth against the wound, then wrapped her hand and wrist in a kitchen towel. “Ok. That looks deep. We need to go to the hospital. I think you need stitches. Do you think you can walk?”, I asked. “Yes” she replied weakly. We slowly walked through the house, my arms around her waist, her right arm around my shoulder, her injured hand against her chest. Slowly we moved across the living room, out the door, down the steps, across the street. The walk seemed to take so long, and blood was seeping through the hand towel. I gently helped Grandma into the passenger seat. “Lean back, close your eyes, and just rest”, I said as I sprinted around the car and jumped into the driver’s seat.
Grandma had never learned to drive and she was a skittish passenger (at least with me). I drove carefully to the hospital, less than 5 minutes away, (the beauty of living in such a small town), cooing and soothing Grandma as I drove. I pulled up to the entrance, told Grandma I would be right back, and dashed to the door. Two Sisters of Mercy in mid-calf white habits with short white veils that held their hair back from their foreheads were at the front desk. “Please help me. My Grandma cut her hand and it’s bleeding pretty badly.” One nun grabbed a wheelchair while the other grabbed the phone. We got Grandma out of the car and the nun rolled her straight to an operating room. They got Grandma onto a gurney and a doctor came in immediately. “You should leave, young lady”, he said. “Please let her stay”, Grandma said. “Come over here and hold my other hand”, she demanded firmly. I did. She had bled quite a bit on the drive and the towels were bloody. “Let’s see what we have here”, the doctor said as he unwrapped the towel and washcloth. “You wrapped this well”, he said. “See, it’s starting to clot off a bit, but this is deep and will need stitches. It doesn’t look like she cut anything major, so I’m going to clean this with antiseptic, give her a couple shots to numb the area, then put in several stitches.” Grandma lay with her eyes closed as the doctor flooded the wound with antiseptic. When he picked up what looked like an impossibly large needle, I noticed the room starting to get dark; the light on Grandma’s hand was impossibly bright. I noticed black spots in my peripheral vision. One on the nuns gently put her hands on my shoulders and directed me to a chair. I sat heavily, feeling dizzy. I heard a small crack and smelled a pungent aroma just under my nose. “Smelling salts”, she said quietly in my ear, “You looked a little dizzy. Just put your head down and breathe calmly. This happens. You managed the crisis, now your body is reacting to the shock. Just breathe.”
I didn’t pass out. Grandma got stitches and a white bandage around her hand and wrist with instructions for wound care and rest.
We drove home quietly, content that the crisis was over. I got Grandma into the house and into a chair in the living room, covered her with a blanket, called my mom to let her know what had happened, and cleaned the kitchen.
Grandma told me she had been planning to make potato soup, so I cut the onions and celery she had on the table, and the potatoes she had already peeled and placed in a bowl of water, careful not to cut toward my hand. I even made rivels (flour, eggs, and salt) to boil on top.
I learned a lot in that short morning. I learned I’m good in a crisis; I learned I’m not so good with blood, and maybe most valuable, I learned a healthy respect for vegetables, especially potatoes. I learned to use a cutting board to cut vegetables and never to hold a potato and cut toward my hand. I also learned that with Grandma’s guidance, I make a mean potato soup. We decided to wait to wash her hair until the next day.
Sometimes those who love us see more clearly what we need than we do. Today I write about one of those times. Today I write about fear, hope, and a bracelet that signified both. Today I write about gratitude. This month is the 10-year anniversary of the freak dancing accident that resulted in breaking both of my wrists, triple fracturing my right and double fracturing my left. That accident was in many ways both a blessing and a curse. I learned so much about myself and those I love. I learned that people would be there for me if I needed them. I learned I was safe to be helpless. I learned how to deal with the most excruciating pain I could imagine. I learned to slow down, to be kind to myself, to accept care, to ask for help. I didn’t learn these lessons easily, but I learned them.
Throughout the holiday season, I was working my way through splints, then casts, then braces with increasing levels of physical therapy. For homework, I was playing in a bowl of rice multiple times a day to reduce skin sensitivity and promote flexibility. I was opening and closing wooden clothespins, learning to touch my fingertips to my thumbs, and trying to relearn how to do simple tasks for myself, like feeding myself, brushing my teeth, dressing myself.
One day, my friend Miche Dreiling brought me a present. It was a small, square box. Inside was a delicate, red bracelet. It was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. A bracelet! A bracelet? My skin was so sensitive I couldn’t imagine ever being able to wear a bracelet again. Even though this one was so delicate and small, it looked like a torture device to me. I know I looked at Miche confused. “Not for now”, she said. “For later… when you’re healed”. I closed the lid on the box and put the bracelet in a drawer in my hutch. I wondered if I would ever take it out. It became a symbol of fear and hope.
The day I decided I was ready to try to wear it finally came. I was apprehensive as my skin was still so sensitive, but it was time. Andrew helped me put it on. And though I could only wear it for a short time that day, I knew that sometime soon, I would be able to wear it for much longer periods. I knew that I would someday be able to wear all my treasured bracelets and rings whenever and for as long as I wished. That day wasn’t here yet, but it was coming. Today as I reflect 10 years later, I am wearing an iWatch, a wrap bracelet, and 5 rings on my hands. The moment I opened Miche’s gift, I doubted that this day would ever come. Now I don’t think about jewelry anymore. I wear it easily and without pain.
In all honesty, what at first felt like the most insensitive gift I could imagine became a talisman of hope as I embraced my healing and the belief that I would regain full function and capacity. I am grateful that Miche brought me this talisman of hope. I doubted the wisdom of this gift. In retrospect, it was just the gift I needed. I cherish that bracelet as a reminder that in fear, there can also be hope.