Slivers (aka splinters) became a hot topic in our house toward the end of summer vacation. Weeks of running recklessly barefoot finally caught up to both of my boys, and we faced three sliver extractions in as many days. My youngest son started the sliver fest with a doozey, maybe more accurately categorized as an impalement, after running over a weathered piece of plywood, its top layer shriveled and cracked. From the boat in the middle of the lake, I heard his scream, as what could best be described as a “chunk” of the board tore off and wedged into the tender ball of his always bustling foot. We brought the boat to the dock and I rushed to his side as Grandma worked to console him and remind him to breathe as his precious face burned red and blue veins bulged from the sides of his neck. At the same time, Grandpa undertook the bloody work, the work to inflict more pain to end the pain. I hugged him and I brushed away his tears and I promised him everything was going to be ok. Just a few short minutes later, everything was ok. Some water to rinse away the dirt and blood, a dollop of antibiotic cream, and a boo boo Band-Aid dried the last tear and sent him off and running again.
It was a physical hurt. It was scary, and it was painful. But the entry point was obvious, and the piece of wood easy to grasp and pull out. We knew how to fix it. We knew how to heal the hurt.
Little more than 24 hours later, my oldest son approached me, hesitant. Mom, I think I may have a sliver.
On my foot.
Ok, come sit over here. Let me take a look at it.
Sure enough there was a small sliver, wedged into the toughened skin on his heel, the entry point no longer visible and covered with fresh skin growth. Great time for such self-healing efficiency, I thought. My son howled as I gently squeezed the area attempting to identify our best option for extraction.
Hmmm, this doesn’t seem like a new sliver. Did you just get this?
Well, no, he replied. I got it a few days ago, but I didn’t want you to pull it out. I was afraid it would hurt.
Well, that explains the self-healing efficiency, I thought, exasperated.
Buddy, you can’t let slivers stay in you like that. You need to tell someone right away. Your skin grew back over the opening it went in. Now we are going to have to break through the skin again to get that thing out. (Note to self, in the future, try not to kick him when he’s already down. Save the lecture about what he should have done for a moment separate from the moment he comes to you defeated, scared, and in pain. Apologize for this later.)
Because this sliver was so small and now wedged in so deep, it was a painstaking multi-day process to remove it in a manner that wouldn’t cause him significant pain. Some soaking, a little bit of progress removing the layer of skin that was covering it, some more soaking, application of a baking soda paste, some more soaking, more skin removal, more soaking, and finally he felt ready to allow extraction, under the steady, well-trained hand of my sister the veterinarian. Finally, after a week of hobbling around tenderly, changing his gait to avoid the sharp bolt of pain when he stepped on it just so, he ran freely through the grass again.
I couldn’t help but think about how those little slivers that hurt a little upon entry, but don’t seem like a huge tragedy, can cause so much pain when left unaddressed. They irritate. The area where they are lodged becomes extremely sensitive. Left to fester too long, they cause an infection.
Kind of like the little emotional hurts that life throws at you.
The invitation that doesn’t come.
The less than flattering remark about your weight, or your clothes, or appearance in general.
The promotion that goes to someone else.
The mom who gets exasperated when you finally work up the courage to come to her with something that’s bothering you.
The pain is palpable in such moments, but so often, rather than acknowledge it, you pretend it isn’t there for fear of appearing weak. Or maybe you acknowledge the pain you feel and shed a few tears, but don’t communicate the pain to the person who caused it for fear of causing conflict. So you walk around with that pain poking away at you. It causes an irritation. Then more little pains come and the process continues and you have a full-fledged, burning inflammation, until one day you can’t take the pain any longer and the volcano erupts.
You’re scared, you’re angry, you’re unsure of yourself. You hurt so bad, but you don’t know why. The source is no longer obvious, but to be able to keep moving forward you need to find that sliver and pull it out. You might start by trying to go right after it with a needle and tweezers, only to realize the pain of that strategy is more than you feel ready to bear. So you start slowly and timidly the process of peeling back layer after layer, trying little remedies, building courage as you successfully face the lesser pain, until one day when you’ve done enough work, enough gentle digging and prodding, enough forgiving, the sliver slides free, painlessly, and you are running free again, your gait strong and confident, no longer hesitant.