Renee is four. She has two splinters, one in each of her luscious little toe pads, the ones that snuggle next to the big toe. The splinters are not deep, and could easily be removed, but for this little girl, the prospect of surrendering bodily self to tweezers or –much worse, a needle–is a threat of immense proportions. To her, this is not a simple matter. This is a crisis.
My most soothing voice does not calm her. The gentlest of touches only deepens her scowl. Her lower lip protrudes. A tear slips down her cheek. Her hands grasp the splintered foot. The fortress has been built, and I, not the splinters, am the intruder.
First I try to force the issue. Holding her foot I attempt to retrieve these foreign objects with tweezers. But she writhes and screams and pleads and it’s too traumatic for both of us. She screams, “You’re hurting me! You’re hurting me! I want to KEEP my splinters!” Three minutes of this and she’s exhausted, and I’m guilt-ridden. I stop, she calms down. “You can get them out in the summer,” she whispers, raising her hand in a weak, halting gesture before she drifts off to a troubled sleep.
So I try to pick them out while she’s asleep. I feel myself to be quite crafty and think of how pleased she will be when she wakes up and her splinters have magically disappeared! But no, she jerks her foot at critical moments–one, two, three times. The only time I get my tweezers to grasp one end of a splinter, pulling it out ever so gently, she snatches her foot away, breaking off the end. I give up and move onto other things, letting her sleep.
Later I wake her up so we can go pick up her brother from a play date. She’s grumpy, but freshens up a bit, only to remind me, “You can get my splinters out in the summer, OK? Only in the summer.” Her hand presses gently on my chest, and she’s nodding while staring deep into my eyes. It’s that child-spell-work again. I fall for it every time.
The day winds down, and by the time the splinters fracture my memory I’m already in bed, too tired to try and dig them out while she’s in a deeper sleep.
In the morning, we hurry about as usual, and shuttle her off to preschool. I determine that I will get the splinters out this afternoon. Rushing down the stairs to pick her up at noon, coincidence strikes. A splinter lodges itself in my right index finger. I look at it and think, “Lucky me! Now I’ll be able to SHOW Renee that it will be all right. I’ll get this splinter out, and then she’ll trust me to get hers out.”
At the school, Renee and her best friend Sadie have already formulated a plan. Renee will go over and play at Sadie’s house. They cast their very best spell (large pleading eyes and birdsong voices) and are reeling me in when I remember the splinters, which are infecting me now with bad mama juju. Then I reconsider, and think myself lucky again. “Renee, if you want to go to Sadie’s house then you have to come home, eat lunch, and let me get your splinters out.” Ah, the cruel blows a mother can give. Renee resigns herself to my wickedness and climbs into her car seat.
Lunch is a miserable affair. Renee eats with a desperate sadness, then climbs off her stool and walks slowly towards me, head bent. My own finger is now a bit sore and I’m ready to begin my demonstration, so I explain to her how I’ll get my splinter out first, and then hers. She is doubtful about all this, but what can she say, she’s four, and I’ve made up my mind. So I begin to pick at my splinter. And pick. And pick. I get the tweezers and niftily tug at the skin. Still no luck. So I get a needle. Renee begins to cry and protest the use of this cruel instrument. Still I work at this wretched tiny splinter wedged into my skin, and still it will not let go its hold. It’s time for reinforcements. I call my husband over from his neighboring shop. He arrives, ambulance-style, in moments.
I hand over my surgical instruments, entrusting my finger to his care. I bite my other index finger and turn away. I squint my eyes. He’s hardly touched me. He shifts to get better light, grasps the tweezers, and adeptly pulls forth an enormous splinter that had gone at a sharp angle deep into my finger. A bubble of bright blood immediately forms over the wound, and then a drip runs down the length of my finger. Renee is hysterical.
Considering that Andrew has proven himself highly skilled at tweezers, I know that, hysterical or not, now is the time to remove the splinters from two tiny toes. I hold her as still as I can. She screams a torrent of fear. He waits for the moment when she’s not wiggling her toes, and then—hoorah!—one splinter is out. Renee is not entirely comforted by the removal of one splinter. She heaves a “thank you” to her daddy that is as sweet as she can muster, but in the next breath she’s screaming again. The next splinter does not release itself as easily from it’s secure home, but we’re into it now, we’re going to get it done, and with just a little more prodding and squeezing, it slips out. Renee is expecting blood but there’s none, just a little redness. We are ready with band-aids anyway, and multitudes of tender kisses. Her daddy hugs her and she rubs her hand against his cheek with a salty wet thank you.
Tonight my finger is still sore, while the adhesive of Renee’s band-aids has faded. I’ve no doubt they’re now stuck to the floor in some obscure place waiting to be discovered as an artifact to mothering weeks from now. But what remains with me is a wondering. How funny we are, whether four or thirty-three. How we cling to the things that hurt us, the pains that are embedded in our palms or our psyche. They persist, with little bubbles of fluid to soften their edges, and we limp about, willing to carry them, not willing to surrender to more adept hands the threatening act of removal. They are ours, and we want to keep them.