By: Matt Gordon
This week my son’s talons broke skin around my own thumb. Seemed like a small deal, but now there seems to be a bit of infection forming, thanks mostly to my utter neglect, and it has me thinking about Mr. Roth.
Mr. Roth was my Sunday school teacher one year. It wasn’t his lessons or voice or kindness that stood out the most to us moppets—though those were all top-notch. No, it was his thumb that transfixed us. Because his thumb was a toe. Or “thoe” as these things are sometimes called.
At some point in life, Mr. Roth lost his thumb. Now, I don’t know how one goes about that—the thumb, after all, isn’t some spare bit of change that can jingle-jangle out of pocket and down a drain or some such thing. No, we have a formal attachment to such things, so “losing” something like a thumb is a God-granted euphemism for us to dance around some grisly story filled with bandsaws, torture chambers, escalators, drunken chefs and the like.
And then the story would get worse, for someone—a doctor, hopefully—would come along, assess the situation, and decide, as if poor Mr. Roth hasn’t been through enough at this point, to lop off one of his big toes. How to choose, who knows? Aesthetics? Footedness? Coinflip? Someone decided though and then that toe was popped onto Mr. Roth’s hand.
Watching that sizeable thoe flit around as he talked through the cutting of Samson’s hair or Isaac upon altar was truly a spiritual experience. Like most such dalliances questions remain. Like, well, what happened to his foot? Is there just an opening there? If they can make a toe a thumb, can they make a thumb a toe? I used to like picking up the things in my room using my feet sometimes. I felt pride when my feet could monkey up some LEGOs or whatever. Imagine having a fully functioning thumb down there! And if they can do that, can they just take a fistful of fingers from somewhere and affix them all afoot, giving me the capabilities of three hands? And finally, who had this wild idea in the first place?
I can’t answer many of those, but the last one offers an answer. Thoe implantation has become, though intricate, a rather common procedure, with some doctors being unable to count the number of their procedures on two fully fingered hands. No, we’re talking thousands of operations for the most seasoned vets. But the first to successfully do something like this was Austrian surgeon Carl Nicoladoni, or as I like to call him, Carl Nicohandoni. The Great Handoni connected a man’s hand to his foot at the base of the big toe. Then he just sort of cut the toe off the foot. This was in 1897, and I cannot imagine the mess and pain of the ordeal. But, for the first time, his patient at least had the option of giving him two thumbs up, so there’s that.
Nowadays, scientists are dreaming of cleaning this process up by using 3D bioprinters to appease any shortages in thumbs—or, I would presume, other body parts. I’m sure toes everywhere are tingly with excitement about this development. The world just keeps moving and changing and progressing along. And we along with it.
Which takes me back to my own journey and all those years ago in that dank church basement. At some point Mr. Roth probably tried to teach us about the Pauline metaphor which likens the Church to the human body. That when Christ left earth, the Church was formed and called to function as one body to carry out the work of Jesus in the world. Of course, we didn’t hear a word he said for we were all eyes, no ears, and he was all thumbs. The body was all out of proportion. But had we listened to this sagely, winsome man we would have connected—like a good toe to a hand—to an idea and seen it lived out before our curious eyes. Here was a teacher who had relied on a surgeon to be made more whole. The surgeon would never teach our Sunday school class nor would he build houses, like Mr. Roth did in his daily life. But Mr. Roth needed that surgeon and that surgeon—to do and be and make and dream and flourish—needed a stumpy version of Mr. Roth. All sorts of people needed Mr. Roth to build or fix their homes. Mr. Roth needed an audience for his Sunday school lessons, and we needed a teacher—a human always does, after all. Alone and it would have been a thumbless builder babbling to himself. Together, we functioned as a body. Not perfect, but good and sturdy—like a calloused, useful hand, thoe and all.