My grandmother had a crooked pinkie on her left hand. Like most people who have oddly-shaped fingers, she hid hers well. In fact, I didn’t notice it until I was 30, when living with her in Ireland during the winter of 1979.
“Grannie, what happened to your little finger?” I asked her.
“Oh, that,” she said, paying it little heed. “Dr. Keenon calls it the Viking’s disease. The Norsemen, you know, settled along the nearby shores of Lough Ree in the ninth century and passed it on to ourselves. It’s also known to run in families.”
“Oh, goody,” I exclaimed. “Maybe I’ll be lucky enough and get a crooked finger, too.”
“What in heavens’ name for?”
“Because every time I’d look at it, I’d think of you.”
She lifted a spoon and wagged it in my direction. “My little finger is a proper nuisance. Why, I can no longer wear gloves, just mittens. So best be careful what you wish for.”
Years later, after Grannie Kelly had passed on, I noticed that her youngest son, my Uncle Mickey, sported the same affliction on his left pinkie.
“I want one of those,” I blustered.
“What in blazes for?”
“Because every time I’d look at it, I’d remember both you and Grannie Kelly.”
He waved his oddly-shaped hand at me. “It’s the Viking’s curse, and a bloody bother,” he spouted. “Why, I can’t even hold a glass of Guinness properly. So best be careful what you wish for.”
Sure enough, at age 40, I began to notice a slight turning of the little finger on my left hand, as if it were encouraging the others to join in and make a fist. I was initially thrilled — a familial bond that harked back a thousand years and more. But I shortly learned my deceased kin were right: My left pinkie became a blooming annoyance.
For instance, I found I could no longer shoot a basketball, throw a football or make a decent snowball. Furthermore, it’s now impossible for me to clap correctly, slip my left hand into tight spots, twirl my pinkie into my left ear, or even make a “pinkie promise.” Worst of all, my deformity started to affect my golf game, as I began pulling all my putts to the left. A grave matter, entirely.
After dealing with my hooked phalange for 30 long years, I finally made an appointment to see a hand specialist across state lines. The no-nonsense surgeon readily diagnosed my misshapen finger as Dupuytren’s contracture, aka Viking’s disease. He further explained that the only option to straighten my appendage was to undergo surgery which entailed a zig-zagging incision through the fascia of my palm, in order to separate the dead and tangled cords beneath it. With a catch in his voice, he added there’d be multiple stitches involved, and a long rehab — with no guarantees.
Since my pinkie remains pain-free, it seemed quite the undertaking for lowering one’s golf score. So I told him I’d skip the invasive surgery by simply aiming my putts more to the right. Hearing this, he wiped his tanned brow with a staged gesture, and emphasized, “If you don’t address this problem soon, there’s a strong likelihood you’ll need to have your digitus minimus amputated in the future.”
Now, such a dire prognosis might frighten the faint of heart but, fortunately, I had caught a favorable glimpse of my finger’s longevity. “Doctor,” I braved, “my grandmother lived to be 100, and before they closed her casket, I remember seeing her crooked pinkie wrapped lovingly around her prayer beads. So I’m hoping my digitus minimus will survive my natural lifespan as well.”
With that, I exited his office, giving him a contorted little wave as I did so.
On the long ride home, that old Aesop’s Fable, “The Old Man and Death,” popped up in my head. Of all the things I could’ve wished for — fame, fortune, a fabulous golf game — I requested and received a knurly digit! But at least my fond memories of Grannie Kelly and Uncle Mickey never fade. After all, they’re only a fingerbreadth away.