Tatsuro Kiuchi for Reader's Digest
I sit on the stoop in front of my friend’s house. She lives at the top of a ridiculously steep hill. Halfway up, my four-year-old daughter, Colette, collapsed in mutiny, refusing to take another step, and I had to lug her the rest of the way on my back. And now my friend is late, and we’re stuck here waiting as the 4 p.m. San Francisco fog rolls in, kicking up gritty wind and making the temperature plummet.
My friend’s street is so traumatically narrow and steep that drivers, upon discovering it’s a dead end, have to back down the hill because there’s no place to turn around. I know because that happened to me once, which is why I walked here today.
I see a man approaching, and I think, Oh, great. Now what?
“Por favor. Call 911,” the man says. “Finger. Cut.” He holds up his blood-streaked forearm. With his left hand, he is clenching a wad of handkerchiefs around his right pinkie.
“No. Have. Phone,” I say, as if English is also my second language.
“Have phone,” he says, and dips his chin toward his front pants pocket. I don’t want to stick my hand in there, but the blood does look real. In his pocket, I find a flip phone. I slip it out and step back out of arm’s reach, then call 911.
The operator answers, and after I give her the address, I say, “I’m here with this guy, and he says he cut his finger.”
“Is it bad?” the operator asks.
“Is it bad?” I ask him.
“It’s bad,” I tell her.
“Did he cut it off?”
Now, there’s a question I hadn’t thought of. “Did you cut it off?”
“Sí.” He sighs, relieved someone finally understands the gravity of his situation.
“Yes. He cut it off.”
“Where is it?” the operator asks.
“Where is it?” My voice goes so high and tight, my throat burns.
“Upstairs,” he says, and points with his elbow to the house next door.
“Go get it,” she instructs me.
I admonish Colette, “Do not move a muscle,” and I leave her sitting on the stoop as I follow the man toward the house.
Tatsuro Kiuchi for Reader's Digest
Inside, we are immediately greeted by a staircase that is missing all its treads. I follow the man up the stairs, balancing on narrow vertical strips of wood, narrating to the 911 operator, “We have entered the premises and are ascending the stairs.” We get to the kitchen, and I see a table saw, a stack of lumber, and an arc of blood spatter across the ceiling, but I don’t see the finger.
“We are attempting to locate the finger,” I say, because even in an emergency, silence over a phone line is awkward.
I thought a severed finger would jump right out at me, but I can’t find it. I lift up each foot and look underneath to be sure I’ve not already stepped on it. I’m getting that jumpy, tight-shouldered feeling like when you’ve lost sight of a spider that was on your ceiling a moment ago.
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“Do you see it?” I ask him.
He points. With his elbow. At his own finger. The finger lies on the floor beside the table saw, drained of color and curved slightly. I don’t have any rubber gloves or tongs, so I grab a paper towel and lay it over the finger, pinching delicately, the way you might pick up a harmless but terrifying bug.
“We have secured the finger,” I tell the operator.
“Hang tight. The ambulance is on its way.”
I cradle the swaddled finger back down the skeletal stairs, being careful not to squeeze too hard. I don’t want to collapse all the delicate little doodads at the business end, because I’m assuming they’ll need those when they reattach it.
When we get outside, Colette is still sitting where I left her, and it’s still daylight, which surprises me because it felt as if we’d been on our finger-recovery mission for hours.
We sit on the stoop and wait for the ambulance, which we can hear in the distance. We listen to the siren growing louder as the ambulance approaches, and just when we’re expecting to see the flashing lights at the bottom of Treat Street, the siren begins to grow quieter and quieter, as if the ambulance is driving away. The man looks at me with the whites of his eyes showing all the way around.
“Sounds like they’re going the wrong way. Are they leaving?” I ask the operator.
After a brief silence, she returns with, “They couldn’t find you. The address does not exist.”
I sit up straight. “No! Tell them to come back! We’re on the other side of the park. Drive around the park!”
I tell the man, “It’s OK. They’ll be here soon.”
I can see all the fear he has been staving off overtake him. A tear appears on the rim of his eye, where it balances for a second before it spills out and runs down his cheek. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I’m thinking, What if he has a wife and kids depending on him, and he can’t go back to work? What if he doesn’t have insurance? Or isn’t in the country legally?
“You’re going to be OK,” I say. I put my free hand on his sawdust-covered back.
“Gracias,” he says.
“De nada. Esta no problemo,” I say, emboldened enough to risk mangling my middle-school Spanish. I rub my free hand in a circle on his back.
It feels good to be able to soothe someone, anyone. For months now, the second my hands would go idle, a familiar specter, depression, would climb on my back. I’ve been this way for months. I have been trying to put on a good face for my kid, but I feel as if I’ve been failing. Could I save myself? I wouldn’t know how. But I am determined to save this man.
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Finally the ambulance arrives. They hustle him into the back, and they’re off. Colette and I are watching the ambulance back down the hill when I realize I’m still holding the finger. I run after them, waving my arm and screaming, “The finger! Stop! The finger!” I hand off the finger to the paramedic and watch as they drive away.
Throughout the evening, I can’t stop worrying about the man. I decide to call the hospital.
“Hi,” I say. “I helped a guy who cut off his finger, and I don’t even know his name, but I’m wondering whether he came to your hospital.”
The nurse says, “Kim?”
“Ye-ees?” I say, feeling mystified.
“It’s me. Katanya.”
Katanya is the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates. I find it miraculous that she recognizes my voice.
She says, “His name is Jose Ramos, and he’s waiting for surgery. Would you like to leave a message?”
“No. I don’t want to bug him. I just wanted to be sure he was OK.”
The next morning, I call the hospital again. This time, I’m put through to Jose’s room. “How was the surgery?”
“No surgery,” he says. “No enough blood.” Whatever that means.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “Do you need anything?”
Jose says, “No, gracias,” and then launches into Spanish. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I can hear in the tone of his voice the same letting-your-guard-down feeling I feel. Which makes sense. It’s impossible to be the carrier of a person’s chopped-off body part and not feel a little camaraderie. I presume that’s true for the carry-ee as well.
Later that day, as I am pushing Colette on the tire swing at the park, I remember that old proverb about how if you save someone’s life, you are responsible for them for the rest of their life. Which never made sense to me before. Shouldn’t the person who got saved owe a perpetual debt, and not the other way around? But today, I get it. It’s a great honor to help someone in need, even if all you did was push three buttons on a phone and carry a couple of ounces of former human for 15 minutes. I want to keep doing it.
I start keeping a lookout for other people in need of rescuing. I help push a stalled car out of the road. I aid a disoriented cyclist when her bike gets clipped by a car. I flag down a security guard in a lobby when I see an elderly man stumbling and clutching his chest. I adopt a dog.
Then one day, a month or two after the finger incident, I realize I have completely forgotten to be depressed. I’ve been so busy playing the role of local hero that I have neglected to drag my feet and stare into space and fantasize about the world without me. When I stop moving, melancholia no longer drops anchor.
Now, more than a decade has passed since Jose’s accident. Periodically I search for “Jose” plus “Ramos” plus “finger.” I wish I could see him again, to see how he’s getting on. But more important, to thank him, because when he lost his finger, he saved my life.