SHE LIFTED A FIN­GER

Reader's Digest - - Contents - KIM PORTER FROM NAR­RA­TIVE.LY

Af­ter an over­whelmed young mother reaches out to help a des­per­ate stranger, there is no turn­ing back.

He walks up to her, in dire need of med­i­cal at­ten­tion. She, a young mother, is al­ready feel­ing over­whelmed. But af­ter she reaches out to this per­son in need, there is no turn­ing back.

ISIT ON THE STOOP in front of my friend’s house. She lives at the top of a ridicu­lously steep hill. Half­way up, my four-year-old daugh­ter, Co­lette, col­lapsed in mutiny, re­fus­ing to take an­other step, and I had to lug her the rest of the way on my back. And now my friend is late, and we’re stuck here wait­ing as the 4 p.m. San Fran­cisco fog rolls in, kick­ing up gritty wind and mak­ing the tem­per­a­ture plum­met. My friend’s street is so trau­mat­i­cally nar­row and steep that driv­ers, upon dis­cov­er­ing it’s a dead end, have to back down the hill be­cause there’s no place to turn around. I know be­cause that hap­pened to me once, which is why I walked here today.

I see a man ap­proach­ing, and I think, Oh, great. Now what?

“Por fa­vor. Call 911,” the man says. “Fin­ger. Cut.” He holds up his blood­streaked fore­arm. With his left hand, he is clench­ing a wad of hand­ker­chiefs around his right pinkie.

“No. Have. Phone,” I say, as if English is also my sec­ond lan­guage.

“Have phone,” he says, and dips his chin to­ward his front pants pocket. I don’t want to stick my hand in there, but the blood does look real. In his pocket, I find a flip phone. I slip it out and step back out of arm’s reach, then call 911.

The op­er­a­tor an­swers, and af­ter I give her the ad­dress, I say, “I’m here with this guy, and he says he cut his fin­ger.”

“Is it bad?” the op­er­a­tor asks.

“Is it bad?” I ask him. “Sí.”

“It’s bad,” I tell her.

“Did he cut it off?”

Now, there’s a ques­tion I hadn’t thought of. “Did you cut it off?”

“Sí.” He sighs, re­lieved some­one fi­nally un­der­stands the grav­ity of his sit­u­a­tion.

“Yes. He cut it off.”

“Where is it?” the op­er­a­tor asks. “Where is it?” My voice goes so high and tight, my throat burns.

“Up­stairs,” he says, and points with his el­bow to the house next door.

“Go get it,” she in­structs me. I ad­mon­ish Co­lette, “Do not move a mus­cle,” and I leave her sit­ting on the stoop as I fol­low the man to­ward the house.

In­side, we are im­me­di­ately greeted by a stair­case that is miss­ing all its treads. I fol­low the man up the stairs, balancing on nar­row ver­ti­cal strips of wood, nar­rat­ing to the 911 op­er­a­tor, “We have en­tered the premises and are as­cend­ing the stairs.” We get to the kitchen, and I see a ta­ble saw, a stack of lum­ber, and an arc of blood spat­ter across the

ceil­ing, but I don’t see the fin­ger.

“We are at­tempt­ing to lo­cate the fin­ger,” I say, be­cause even in an emer­gency, si­lence over a phone line is awk­ward.

I thought a sev­ered fin­ger would jump right out at me, but I can’t find it. I lift up each foot and look un­der­neath to be sure I’ve not al­ready stepped on it. I’m get­ting that jumpy, tight­shoul­dered feel­ing like when you’ve lost sight of a spi­der that was on your ceil­ing a mo­ment ago.

“Do you see it?” I ask him.

He points. With his el­bow. At his own fin­ger.

The fin­ger lies on the floor be­side the ta­ble saw, drained of color and curved slightly. I don’t have any rub­ber gloves or tongs, so I grab a paper towel and lay it over the fin­ger, pinch­ing del­i­cately, the way you might pick up a harm­less but ter­ri­fy­ing bug.

“We have se­cured the fin­ger,” I tell the op­er­a­tor.

“Hang tight. The am­bu­lance is on its way.”

I cra­dle the swad­dled fin­ger back down the skele­tal stairs, be­ing care­ful not to squeeze too hard. I don’t want to col­lapse all the del­i­cate lit­tle doo­dads at the busi­ness end, be­cause I’m as­sum­ing they’ll need those when they reat­tach it.

When we get out­side, Co­lette is still sit­ting where I left her, and it’s still day­light, which sur­prises me be­cause it felt as if we’d been on our fin­ger-re­cov­ery mis­sion for hours.

We sit on the stoop and wait for the am­bu­lance, which we can hear in the dis­tance. We lis­ten to the siren grow­ing louder as the am­bu­lance ap­proaches, and just when we’re ex­pect­ing

“We are at­tempt­ing to lo­cate the fin­ger!” I say. Even in an emer­gency, si­lence on the phone is awk­ward.

to see the flash­ing lights at the bot­tom of Treat Street, the siren be­gins to grow qui­eter and qui­eter, as if the am­bu­lance is driv­ing away. The man looks at me with the whites of his eyes show­ing all the way around.

“Sounds like they’re go­ing the wrong way. Are they leav­ing?” I ask the op­er­a­tor.

Af­ter a brief si­lence, she re­turns with, “They couldn’t find you. The ad­dress does not ex­ist.”

I sit up straight. “No! Tell them to come back! We’re on the other side

of the park. Drive around the park!”

I tell the man, “It’s OK. They’ll be here soon.”

I can see all the fear he has been staving off over­take him. A tear ap­pears on the rim of his eye, where it bal­ances for a sec­ond be­fore it spills out and runs down his cheek. I don’t know what he’s think­ing, but I’m think­ing, What if he has a wife and kids depend­ing on him, and he can’t go back to work? What if he doesn’t have in­sur­ance? Or isn’t in the coun­try legally?

“You’re go­ing to be OK,” I say. I put my free hand on his saw­dust-cov­ered back.

“Gra­cias,” he says.

“De nada. Esta no prob­lemo,” I say, em­bold­ened enough to risk man­gling my mid­dle-school Span­ish. I rub my free hand in a cir­cle on his back.

It feels good to be able to soothe some­one, any­one. For months now, the sec­ond my hands would go idle, a fa­mil­iar specter, de­pres­sion, would climb on my back. I’ve been this way for months. I have been try­ing to put on a good face for my kid, but I feel as if I’ve been fail­ing. Could I save my­self? I wouldn’t know how. But I am de­ter­mined to save this man.

Fi­nally the am­bu­lance ar­rives. They hus­tle him into the back, and they’re off.

Co­lette and I are watch­ing the am­bu­lance back down the hill when I re­al­ize I’m still hold­ing the fin­ger. I run af­ter them, wav­ing my arm and scream­ing, “The fin­ger! Stop! The fin­ger!” I hand off the fin­ger to the para­medic and watch as they drive away.

THROUGH­OUT the evening, I can’t stop wor­ry­ing about the man. I de­cide to call the hos­pi­tal. “Hi,” I say. “I helped a guy who cut off his fin­ger, and I don’t even know his name, but I’m won­der­ing whether he came to your hos­pi­tal.”

The nurse says, “Kim?”

“Ye-ees?” I say, feel­ing mys­ti­fied. “It’s me. Katanya.”

Katanya is the mother of one of my daugh­ter’s class­mates. I find it mirac­u­lous that she rec­og­nizes my voice.

She says, “His name is Jose Ramos, and he’s wait­ing for surgery. Would you like to leave a mes­sage?”

“No. I don’t want to bug him. I just wanted to be sure he was OK.”

The next morn­ing, I call the hos­pi­tal again. This time, I’m put through to Jose’s room. “How was the surgery?”

“No surgery,” he says. “No enough blood.” What­ever that means.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “Do you need any­thing?”

Jose says, “No, gra­cias,” and then launches into Span­ish. I can’t un­der­stand what he’s say­ing, but I can hear in the tone of his voice the same let­ting-your-guard-down feel­ing I feel. Which makes sense. It’s im­pos­si­ble to be the car­rier of a per­son’s chopped-off body part and not feel

a lit­tle ca­ma­raderie. I pre­sume that’s true for the carry-ee as well.

Later that day, as I am push­ing Co­lette on the tire swing at the park, I re­mem­ber that old proverb about how if you save some­one’s life, you are re­spon­si­ble for them for the rest of their life. Which never made sense to me be­fore. Shouldn’t the per­son who got saved owe a per­pet­ual debt, and not the other way around? But today, I get it. It’s a great honor to help some­one in need, even if all you did was push three but­tons on a phone and carry a cou­ple of ounces of for­mer hu­man for 15 min­utes. I want to keep do­ing it.

I start keep­ing a look­out for other peo­ple in need of res­cu­ing. I help push a stalled car out of the road. I aid a dis­ori­ented cy­clist when her bike gets clipped by a car. I flag down a se­cu­rity guard in a lobby when I see an el­derly man stum­bling and clutch­ing his chest. I adopt a dog.

Then one day, a month or two af­ter the fin­ger in­ci­dent, I re­al­ize I have com­pletely for­got­ten to be de­pressed. I’ve been so busy play­ing the role of lo­cal hero that I have ne­glected to drag my feet and stare into space and

I start keep­ing a look­out for other peo­ple in need of res­cu­ing. Soon I’ve for­got­ten to be de­pressed.

fan­ta­size about the world with­out me. When I stop mov­ing, melan­cho­lia no longer drops an­chor.

Now, more than a decade has passed since Jose’s ac­ci­dent. Pe­ri­od­i­cally I search for “Jose” plus “Ramos” plus “fin­ger.” I wish I could see him again, to see how he’s get­ting on. But more im­por­tant, to thank him, be­cause when he lost his fin­ger, he saved my life.

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