"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth

Last week, I accidentally clipped Xander's finger. There was a slow build up, but the wail that subsequently arose from Xander's premature lungs was worse than when he gets his Synagis shots. He gets a shot every month until the end of RSV season. As a preemie, he's super-susceptible to the Respiratory Syncytial Virus, which I'd never even heard of before last October. 

Anyway, when Xander gets his shots, his eyes shut tight and his face burns red and his mouth opens wide enough to see his uvula before it starts vibrating with the burst of air coming up through his vocal chords. The sound is sharp and shrill, but brief. Followed by a moment of silence. He's made his point. But then he thinks better of it and adds a bit more howling for good measure. Fortunately, this doesn't last more than a minute or two. Probably not even that long. His mother holds him tight on her lap, holding a pacifier in his mouth, and soon he calms down.

I was also present when Xander was circumcised. That's quite an experience for a father. For Xander, there was no anesthetic or anything like that. The nurse just held a pacifier with a sweet solution in his mouth. This is how we learn from a young age the medicinal uses of sugar. Plus, his lungs were undersized and still relatively unused, so he was pretty quiet during this procedure and even afterward. But he was so worked up, his body shook. I held him for a long time, feeling his pain. 

Now, Xander's fingernails are growing. And infant fingernails are sharp. If you don't watch out, the baby tends to slice up his own face, not to mention yours when he starts grabbing at your glasses or nose rings or chest hair. I'm pretty sure Xander's mother has clipped his nails before, but I'm the homemaker now, so I took it upon myself to take care of it. I have two older daughters, and I don't remember ever having a problem cutting their nails. I even thought maybe babies like it.

I gathered the tiny, baby fingernail clippers (aren't they just like scissors in Kindergarten? Soft and dull and couldn't slice through butter?) and started with his left pinky. It was the easiest finger to get to. Babies tend to hold their hands in tight fists, and since Xander's untimely delivery makes him think he's still in the womb, his fists are sometimes quite unyielding. We try to get him to grab things like our own fingers or plastic rings and rattles, but his thumb wants to stay inside the fist, not outside. I remember the real nerdy kids in elementary school would hold their fists like that. The bigger, more athletic kids would make fun of them, egging them on by saying if they punched anyone with a fist like that, they'd break their thumb. I've been reminded of this since Xander was born. Not because I want him going around punching people, but because I don't want anyone making fun of him because he can't make a proper fist.
A normal fist, obviously not Xander's
I was able to clip his pinky, and if they were toes I could say I went in order of None, Roast Beef, Stayed Home, and finally To Market. But Market-boy was tucked so tightly inward, I couldn't get a grip on it. I worked on it for a minute, massaging the back of his hand, down his wrist, trying to coerce the little piggy thumb out to play. When I did, I quickly picked up the clippers and snipped as swiftly as I could before he could pull his thumb away. The sound arose from his little throat before I saw what I did. And I thought the pithy, puny sound he made when he got a a needle stuck in his leg was hard to bear. Now he wailed and yowled and shrieked all at the same time. I noticed a stream of red running down Xander's thumb and onto mine. I immediately closed his fist back to the configuration he wanted in the first place, threw the malevolent fingernail clippers across the room, and kept Xander's hand closed while I held his body to my mine. This wasn't a minor, whiny-baby Synagis shot. This wasn't even the removal of excess skin that didn't need to be there. He needs this skin. He needs the nerves on his fingertips to send signals to his brain that the bunny is fluffy or that he's in mortal danger and he better get away from the fire.

So, I made my child cry. Real tears, which he doesn't even use when he's merely hungry or uncomfortable from sitting in his own poop. He cried for a long while. I held him tight and rocked him and used the pacifier as I could, but he wouldn't be soothed. I eased a tissue between his fingers to clean off the blood, and had to hold that there like I was stanching a nosebleed. When I finally got a look at his thumb, a tiny strand of skin hung away from the rest and his thumbnail was jagged and even more pokey than before. I tried to wrap his thumb in a band aid, but that wouldn't stay on. Eventually, I resigned myself and let him keep his thumb inside his fist and he held it there for a few days without any disturbance from me.

Just a few days later, his thumb is completely healed. There's barely even anything to see if you can get a look at his thumb. At this point, and maybe I've been watching too many episodes of Scrubs through Netflix, but I wonder what the repercussions are of injuring your children like that. He's barely three months old. I'm sure the last time he thought of it was the last time he felt the tiny flap of skin before it fell off. He might have wondered what that irritating sensation was. But I haven't stopped thinking about it. I still remember accidentally putting my firstborn daughter into the ceiling fan when she was Xander's age 15 years ago (I like to make my babies fly; it was a low ceiling). I clearly recall how I allowed my second born daughter to tumble off the deck and into the weedy rock garden just after she took her first steps (it was her mother's turn to watch). They don't remember these things. But I still do. Maybe your children's injuries affect you more than it does them. All I know is that I certainly won't be clipping Xander's fingernails again.

And slow fade out on the bouffant head of Zach Braff looking pensively into the distance.


  1. I'm not sure that I should think this is funny and charming - it is after all about how my son was injured, but you've managed to find the whimsy in what was a traumatic experience for the both of you. I'm just glad that I wasn't there to witness it. You would never have heard the end of it!

  2. There was a comic about this very same kind of situation...what's the one with Zoey and Hammy and the Mom and Dad? I can't remember.

    But Mom was clipping baby Hammy's nails and she clipped his finger and he started wailing...and the dad heard downstairs so he ran up and when he got into the bathroom the Hammy was staring at Mom like she was nuts and she was screaming in an agony of guilt. Great stuff.

  3. @Chanel, Baby Blues. I used to read that comic back when my daughters were younger. I could really connect. The guy had parenting down pat.

  4. "I like to make babies fly"

    I feel like you should make a shirt with that on there.

    I felt your pain though, no joke. Don't take this the wrong way but this is exactly the kind of thing I worry about when I'm clipping my cats claws. I feel like it's already uncomfortable enough and if I mess up they'll never forgive me.

    This post made me itchy but it was so well written I couldn't stop!

    Also - Scrubs and Baby Blues win!


  5. @ TK, Thanks for the comments. That would make a nice shirt. Maybe my brother in law could make one (hint hint, Charlie). And I still cringe when I look at my son's thumb.