For years, I hated my hands for many reasons. They have always been small, like the rest of me. They are neither feminine nor beautiful. These days they are wrinkled and striped with veins, blue and bulging. A few of my fingers are arthritic, wide and misshapen. My fingers end with stubs for nails, nails which have rarely worn hues of red or pink. Some days, I wish for different hands, hands that are delicate and pretty- with nails that can be dipped in dusty rose, chartreuse or coral without looking odd.
But my hands are powerful.
As a child, I used them to wrestle the aggressive middle school boys who thought girls were weak. One grasp of my hands so strong left them speechless and me with the nickname, Meatballs. My family is Italian so I received the nickname from embarrassed boys who caved in my vice. I hated the nickname but loved the power it demanded. Boys lined up to arm wrestle me, determined to beat “Meatballs” this time around.
That same strength gained me the girl’s arm hang record in the 8th grade. The challenge was the Presidential Fitness Award and the competitors among us loved the fitness it demanded. While the boys did pull-ups, the girls had to complete the dreaded arm hang. Once in a pull-up position, the clock started to tick. My face flushed, my arms shook but I concentrated on the task at hand.
“Please don’t let go!” I thought, as my hands tired at one minute and 23 seconds when they could no longer resist the pull of gravity and glide of sweat. They had held all of me, my nickname, my muscles, the meatballs in my belly and my will, as long as they could. I still have that faded certificate in a dusty file somewhere.
Once a teen, I welcomed puberty and the chance to grow. My friends talked about needing longer jeans and sneakers with wiggle room, about meeting their parents in height, then joyfully surpassing them. That never happened to me. My body remained as though it failed to graduate eighth grade. I hated my small body, my small hands and my small life. I wanted to look like everyone else- to feel normal. Being strong wasn’t comparable to being attractive. It wasn’t glamorous to beat a boy in arm wrestling, hell, it was intimidating! It was not the best approach to finding a date!
The human heart is said to be similar in size of the fisted hand.
But something happened that year and my heart grew bigger than my smallness. Bigger than my fisted hand.
It guided my hands in living and loving. Of giving and letting go. It didn’t matter that I was small in stature, I became instead, big in heart.
I started to volunteer in my community. My hands were busy helping small children make crafts. My hands were busy making meals for sick neighbors. My hands were busy holding on to wobbly grandparents as they entered our home.
I took my love for helping others to heart and studied to be a teacher. My hands guided my pedagogical years too. Dusty hands held chalk to board. Germy hands passed gnawed pencils to unprepared students. Sore hands graded hours of essays every weekend. Kind hands patted shoulders of children needing encouragement.
Soon after I became a teacher, I met my future husband Kevin. He was the son of the school’s reading specialist, now my mother -in -law Marge. He was funny, handsome and strong. Two years after dating, I became his wife. Then my nurturing hands orchestrated my maternal world. Diapering, feeding, caressing, they never seemed to tire in their loving care of our daughter Alina.
But the true job of my hands would be one that I had never expected. One that I was born to fulfill yet never wished gained from experience.
Kevin was thirty years old when he received the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was my world and his terminal illness meant that WE were dying.
To understand what his life became under the influence of ALS, imagine this:
Lay in your bed. Now, you can’t speak. You can’t move. You are depended upon a ventilator for every breath. You can’t eat but are nourished through a feeding tube. Remain there for minutes. Does it feel like hours? Years?
Kevin was in that state for years. His paralyzed life alternated from hospital bed to wheelchair. His body had failed him yet his mind was fully capable of witnessing his body’s demise.
And my small hands could only do so much. They could hold; they could touch. They could wipe tears, but they could not cure ALS. I felt hopeless- so small that I had prayed to simply disappear.
One day while snuggling with Kevin, I began massaging his scalp. His short hair felt ticklish under my fingertips. I noticed the lines my fingers made as his hair parted beneath my touch. I liked the texture, the flow. My hands moved freely, with ease and fluidity. They were on a healing mission. I noticed Kevin’s body, soften and sink deeper into the mattress. His eyes were open, then closed.
Kevin’s body became my canvas. My small, agile self moved gingerly around my sweet husband. He smiled as much as his atrophied muscled allowed. My strong hands never tired.
I then sat above him, working my fingertips along his neck, gripping his shoulder muscles and feeling them melt under my touch. The world of ALS melted too. Kevin was at peace. So was I.
There was an internal melody encouraging my movements; my fingers moved with positive intention, soft and giving. For the first time since Kevin’s diagnosis, I did not think nor worry. I was lost in this cyclical gift of giving and receiving. I moved like a dancer, elegant and trained. The enormous love that I wanted desperately to share with Kevin poured through my fingertips. It was the beginning of a new expression of my love for him and then for others.
Twenty years have passed and I am now a licensed massage therapist. The gift of massage still gives to me as it did that first intuitive moment with Kevin. I massage people who are feeling pain, grief, exhaustion, and anxiety. I start each session with thoughts of my journey and how I arrived to that place and that person and not a massage goes by without enormous love from my hands with heart.