How Many Fingers?

Published 19 years, 2 weeks past

Earlier this evening, I ventured from the Hilton Kensington to find dinner.  I ended up at The Mitre, an upscale pub a block east of the Holland Park tube stop.  I found the food to be quite excellent, and on a Thursday night things were fairly quiet.  I proceeded to slowly kill two bottles of still water and a full three courses.

As I was eating, a few degrees to the left of my straight ahead sat a couple, sharing a pint and talking animatedly to each other.  Gradually, I came to realize that there was something unusual about the young woman, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  I watched them a bit more closely for a while, and then as she reached up to brush back her hair it hit me: her left hand had only the thumb and first two fingers.

To be nakedly honest, I experienced a deeply visceral reaction—not revulsion, but a certain kind of personal horror.  There is something about physical deformations that primally disturbs and scares me.  Every time it does, however, I confront the reaction and examine it as if it were a stranger.  I stare into my own bias and try to understand it a little more fully, to lessen its power.  I think that perhaps my reaction springs from a projection of the observed deformity onto myself.  What if I were without fingers, or blind, or had an amputated limb?  I feel some faint echo of an alternate self, alien to me and yet all too real.  Most real of all is the fear that given such a burden, I would not bear it well.  In the distorted mirror that reflects my deformed body, I see a darkened face and an angry soul.

As I force myself to stare into that face, I wonder if it is an accurate self assessment, or a projection of my fears.  I tell myself it is a projection, believe that it is with all my might, and perhaps believing will make it so.

After watching a few minutes more, I could clearly see what had initially seemed odd about her.  She had a distinct tendency to wedge the deformed hand between her crossed legs, or to keep it in her lap under the table.  If the left hand came up, it usually rested next to her ear, the hand buried in her hair.  Every movement was natural, her body at ease in every moment; she’d obviously had a long time to develop these tendencies so that they were not affected, but totally unconscious.

When she had to pick up a plate with her right hand and reached out with the left to move her glass as well, I could see why her habits were so ingrained.  The shape of her hand, wrist, and arm convinced me that no accident had befallen her except that of birth: she’d never had the fingers.

I studied her again in this new light.  As before, she was quite pretty, with a wonderful smile and an easy laugh for her companion, who was clearly a romantic partner.  Her movements were animated, and she had that enthusiasm and energy that only the young seem to truly possess.  In every observable way, she was a very happy and lovely person.

I wondered what it was like for her, growing up with a deformed hand.  Children need little enough excuse to be cruel to other children; how must she have been taunted?  And yet it did not seem to have made her angry or bitter.  I cannot claim to know the details of her personality based on an hour’s observation, but I am convinced she was not that way.  If anything, she seemed like the kind of person to whom happiness came almost naturally.  She seemed like someone it would be a joy to know.

When people asked Kat and me what kind of baby we wanted, our answer was always, “A healthy one—ten fingers, ten toes, that kind of thing”.  Yet here was a woman who was, to all appearances, fully healthy except for a malformed hand.  And is such a thing really unhealthy?  It is different, but that isn’t the same thing.

We are all imperfect, some more visibly than others.  Between the two of us, this bright young woman and me, who was the more flawed: she with her hand, or me with my fears?

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