At four and half years old, I was still living with my Obaachan in the little apartment in Chofu, Japan. Adjacent to the kitchen area was a living/bedroom area with a tatami floor where I spent my evenings after dinner and before the futons were laid out for bed.
In winter, when it was cold and damp, a heater stood in the middle of the room on which sat a water kettle filled with water. By the time dinner was done, the water in the kettle was boiling and steam was coming out from the spout. In that room, on the wall opposite the kitchen, was a small black and white television on a stand. On the side closest to the kitchen sat my high chair … not a “highchair” exactly, just a chair that was high on which I had to climb to sit. Every night, I would climb onto my chair that was high, usually with a drink cup, and watch television. My Obaachan would join me, sitting on the floor nearby on a zabuton (cushion). Together we would watch a television show before preparing for bed.
One cold night, just a routine night, I was sitting in my chair, wearing a wool sweater, long pants and socks. I climbed down to get a drink. I returned from the kitchen with drink in hand and began to climb back onto the chair. I lost my balance.
My foot kicked the kettle with boiling water. I fell forward and landed on my left arm and the water from the kettle poured onto my left arm. I screamed. My Obaachan came running and immediately, frantically, began to remove the wool sweater in order to remove the scalding water.
Unbeknownst to her, the scalding water had fused the wool to my arm almost immediately. When the sweater was ripped off, everything fused to the wool also came off. In addition to third degrees burns, I lost skin and tissue to the bone in some places.
I was rushed to the hospital. Apparently, the third degree burns were the minor part of the injury. The lost tissue and damaged muscles presented a more serious concern. The doctors, and my Obaachan, believed I would lose the use of my left arm for life. A few days later, my Obaachan took me to a Japanese doctor who specialized in something – I’m not sure what.
That doctor formulated a “soft cast.”
I don’t know how that differed from bandaging, but it did. The soft cast allowed me to move my arm in ways a normal hard cast would not. He told my grandmother that if I was to save my arm, I needed to keep the soft cast for almost 2 years. And also, here’s the good part – I must be allowed to play at the playground as much as possible!
I kept the soft cast and bandaging that followed on my left arm until I was past six years old. After I was adopted (at 5 years old), my adoptive parents took me to an American doctor on the military base who told them that the soft cast I had was quackery. My adoptive mother though returned to the Japanese doctor and continued with the treatment he had started. When the bandage finally came off, I had a scar that ran the length of the left forearm, pretty much the size of my forearm at four and half years old. The scar wraps around half the arm.
Meanwhile, since the injury, I played every day, all day long, at the playground. I became a master of the crossbars at the playground.
I could climb up the monkey bars, quickly, agilely. (I was born in the Year of Monkey!). I did not know this was physical therapy until later when I learned what physical therapy was. I was just told to go play. What 4-6 year old would balk at that!
TODAY’S HOW TO
I wonder if I had been told to do something for physical therapy or fix my arm, I would have been as enthusiastic as I was being told to “just play.”
I just remember spending as many of my days as possible at the playground. I got really good on everything at the playground.
Today, when I go to Hawaii, I spend all day, everyday, JUST PLAYING on my standup paddle surfboard. I'm not really good yet. Maybe I will get good one day, maybe not. But I don't have a goal. I'm just playing. Perhaps it's therapy in some way-mental, emotional. It occurs to me that somewhere along the way in my life, my energies became more about the idea of achieving, perhaps more about compensating or overcoming emotional injuries, some of them "down to the bone." And I stopped playing. I can’t do anything about the days lost, but it seems to me that the Japanese doctor may have been on to something.
Maybe, JUST PLAYING can save more than just an arm.