what not to say

The Best Advice So Far - what not to say

I always seem to have some crazy story or other to tell, don’t I?

I was asked a thoughtful question recently, as my birthday nears: “What would you like to see more of and less of in the year ahead. After The Zinc Fiasco of 2015/2016 and last month’s visit to Death’s door (aka, The Black Pill Debacle of 2017), my “less-of” response seemed a given”

I’d like to have less … in the way of health issues.

Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself very fortunate. Yet when birthday presents past include a medical dictionary marked with sticky strips on every page containing some strange malady I’ve encountered … one might have reason to suspect that something’s up.

And many have told me I’m the healthiest sick person they’ve met so far. (I suppose that’s true to my nature, being a lifelong “balance of extremes” as I call it.)

Well, wouldn’t you know, a week ago today (just after I finished writing last week’s post, in fact), I wound up adding another sticky to that medical dictionary of mine.

The hedge along the driveway had turned into a jungle; and the worker the landlord had hired to take care of it had just informed her that he’d have to postpone — until the second week of September. Well, that was just not an option. The drive would literally be impassable by then. So the landlord asked if I might consider taking care of tedious job for some cash. I agreed.

Picture it if you will:

  • Eight-foot overgrown hedge
  • Five-foot ladder on an uneven gravel drive
  • Electric hedge trimmer

So there I was, tip-toeing on the second-to-last rung of the too-short ladder, stretching as far as I could over the top of the hedge to get those last few outcropping branches at the far side … when the ladder began to wobble.

I reached out instinctively to steady myself … on nothing … and in doing so, let go of the heavy, two-hand-operated saw …

… which dropped immediately to continue buzzing on into my left hand.

It’s hard to describe what you wind up thinking in a moment like that. One thing is for sure: you just know it’s bad.

I tossed the saw in the other direction and jumped (or, rather, fell and happened to land on my feet) as the ladder toppled.

Before I could manage to clutch the injury in a tight grip with my good hand, I got enough of a glimpse to see the gore. Blood bubbled up through the fingers that closed around it, dripping to the ground.

I couldn’t feel anything at first, of course. A small mercy at least. But my brain didn’t need to feel anything in order to imagine the worst.

Was it one finger or two? Were they still attached or was I just holding the pieces together?

I ran inside and knocked as hard as one can with an elbow on the landlord’s door.

No answer.

I was going to have to deal with this myself.

[Sinking feeling in pit of stomach.]

Now, I’m famously calm, cool and collected when it comes to dealing with other people’s injuries. But when it comes to my own … I just can’t manage the emotional distance necessary.

I got upstairs and ran the kitchen sink. The time had come. I’d have to look.

Quickly, I plunged my hand under the gushing stream of water, which turned pink as it gurgled and swirled its way down the drain. Part of my left index finger flapped up and down as the flow rushed over it.

Well, it was just one finger.

And it didn’t fall off in the sink.

This was good.

The pain was setting in now and, while the blood continued to pulse out, I was still able to assess that it was a deep, jagged cut. Between fluttering flesh and blood, I could see white or yellow.

This was not good.

I must’ve kept my finger under the water a full five minutes, squirting dish soap over everything often and trying to remember everything I’d learned in life thus far about serious wound care.

Make sure it’s clean.

Keep pressure on it.

It was probably time for that pressure. I grabbed a wad of paper towels and squeezed it around my finger with a vice grip using my other hand. I could feel it throbbing. Soon the paper towels were red. I changed them.

Keep it elevated above heart level.

Put ice on it.

I did these things.

Avoid infection at all cost.

I remembered something about salt. I filled a large bowl with water, more dish soap and copious amounts of salt, then sank my hand — bloody wrappings and all — into the bowl.

The Best Advice So Far: Don’t add copious amounts of salt to an open wound if it can at all be avoided.

It was a long afternoon and night.

Eight hours later, however, after doing everything right as far as I could figure, it was still bleeding pretty badly.


I hopped in the car, continuing to keep my mummified hand held high, and drove myself to the ER.


Stick with me here. I promise — I’m not delirious from pain meds. There is a connection between my story and where I’m going with things next.


Recently, I caught some episodes of the Netflix original series Luke Cage. It takes place in Harlem and centers on a main character who has found himself with unusual strength and impenetrable skin after being the subject of a prison experiment. I think it’s fair to say that 95% of the characters in the series are either black or Hispanic.

I found it a hugely entertaining show. Yet I do believe I heard the “N-word” more often by the end of the first episode than I’d heard in total during my lifetime to that point.

Thing is, while I’m sure many might debate this on several levels … it sort of fit. It wouldn’t have seemed as real if the writers and directors had had the street kids and kingpins of Harlem referring to one another as “African-Americans,” or calling their inner circle “Buddy” or “Pal.”

I’ve worked closely as a mentor with inner-city kids. Close friends in the black community really do call one another — even themselves — the “N word.” But take my advice: I wouldn’t try it if you’re white, no matter how much you may like someone.

I have gay friends who quite affectionately call one another … well, terms that I wouldn’t recommend you use if you’re a straight co-worker.

And while your spouse may look in the mirror, sigh in exasperation and say, “I’m getting chunky,” please — don’t take this as permission for you to sigh in exasperation and say, “Yes, you certainly are getting chunky.”

Debate it all you like. There are just some things that a person can say about himself or herself that others simply can’t (at least not without heaping woe upon your own head).


There I was in the ER. During the many phases of check-in and registration, or as I chatted with others in the waiting room, I stayed as positive as I could for someone who still didn’t know the extent of my injury. I bolstered myself both mentally and aloud to others with such things as “I’m lucky. It could’ve been worse.”

But four hours later, when the receiving nurse finally called me in, I found myself a little put off when she greeted me with a joke (“At least it wasn’t your middle finger; you need that one”) followed by a statement of exactly what I’d been saying myself so many times to that point:

Well, it could’ve been worse.

You see, when I say it about myself, it’s encouragement and positivity.

But when someone else says it to me … it has the opposite effect. It invalidates my pain, my fear, my concern.

Other seemingly ubiquitous exclamations that I’d include in this category of “I-can-but-you-can’t”:

I know exactly how you feel. Why, when this happened to me …

I once knew a guy who [had something more horrific happen to him].

(About a break-up or divorce) Well, now that they’re gone, I can tell you that I never really liked him/her anyway.

The problem with each of these is that they minimize what the other person is feeling or experiencing.

So what do you say instead? Try:

Oh no … you poor thing.

I’m so sorry this happened to you.

I’m right here if you need me for anything.

This isn’t coddling. It’s not commiserating. It’s called empathy. And we’d each do well to know the difference.

In fact, genuine empathy doesn’t require words at all.

It’s looking someone in the eye with compassion.

It’s a shared grimace or a shoulder squeeze.

It’s letting silence be silence if need be.

The Best Advice So Far: Genuine empathy doesn't require words.


I was fortunate enough to have gotten a doctor who specialized in wound surgery. He commended me on how clean I’d managed to keep it. And he shook his head, mystified, that the cut was as deep and covered as much area as it did, and yet hadn’t disrupted any of the major “stuff” in such a tight space: bone, joint, tendon (all of which he could also see), artery, major nerves.

Given the location and jagged nature of the wound, he decided that going in with stitches might cause more problems than it solved. He used some powders and ointments that temporarily stopped the bleeding and applied liquid stitches (which I still think is just plain old SuperGlue), compression wrapped it, splinted it, and told me not to unwrap it, move it or get it wet for four days — unless, of course, the bleeding resumed.

I’m happy to say, while I’ll have nasty scar, the healing process is going remarkably well. Any loss of sensation is slight, and I have nearly full motion back.

I consider myself highly fortunate.

It could’ve been worse. Much, much worse.

But if you care about me, don’t be the one to tell me so.


A few additional thoughts in closing:

I do believe that there’s a nebulous amount of time that passes after hard things, after which we might be able to agree with someone aloud about how lucky they are or how “it could have been worse” without being too insensitive. If you’re not sure how much time that is, don’t chance it and err on the side of caution.

I also think there are a select few people who, for them to say such things to one another even at the start, is almost the same as saying it yourself. This includes only the very closest of friends and family; if you’re not sure whether or not you hold that place with someone — you most likely don’t.

A rule of thumb I try to live by is this: only if I myself would feel completely loved, supported and validated were a specific other person to say such things to me, should I assume it’s OK for me to say such things to them.

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