On Stepping on a Sliver of Glass

It’s incredibly hot. Every window in the house is open, in the hope of conducting any passing breeze through some steaming corridor or room. One of these gentle breezes knocked over a framed drawing by my daughter, propped on a shelf in my study. I was on the stairs when it happened. Thought I heard someone drop a handful of cutlery. Couldn’t find the source of the noise, though. Not in the kitchen. Not in the bathroom. Then noticed the frame face down on the floor of my study, some shards of glass poking out from underneath it like splayed cartoon limbs from under a boulder. I picked up the frame and drawing, shooed my curious daughter away from the glass, and swept it up. Like an idiot, I continued to walk around in bare feet. It’s so damn hot, you see.

So I stepped on a shard of glass, well away from the spot where the frame actually fell. It pierced the side of the toe next to my little toe. It was excruciating. A sharp, icy, cruel pain. I literally leaped off the ground when it happened. I hobbled to the chair and extracted the tiny sliver from my toe. It was smaller than a grain of rice, but possessed of incredible power to inflict pain. I walked over to the waste basket and dropped it in. It made a tiny but satisfying “chink” sound as it hit the metal bottom. Then, on the way back to my chair, I stepped on another shard of glass. I was now officially in my own slapstick comedy, bouncing around like a pogo stick, cradling my left foot in my hand, cursing under my breath while trying to chart a course through the room and into the hall that wouldn’t take me over any more broken glass.

This shard lodged near my heel. It’s still in there, I think. My wife poked the bottom of my foot with a sewing needle for about 10 minutes and couldn’t find it. Not even with the toy magnifying glass she grabbed from our son’s secret spy kit, which he got for his birthday a couple of years ago and hasn’t looked at since. We’re a family that thinks ahead, you see, well prepared for any emergency. There is just the tiniest pin prick in the rough skin on the bottom of my foot, a drop of blood no bigger than the head of a pin. Really very small. Probably no more than a dozen angels could dance on it in a pinch. It hurts to touch and makes my whole foot feel sore, though that may just be my imagination. When you are in pain, and can’t immediately find the cause, you imagine you’re in much greater danger than you really are.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—scientist, astronomer, discover of Lichtenberg figures and aphorist—said it all when he composed this aphorism:

Why does a suppurating lung give so little warning and a sore on the finger so much?

It’s bizarre and scary but true: little things often pain us more than far graver things that keep themselves hidden. The speck of glass that even now may be working its way deeper into the flesh of my left foot hurt a lot today but will soon be forgotten. A close friend told my wife last week that an ex-lover of hers, someone whom at one point she was ready to marry, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He’s in his mid-forties, never smoked, has a couple of kids; now he’s got three months to live. We get no warning, and we have no idea how far the shards of experience will scatter—or when and in what form they will resurface.