By Larry Gordon

It was a warm, early-summer-like day in May. After a day’s work, I was walking to my car with my briefcase slung by its strap over my shoulder, as usual. I was carrying several newspapers and a book I had received in the mail that day, and I was speaking on my cell phone.

I opened the back door of the car to put my briefcase down behind the driver’s seat and to place the book and papers on the seat. Then I intended to shuffle over to the front door, open it, start the car, and be on my way. But then, quite unexpectedly, as I was making a point to whomever I was talking with, I felt a stinging pain in my right hand. I looked down and noticed that my thumb was stuck in the rear car door. My goodness! Apparently I was kicking the back door to close it, and somehow–I still can’t explain it–there was my thumb in the car door.

I quickly dropped my left hand, still holding the cell phone, and pulled the door open, thereby freeing my poor, innocent little thumb. I thought that this was pretty sloppy and stupid, and chalked it up to the perils of always being on that cell phone. Beyond that, I didn’t think anything more of it and just maneuvered myself into the driver’s seat while still on the same call.

“You know, my thumb really hurts,” I said to whomever I was speaking with. I told them that I hurt my finger and had to pay some attention to it and that I would call them back later. So I drove home, all the while coming to the realization that the pain was not subsiding in the usual way.

A few hours later, after soaking it in icy cold water and then holding a small ice pack on it, I noticed that it was beginning to turn a pinkish-purplish color. How is this explained from a medical perspective? Well, I didn’t know then and I really don’t know now. I just figured that it was turning colors the way skin does when you fall or bruise yourself in some fashion. I thought that the turning colors was good, and that it would soon begin to fade in the other direction and then shortly thereafter hopefully repair itself as the body is calibrated and wont to do, and all would once again be well.

After a few days, it did begin to feel better, except that the skin beneath my nail began to turn different shades of purple. And then it looked like it was settling into a nice hue of black. “Oh, that’s just wonderful,” I thought; “now I have a black nail on my thumb. Who knows how or when–if ever–that is going to dissipate?”

The pain went away pretty much, though the tip of the thumb continued to feel sore. For weeks after that I checked often on the condition of this little thumb and contemplated what a lesson this small episode can teach. I thought this entire little adventure was an important lesson in life. Just look at what an almost indiscernible misdeed could result in. All I did was get the tip of my thumb caught in a car door for probably less than three seconds, and it looked like the damage was irreparable–now I have a black nail on my thumb.

I told my kids and several people who cared to ask about why my thumbnail was black that it is easy and perhaps important to draw a lesson in life from this occurrence. You see, I explained to several people a few times, all it takes is a second to create a problem and then finding an effective solution or remedy can take who knows how long. I thought that this injured thumb, carelessly placed in a car-door frame while I myself slammed the door, was indeed a metaphor for so much of life and its ups and downs.

After a while, I stopped obscuring that fingernail by keeping one of my other fingers on top of it. About six weeks ago, I was sitting at someone’s Shabbos table when the person next to me just casually asked, “What happened to your thumb?” Of course, I was glad to explain the whole thing almost the same way that I am explaining all the details here, with all the philosophical trimmings.

I was not sure how long this thumbnail was going to be black and I was preparing myself for it to be like that for the long haul. Did I consult or go to a doctor? Not until recently. Mainly because it wasn’t really hurting me, I was giving it a chance to heal on its own, and what kind of doctor do you see to tend to a thumbnail anyway?

About a month ago, the black beneath the nail was showing signs of change. The blackness was ever so slowly beginning to break up and some minimal pinkness could be seen around the perimeter of the injury. I looked at it and wondered–was this the beginning of the healing process or had it been healing from the moment of the injury and I was just beginning to see it now?

Along with the small change in color, it seemed that the old nail that was there all along was curiously beginning to lift slightly. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but obviously there was some movement taking place here.

A new and additionally annoying thing was that this old injured nail was getting caught on things like a sweater, a blanket, or maybe some kids’ clothing. Now that did hurt, and a couple of times I came fairly close to ripping the whole nail off. Even though it was an old damaged nail with black lingering beneath the surface, I did not want the nail to come off because I didn’t know what was going on underneath.

At the end of August, one of my sons had a dermatological appointment and I decided to go along to ask the doctor about it. An interesting aside to the whole thing was that when I offered the doctor’s receptionist an additional co-pay ($50) just so that I could ask the doctor about the thumbnail, she said I could not do that and that I would need a separate appointment. I tried to plead my case but it was to no avail. They told me that the doctor had just returned from vacation and was backed up and that there were no appointments available for four weeks.

When I was in the doctor’s examining room with my son, I showed her my nail and asked what she thought anyway. She told me to keep it covered with a band-aid and to make an appointment so that she could analyze it properly. I related to her that there were no appointments for weeks and that I was concerned about the hazards of being nail-less. She said to ask to be put on a list for appointments in case of cancellations. I did that and I received an appointment a few days later.

Thumbnail update: Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the old nail was sufficiently hanging that I could lift it up and take a peak underneath. I was pleasantly surprised to see that a new, strong-and-healthy-looking nail was slowly growing underneath the old one. Right now it’s about 50% formed and grown. According to the doctor, a nail grows about one centimeter per month, but there seems to be another, albeit thinner, covering growing beneath the nail that is almost fully grown, thereby protecting the sensitive part of this otherwise fragile area of the thumb.

It’s been about five months since this started, and frankly I thought I did damage that could never be repaired. It is still a mystery to me about life overall, that is, why it takes just a fleeting moment to do such damage but such an inordinate amount of time to have it repaired. This happens not just with small injuries like this one but in life itself, in business, in relationships, and so on. A wrong word here or a bad decision there and you are stuck and challenged with a laborious healing process.

I know that these are a lot of words devoted to a simple little thumb story. But in this just-concluded season of renewal it serves–for me, anyway–as a lesson in how the body is able to repair itself even though the prospects at times look dismal. And it is so in other areas of life, as well. The thumb is just, well, a thumb, and these things inexplicably happen. But its healing and growth is a beautiful thing that in some way seems to bode well for this finger, and, of course, for the future in general. For now I think I have to be a little more attentive around car doors and maybe get off the cell phone once in a while. v

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