29 October 2012


It sometimes seems to me a miracle that the human race has survived as long as it has.  We who were born in the mid- to late-20th Century in a country like the United States, in a prosperous family, have perhaps been nurtured in one of the safest environments in history - and yet in my own childhood I nearly put one eye out (at the age of 2 or 3); severed my right Achilles tendon (at the age of 12); and survived untold potentially-fatal automobile accidents.  I have spoken of Johnny's fall off the roof.  Helen's turn came next.

One lovely day in, probably, March, of 1978 - when Johnny was close to three years old and Helen was about nine months - Susan was startled to find that Johnny had run outside.  Neither of us is certain what happened.  I have a memory of Sue's opening the door to go hang out laundry, or possibly to bring it in.  She doesn't remember precisely the circumstances - but Johnny had dashed outside.

We had already had the afore-mentioned incident with Johnny.  Another time - possibly before this - he had managed to clamber his way down the 10 or 20-metre cliff that separated our house from the road and had been picked up by a passing friend and brought home to us - and his return to the house was the first we had any intimation of his disappearance.  So Sue was, understandably, sensitive to the dangers threatening our children.  She dashed out of the house after Johnny.

Leaving the back door open.

Helen could not walk yet - but she could crawl, and she could pull herself to a standing position using vertical objects.

Hearing the door slam, Susan's first thought was that this was good - it would keep Helen safely inside.  Then she heard her scream.

The next few minutes are a little unclear.  Sue must have 'phoned me at the office - if we had a telephone by then.  Neither us us is sure that we did.  In any case, I appear to have taken one of the Education Department trucks, come home, and we rushed Helen to the hospital.

Yap had, at that time, acquired its first surgeon.  Dr Zantua was a young Filipino surgeon - ambitious and, we think, using his time in Yap as a springboard to get a job in the US.  There was also a young America interne when we arrived at the hospital.  Dr Zantua was there and Helen was taken immediately into his surgery, with the interne accompanying him.

Not long after, the interne came out, with a grave expression on his face.  The accident must have been, he said, more serious than he had thought.  Dr Zantua had found it necessary to remove the last joint of the ring finger on Helen's left hand.  He - the interne - hadn't realised that would be necessary.

In reality, it may not have been.  The interne told us, privately, on another occasion that he was quite sure that a smashed finger, at that age, would have regenerated with little permanent effect.  Whether or no, it was now too late.  Indeed, over the next month or two, as the injury itself healed, the bone of the last joint had begun to be exposed, with consequent danger of osteomylitis.  It had to be excised.  Over the first several years after that there were occasional problems with the nail bed regenerating.  I think we had to have that excised as well.

My impression is that Helen only became aware sometime that her finger was different from other persons' when, at about age 8, she, with our other children, began taking music classes - initially, playing the recorder.  Was she disturbed by this?  I do not know, but it seems to me she was not too deeply concerned.  I remember saying, once, years later, when she was a very accomplished flute player, that that particular finger being short was an advantage, for the particular notes she plays with the left hand.

A few months after this occurrence, when we had lived in Yap for over two years, we experienced something that is regular in the life of oversears contact workers: our first furlough.

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