September 2023


The woodsplitter

By Jessie Cole
A gruesome accident becomes a family’s touchstone moment of love and resilience

It is winter again and I glance at our woodpile gingerly. Even though I live in a forest, maintaining a woodpile is a serious business. Trees fall, our local strongman comes to chainsaw them into moveable pieces, and we stack the wood in the woodpile. But every winter, the heaviest pieces, too big for us to lift or too big for the fireplace, always remain.

A few years back, I hired a hydraulic woodsplitter to cleave these leftovers so they could be used. It was a sunny, coolish morning. Autumnal. My family gathered around the machine, noise-cancelling earmuffs on, ready to work. I have two young adult sons, and, along with me and my mother, we made a good team. My oldest son did the heavy lifting, picking up the too-big rounds of wood and placing them in the woodsplitter. I pushed the lever, overseeing the mechanism’s slow, mesmerising split before he threw the smaller pieces into a pile. My mother and younger son then arranged them into neat stacks. As I stood beside the splitter, watching my family in this tightly choreographed undertaking, I felt myself swell with joy. All of us, together, engaged in this act of family nourishment – preparing for winter, preparing for warmth. I caught myself thinking: is this the happiest I have ever been?

And then my oldest son tapped me on the shoulder and pointed down. I did not understand this gesture straight away because he seemed so calm, but all at once the knowledge hit me. His hand was trapped against one end of the wood. I needed to reverse the lever. I did, and the splitting mechanism gradually retreated. My son lifted his hand free and stepped away. I stood still, confused. He stalked off, arms hanging long by his sides, and I followed, trotting to keep up. I pulled my earmuffs off, and he his.

“What’s happened?” I asked, fixed on his face.

“My hand,” he said, “it got squashed.”

“What?” I was stunned. I had seen and felt nothing.

“I think I need a hospital,” he said, and I finally peered down at his hand. His fingers were flattened, bleeding and boneless-looking, all around the edges split open like grapes.

Oh, I thought, it is like this. Ambulance or hospital drive?

He kept walking fast, away from the machine, away from where our cars were parked. The adrenaline was making him race.

He’s going to lose those fingers, I thought. They’re gone.

“Ambulance might take forever,” I said, still trotting. “I think we should drive.”

My son nodded and turned towards the car. I ran to get a towel from the house, and then I ran back to the machine and switched it off.

“I’m taking him to the hospital,” I yelled to my mother, still wearing her earmuffs. “I’ve squashed his hand. It looks bad.”

And then we were in the car and driving. Our closest hospital is 26 minutes away. In the passenger seat beside me, my son was white as white. He held the towel lightly above his busted hand, mostly to block it from view. I was sob-crying, but quietly, with the occasional dry retch. All my life I had fought to keep this raucous, wild child safe, and here we were, me the cause of his most damaging injury.

“I’m sorry,” I chanted, “I’m so sorry.”

I had known my part of the woodsplitting, the controlling of the lever, was the most important, and I’d been watching the splitting mechanism’s movements with fanatical attention, but I had been watching the wrong thing. I’d needed to be watching my son’s hands.

He looked across at me, “Oh Mum, it’s not your fault.” But we both knew that it was.

How much was he bleeding? Was he bleeding out? Should I stop on the side of the road and call an ambulance?

“Maybe just check how much blood there is,” I told him. “Just lift the towel.”

He did and his head lolled at the view. I dry-retched again but I could see, on the car floor, there wasn’t much blood. Foot on the pedal. Another 15 minutes and we were there.

At the hospital they were waiting for us, my mother had phoned ahead. As we crossed the threshold into emergency, the male nurse lobbed a box of tissues at me, like a football. I caught it midair, all instinct.

“Mums always cry a lot when it’s their fault,” he said. And I smiled, in the midst of this horror. To be so frankly seen.

They did an X-ray, and to everyone’s surprise there were no broken bones. The skin around my son’s fingers had busted open, they looked like pulpy mush, but there was no internal damage. He had surgery to sew it all together, including his fingernails back on. It was gory, but it wasn’t life altering. He did not lose any digits. A few more seconds and he could have.

Fast forward four years and he’s had his own baby. Sometimes on drives, the baby cries in the car. My son, a man of strong passions, declares that he would rather get his hand stuck in a hydraulic woodsplitter than listen to his baby cry. And I think of the strange cycles of life. How in one instant my happiest moment became my most shameful. How I was forgiven. I walk past our dwindling woodpile, with its too-big-to-lift wood, and I shudder. Then the sudden memory of joy – the autumnal light, our togetherness. Moment to moment, the pitch and sway of a life. How fragile and resilient we are.

Jessie Cole

Jessie Cole is a writer. Her latest book is Desire, A Reckoning.

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