I believe in the kit in my father’s back pocket.
Before they knew it, I was mid-air on a parabola across the lawn. I was one and a half years old, freshly flung from the hind leg of a large mammal.
That morning my mother was milking our Guernsey cow, “Mama Cow,” near the small square porch on the shady side of the farmhouse. The body of the milking machine was a giant hockey-puck, with four octopus arms of metal and plastic reaching upward to the teats of the dairy cow. Anxious to rid herself of both the heavy demand of a full udder and the discomfort of cold metal, Mama Cow would be fidgety and impatient during these morning sessions. On that summer morning, I was the innocent bystander and naïve victim.
I was told I looked like a rag doll as I traveled ten feet across the backyard. At the time of impact I had been clutching Mama Cow’s bony lower leg, stabilizing myself in a position to observe the action underneath her swollen belly. My father said that as he watched my body land in the grass, one word continued to orbit in his mind: “Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger.” (For the record, we kept Mama Cow until she died, about ten years later.)
Parents often make it a point for their children to be raised in a more “safe” environment than they experienced. Theoretically, my parents agreed. Realistically, however, those kinds of plans didn’t happen. There were five kids in my family — Leah, Luke, Trygve, Tore, and I. Thriving in a jungle gym of peril and splendor, we were, for the vast majority of the time, completely unsupervised. We rolled down hills of nettles, drove junk cars at twelve, mismanaged beebee weaponry, and fired potato guns pointed at our siblings.
My father was always better at addressing minor injuries. At the sight of blood on skin, tears in wide blue eyes, or a child’s hobbling limp my father would yell to every part of his scattered brain “ALL HANDS ON DECK!!!” Lists would disappear under psychological desks, errands would scamper to dark mental corners, work would lie flat on the cerebral floor, motionless until instructed to rise and resume duty. When we were in need, we were all my father could think about.
My father was a man of “kits.” A “peanut-butter and jelly kit” was always in our pick-up truck for moments of unseen hunger. All cookie-making supplies lived in the same “cookie kit corner” of the kitchen. Chocolate chips, vanilla, and Morton’s salt huddled together in the rear of the cabinet, anxiously preparing for the invasion of our familial hunger. In his back pocket, my father had a “splinter kit” with him at all times. Tucked in the folds of his brown leather wallet my father placed a dilapidated business card, pierced through with four various-sized silver needles. Whether at home or on the go, my father was always prepared for the minor emergency a splinter can produce.
The invasion of my skin by a small shard of wood was mind-numbingly aggravating. The dark line beneath my skin seemed to stare up at me and mock the nerve endings it tirelessly attacked. “I am here to hurt you,” it screamed, and, in a scornful whisper, “I will do my best to ravage your psychological stability in the process.” Pinching only drove it deeper. Sucking was pathetic treatment. As a child I knew instinctively where to go, an innate homing device sent my victimized foot tottering to my father.
Splinters were his specialty. He embraced my small hand (or foot) in his labor-chapped fingers and, with the care of the most angelic nurse, did his best to free my skin from its splintered torment. With great dexterity he peeled back a thin line in the top layer of skin, carefully attempting, if possible, to salvage even an eighth of an inch of pink flesh. As he made his incisions he told me I was brave. I was doing wonderfully. Almost there. Everything will be alright.
Sadly, our childhood problems did not end with splinters or farmyard casualties. Our wounds ran into the deeper fibers of our being and were not easily removed. My father, and my mother as well, were powerless to prevent life’s injuries. There was abuse, and alcoholism, and abandonment, and inestimable quantities of pain and heartache. There were no kits to address these larger issues. But then I think of my father, and what he did with four silver needles. I think of what he gave us in those moments when he held our young hearts in his scarred hands, etching his love into our flesh as he did his best to repair our damaged shell. My father gave us undivided attention and unconditional love. Always, it was more than enough.
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