When Your Grandmother Loses a Toe

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, Business Insider assistant editor Hayley Hudson tells us more about a note she wrote to her grandmother as a young child about the prospects of having only four toes on one foot.

My mom sent me this today. Note I wrote to my grandma before her surgery. Shows the human capacity for empathy. pic.twitter.com/6xsAncQ9BM

— Hayley Hudson (@hayhud) September 3, 2014

Hayley! So what happened here?

When I was eight, my family learned that my grandma — my mom’s mom — needed surgery on her foot. She had skin cancer, and it had started to spread. Her doctor caught it early enough that operating would take care of everything and she would be fine, but as you can gather from reading the note, she was going to be losing a toe.

So my mom sat me down to write a card to mail to my grandma’s house in Iowa. I don’t remember the exact instructions she gave me, if there were any. She probably assumed that I’d say something sweet, and the whole thing would be effortless. Instead my words came out sounding like an answer to a test question at a medical school for sociopaths.

“Describe this procedure. Don’t get too technical. Extra credit if your bedside manner is unhinged.”
This reminds me of another childhood art project. One year for Mother’s Day, everyone in my preschool class had to pick a reason why we loved our moms and paint an illustration. I couldn’t think of a reason.

The girl sitting next to me had picked something like, “I love my mom because I do!!!” I remember seeing that and thinking, okay, that’s maybe true for me too, but is it a reason? I decided it wasn’t. Not technically.

After weighing my options for a good ten minutes, I eventually did settle on a piece of hard evidence that I believed would absolutely convince any skeptical reader that my mom was, in fact, worthy of love.

drawing for first question

In both cases, I seemed to be thinking, “Okay, I’m not sure what to do here, so I’m just going to pick a fact and say it.”

The note to your grandmother is so direct and efficient. No words are wasted. It’s kind of a masterwork in that way. Do you still write like that? Also, I’m curious about something: Could you draw me a toe and a four-toed foot so we can compare your art skills then vs. now?

It’s a very direct method of communicating. I prefer when people tell me like it is, so, you know, I would treat my own grandmother with the same respect.

“Here’s exactly what’s going to be happening to you, Grandma! Remember? Remember now? Four toes. Count ’em.”

Part of me must have been in on the joke. I sound as naive as I did in the caption of the painting from preschool, but I was four years older. You’d think by then I would have known that when someone is going for surgery, you just wish them good luck.

So maybe I was starting to develop a sense of humor as a coping mechanism. I mean, we don’t just wake up one day as suddenly cynical adults. Kids can find their own ways to mask vulnerable feelings.

Oh, and here’s my stab at redrawing this:

2014 drawing two
2014 drawing one

Lesson learned?
Never feel.

Just one more thing.

I asked what my grandma thought about the note today. She said: “It was sweet. You actually thought it was going to hurt.”

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor who was in New York but is now in Berkeley.