Essay | Other Celestial Bodies by Joanna Hershon

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    Image by Steve Pancrate

    Joanna Hershon


    Other Celestial Bodies


    A solar eclipse was coming. It was supposed to happen the following day or maybe the day after. I’d heard something about the store selling ‘eclipse glasses,’ but I hadn’t been paying attention. I know now that this was the first solar eclipse to be visible throughout the United States since 1918. I know now that marriage proposals and weddings were timed to occur during the eclipse. I know now that Donald Trump stood on the Truman Balcony of the White House and, despite the incessant warnings not to do so, looked directly into the sun. I know that during one long span of its glorious path, other celestial bodies (a star system called Regulus, Mars, Venus and Mercury) were made visible.

    A college boyfriend once broke up with me during an annular eclipse – in May of 1994 – when the moon moved directly in front of the sun.  I don’t remember the sky, the sun or the moon. I remember being under a tree with strangers, staring at a Manhattan sidewalk. Later, I’d learn  how the spaces between leaves acted as pinhole cameras, but because I’d known nothing about the impending eclipse, because I hadn’t been paying attention to anything for months (aside from the young man who’d just broken up with me), when hundreds of dancing crescents appeared on the sidewalk amidst the shadows of branches and leaves, when I saw the crowds focused only on darkness and light, the whole tableau felt somehow magical and sinister.

    ***

    We’d been coming to the same beach every August, renting the same cottage since our twin boys were three.

    Fire Island: so called because of the fires built on the water’s edge by Native Americans or by the pirates who lured unsuspecting ships into the sandbars or because in the autumn, if you’re out at sea, parts of the island look ablaze. Or, most likely, it’s because someone misread the deed of land with the Dutch word vijf, which means five, referring to the number of islands near the inlet.

    Five is our daughter’s favourite number. It’s also one of her favourite words. Sometimes she calls Five on her plastic phone. Mama, asks Allegra, Can Five come over to play?

    ***

    End of August. I was in the ocean. So relaxed but always the maternal calculation of knowing where everyone is. The twins riding their bikes. Derek and Allegra in their routine, honed over the course of the month: leave the beach early, get cleaned up, take a ride before dinner on the tricycle. Sometimes they rode two minutes to the library or three minutes to the store. I’d often run into them on my way back from the beach, with their matching exuberant smiles, Allegra waving proudly from the baby seat up front.

    I came out of the water. I picked up my phone; Derek was calling.

    There’s been an accident. You have to run to get in the ambulance. Allegra – Running like I’ve never run, dropping the umbrella, dropping the chair, the towels along the way. Running while dripping wet, running through soft sand – up the wooden stairs, heart pounding – over the slats of the boardwalk. There’s the ambulance, I see it ahead; I see it and I meet it, start banging on the door – That’s my daughter, my husband – they let me in. I’m in the front seat and the driver puts on the siren, starts speeding. I see our boys approaching our house on their bicycles, unaware that we are speeding away from them.

    What happened? I can imagine our boys asking anyone nearby with those earnest fearful voices, worried only for other people. As we speed over the boardwalk in the ambulance, several years go by. The years imprint on my face, my body.

    Derek’s in the back of the ambulance, gasping, weeping; he is holding Allegra, who is clearly in shock because she’s alert, awake and calm. We’re ripping through the one main road of the island past the bamboo and pine trees and parents admonishing their children, hauling wagons laden with towels and pails and shovels or freshly showered, sun-tanned and giddy, heading out for an early dinner. We pass it all by; I look out at the boardwalk through glass. I see this idyllic and slow-moving place from a fast-moving vehicle.

    The volunteer paramedic – a young guy in tennis clothes, we’d interrupted his game – is leaning in toward Derek: You’re doing great, just great. She’s going to be fine.

    Derek’s arms are wrapped around Allegra. I’m so sorry, he repeats. She wanted to ride in the back of the tricycle. She wanted to ride in the basket. He keeps shaking his head. Oh god, he says. Oh god.

    He’s prone to guilt, my husband, a natural worrier. He doesn’t give a shit about being cool. He’s the father who won’t let his kids on backyard trampolines or stand too close to bonfires.

    You should call your dad, Derek says. About the hospital, about

    I need to know what to tell him, I say. My dad’s an orthopaedic surgeon, I explain to the paramedics. Please tell me what happened.

    I think: It might not be that bad. I mean, it’s probably not that bad.

    It’s her fingers? I ask. I don’t understand. Slow down.

    We have one, the paramedic says. One fingertip. They’re trying to find the other. That one was cut off further down.

    She wanted to ride in the basket, Derek cries. She was crying and crying and    I thought: why am I being uptight? I told her to hold on carefully, to sit still. I was turning around and touching her shoulder – and she reached – she must have reached – I heard screaming. She must have – I don’t know. I don’t know if it was the spokes or the chain –

    It’s okay, I keep saying to Derek. It’s going to be okay. I tell him to breathe in and out. I am breathing loudly from the front seat of the ambulance. I make a mental note not to breathe too deeply because I might pass out. I’m soaking wet, in my bathing suit. I idly wonder when I’ll start to feel cold.

    Hi sweetie! I call to Allegra. Mommy’s here now. I’m sitting in the front seat. Isn’t that funny?

    ***

    At the hospital, we were escorted to  the  examining  area.  Allegra  asked, Where’s the party? She sat in Derek’s lap. When are we getting to the party? Someone gave me a pair of scrubs. I rushed into the bathroom, ripped off my wet bathing suit, pulled on the cotton top and bottom and felt instantly, irrationally better.

    The head of plastic surgery told us that even though the paramedics had found the other finger and brought it to the hospital, even though both fingertips were safely on ice, it wasn’t worth attempting a reattachment, but we were welcome to try elsewhere.

    I kept trying to get an answer about transferring to a city hospital. There were X-rays taken and faxed. I was hovering by the phones, the faxes, making sure the ER doctor was on it. I was back and forth by phone with my father, who was also calling around, trying to find an excellent hospital that would take her as soon as possible.

    I saw something on the countertop. It was sitting on top of a ziplock baggie.

    Is that my daughter’s finger? I yelled. Why is it sitting there? I asked, shaking. My voice sounded strangled. No one answered me. Someone swooped in and took it away.

    ***

    There was the ride from one hospital to another, Long Island to Manhattan on a Sunday night, careening down the highway with Allegra not in a   car seat for the first time in her life and worrying about getting into an even worse accident. We’d been told we had eight hours at the very most between the accident and the surgery if there was any chance of the fingers being reattached. We made it to the hospital with enough time – my nearly eighty-year-old surgeon father pacing furiously, my mother miserable and tense, not knowing what to say.

    The first time the hand surgeon burst into the lobby, with its dark windows reflecting back everyone’s private anxiety, I thought: if I were a casting director and this same shockingly young and well-rested looking surgeon auditioned to play a doctor on a network television drama, I would have turned him away immediately. But there he was with all of us as midnight approached; there he was, patiently explaining, despite the fact that time was running out. This was not television and he was not an actor and we were all lit horribly by fluorescence.

    The first step was finding out whether reattachment was even a viable option for her ring finger. He made clear that it was not an option for her middle finger, but that wasn’t the worst injury. So she’d definitely be missing her middle finger from the nail bed up. The ring finger was cut off right above the knuckle. Did we want him to even probe further, surgically, to see if there was a chance for reattachment? He explained that if we decided against trying, he would close her fingers up now and we could go home in the morning, but if we decided to proceed with the reattachment, she would need to stay in the paediatric intensive care unit for at least a week. There were the usual risks that accompany anaesthesia, a risk of infection, and the process was sure to be terrible and uncomfortable, likely involving blood transfusions and medical leeches.

    My instinct was to go home in the morning. Why put her through all this? Transfusions and leeches? There could be complications. She was definitely going to be missing the top of one finger. Would one more missing fingertip make such a difference? She was perfect. The most perfect girl in the world. I know one doesn’t say such things aloud, but Derek and I sometimes said it to each other in hushed tones, as if we were afraid of being punished. She was nine years younger than her brothers and we were in our forties; we’d never ceased being amazed that we’d been lucky enough to have her.

    We kept looking at our hands and trying to picture it, trying to block off the fingers and visualise.

    She had to go under general anaesthesia, no matter what.

    We agreed he should check and see if there was a chance. He emerged about an hour later to let us know there was a good chance reattachment would be successful. But both of these particular fingers, he reminded us, were not actually necessary for functionality. Without them, she’d be able to do anything with the exception of maybe becoming a concert pianist. What we were facing was an aesthetic issue.

    We both kept bursting into tears.

    I said: Missing parts of her fingers – it will make her that much more special.

    Derek nodded.

    Look, I continued, emboldened, this will weed out the superficial assholes.

    He kept nodding, put his head in his hands. But

    Yes?

    What if down the line she asks if we tried everything to reattach this finger and we say no, we really didn’t think it was worth the risks, and what if she’s furious?

    He was calm now, we both were. We looked at his hand; we looked at mine. We examined different angles, tried to see what wasn’t there.

    The eight-hour window was closing and we needed to make a decision.

    But you think there’s a good chance it will be successful? We asked the surgeon this question so many times in so many ways.

    I do.

    I could tell Derek was leaning towards trying. The surgeon had been very clear that we were looking at a reasonable chance. There was no going back in time; there was no fixing it, but we could try to give her the opportunity to have a full ring finger on her (dominant) right hand. This, increasingly, didn’t seem like an insane decision. I was afraid that if we didn’t go ahead with it, if I was the one who refused, that not only Derek would regret not trying, but that we both would.

    ***

    The surgery lasted hours. Then we were in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and her hand and forearm were inside of a hot air device that reminded me of my mother’s hairdryer that she used throughout the 1970’s. Allegra’s hand had to be at a ninety-degree angle to maintain the blood flow. The surgeons stressed that it was crucial that her hand be at this vertical angle, especially for the first forty-eight hours, post-surgery. Then they left. It became immediately clear that the PICU was missing the apparatus to hold her hand up vertically. They were out of the apparatus, and, evidently, it was nowhere to be found in the entire hospital. The nurses shrugged and put together a makeshift situation with a pillow and blanket and walked away. Allegra immediately flung her arm out of the pillow and blanket. I realised that – though the nurses did not acknowledge this – for her hand to stay upright, for the reattachment to have a prayer of working, someone had to stand and physically hold her arm in place. Once this was clear to me, it was easier. I stood in place and held up my daughter’s arm while she slept. I stood there for hours. I don’t remember the sun coming through the blinds. I don’t remember the first time I ate or slept after that, but I remember the eclipse.

    Why do people go so crazy for eclipses? Is it the indisputable evidence that we’re really all sharing the same sun and moon? Or are there are so few moments in our increasingly distracted culture when people are doing the same thing at the same time and so a unified activity seems magical in and of itself ? There are people, right now, planning celebrations around the next one, timing their own milestones to coincide with the moon’s passage, as if this special planetary alignment will be an act of personal expression. I remember being sick during a blackout in Brooklyn over a decade ago. From our bed, I heard our neighbours gathering outside and chided myself for missing out. I wanted to share the blackout with as many people as possible. I have friends who don’t care about any collective excitement. The science itself is a thrilling reminder of how our world actually turns.

    I don’t remember whether I knew this eclipse was happening because the already dark room looked darker, or whether it was because Derek told me that he’d seen it when he went out to get us some food. During the eclipse of August 2017, all the meaning I needed was in her tiny bleeding fingers, wrapped in an enormous white dressing. The infinitely small universe of our daughter and her bed, our daughter and her needs and her beautiful eyes closing whenever she was in pain or even just afraid. She closed her eyes and breathed, our two-year-old girl, as if a Buddhist monk had taught her. Her eyes, her breath – that was my universe.

    ***

    Everything was going really well.

    And then it wasn’t.

    Her IVs failed. Her veins were blown. She closed her eyes as she had before, but this time she was screaming.

    There was the phlebotomist, who after trying and failing to replace our daughter’s IV, and upon hearing Allegra’s desperation, said simply: I’m not doing it. They can fire me. I’m not sticking her again, and walked away. There was the parade of reasons why her heart rate dropped, and why, after two transfusions, this elective surgery became dangerous. What went wrong and who was there, who was or wasn’t to blame.

    The finger failed. They did another surgery to close it up. We were finally free to go.

    ***

    I have a friend who’s a Buddhist, who speaks of a particular meditation in which the body disappears – is, in fact, chopped off – one part at a time.

    I have another friend who could not understand why the loss of my daughter’s fingers was as upsetting to us as it was. It’s just fingers, she said. And she meant it; she was being honest, not flippant. This was infinitely more comforting than those who stopped me mid-sentence as I explained what happened, who squirmed and looked pained. I’m sorry, one said, but I just can’t. That’s really my worst nightmare.

    The biologists and the physicists and of course the Buddhists agree that living matter is in a constant state of flux. A bar made of iron is evidently mostly empty space. Even the solid particles that make up that space are either moving at a speed beyond what we can conceptualise    as speed or are actually something closer to clouds of probability. New atoms merge with our bodies every second, and old ones are reorganised and some are pushed out. Every few days we basically recycle ourselves.

    We’re all still pretty wedded to the idea of being whole.

    ***

    There were ten days left on our lease and we returned to Fire Island. People crowded on the ferry dock to greet us.  After everything, I still  cry when I picture that crowd of people waving. People fed us, listened, gave Allegra gifts. One acquaintance brought over a bottle of wine and her radiant thirteen-year-old daughter, a girl I’d admired from afar for years and who, evidently, was missing her entire index finger. She gave a dazzling smile and shrugged: I just tell people a shark bit it off. Our minuscule world of two fingers was getting a little bit bigger. And Allegra was so excited to be back, to see all her favourite spots, to ride around in the tricycle’s baby seat, watching the world go by.

    A few days in, without us asking, Allegra pointed to the tricycle’s chain and showed Derek where she’d reached.

    I touched there, she said, matter-of-factly.

    There were moments, like flashes of lightning, when I woke in the night, when bicycles zipped by, when kids screamed – I felt my blood drain. I thought: I’ll always be afraid.

    Summer came to an end.

    ***

    Maybe we go crazy for eclipses because we want that circle; we want to feel the primal repetition. We think: We may not always be here, but look, there’s the sun and the moon. We’re thrilled to bear witness to their intractability and to know they’ll continue setting our stage even when we’re no longer on it.

    I think of Derek and I huddled together in that hospital lobby. We blocked off parts of our fingers, tried to envision absence. We continued to do this for weeks – looking, imagining: so it will look like this. No – like this. In the midst of it all, the Moon blocked out the Sun.

    Allegra is five now.

    I remember looking at her little perfect hands every day since she was born, as we all look at our children’s hands. I remember wondering: what they will look like when she’s my age? How they will move? What will they learn how to do?

    Now I look at her hands and the question is more pressing.

    Every time someone notices her fingers there’s a story demanded and created even if it’s almost never asked or explained.

    One story will beget another. That’s what stories do. This story ultimately belongs to our daughter – if not first then foremost – and hopefully it will be nothing much, a tale as small as a finger.

    _

    Joanna Hershon is the author of five novels: St. Ivo (Farrar, Straus & Giroux April 2020), Swimming, The Outside of August, The German Bride and A Dual Inheritance. Her writing has appeared in (among other places) Granta, The New York Times, One Story, The Virginia Quarterly Review, the literary anthologies Brooklyn Was Mine and Freud’s Blind Spot, and was shortlisted for the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories. She teaches in the Creative Writing department at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, painter Derek Buckner, their twin sons and daughter.

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