My father has hands like bricks, reddened and hard, fired through years of tilling Michigan clay, lifting dirty tires in February winds on the narrow shoulders of freeways, and sanding smooth the doorways of the house in which he has lived since 1977. I never thought much about his hands, except as a kid when I’d done something wrong and feared his wrath. In the days before time-outs and worrying about self-esteem, my father’s hands were scarier than a belt or a “wisdom stick”. My grandmother and mother used switches we had to pick ourselves from the two oak trees in the front yard, but my father’s hands were tough enough to make us think twice. Punishment meted was swift and painful which we earned often enough between the four of us, mischievous and curious as we were. We didn’t view it as abuse, given the nature of corporal punishment at the time, in fact, preferring a swat on the behind to being grounded or other non-corporal punishments.
My hands look more like my mother’s, slim with longish fingers for the small hands that I have. I always wanted bigger hands with longer fingers, thinking them elegant and more agile for things like playing piano or building things. Having small hands can be advantageous though, as I discovered the first time I participated in an exploratory abdominal surgery. Surgeons will frequently talk and joke during surgery, but during this one, as I stood very still trying not to contaminate the sterile field while holding retractors, one of them asked who had the smallest hands in the room. Surgical gloves are sized from 5.5 to 9 and specific to right and left. OR techs and nurses know what size and type a surgeon prefers to wear and everything is set out prior to the procedure. If you are new, they will ask you what size glove you wear, then help you to put them on to maintain sterile fields. I wear a 5.5 or 6 depending on what is available, and so the nurses pointed to me. Because I had the smallest hands, they asked me to insert my hands into the patient’s abdominal cavity to break up adhesions around the liver. The feeling of sliding my hand around someone’s liver was incredible, smooth and strangely slick, and thrilling to me.
I never thought much about anyone’s hands until the day my future husband asked to hold mine. When I was young and dreamed about the man I might someday marry, I never thought much about what he would look like, let alone what his hands would look like. As little girls, my next door friend Amy and I would hum the marriage song as we processed across the family room, holding a worn bunch of plastic flowers. The husbands we married were incidental, a necessary part of the process to get to the next step which was stuffing a baby doll up our shirts to pretend we were going to be mothers. This would be followed by pretending to be Princess Leia or Lady Jane from GI Joe. Our summers were filled with acting out fanciful scenarios of heroines and heroes with our brothers. I never pretended to hold hands with anyone though, never realizing what a lovely part of being with someone that it is.
In romance novels, a lot of the descriptions center on kisses between the main characters. Rarely do they talk about the sweetness of holding hands. It is said that the handshake evolved from the ancient custom of a showing of hands empty of weapons. I think the knowledge ascertained from holding another’s hand in yours can be greater than just knowing they do not hold weapons. In my present work, I check hand-grip strength on patients regularly. It is a part of our diagnostic tool set, telling us if there is weakness or tremor, but patients will look at my hands, concerned that they will squeeze too hard. I’m learning not only about grip strength though when I hold their hands. I can tell what kind of work or hobbies they do, if there are lesions that haven’t healed, if they bite their fingernails, or if nerve damage is present, among other things.
When I held hands with my husband for the first time, I was struck by the similarities between his hands and those of my father’s. Though we were largely strangers to one another, his hands were familiar to me. I understood instinctively what kind of person he was, though I could not have put it into words at that moment as young as I was. Once while we were dating, he apologized for the state of his hands, rough from the work he had been doing. I told him what I still believe today, that there is no shame in hard work. His hands are never raised in anger to our little ones, though they are just as mischievous as I ever was.
The church in which we worship holds hands during the Lord’s Prayer, an act which always makes my children a little wary. They don’t want to hold hands with someone who is not part of our family, and I never force them to, but they are frequently rewarded with a smile from an elderly person who might be sitting near our less-than-angelic children. Some might call this practice unhygienic, and in fact, there are times when they are ill or someone else is that we don’t hold hands, but in that there is still a lesson about how we care for others in the community by respectfully declining. They are learning too what it is to be connected, to know the feel of someone else’s hand, to be gentle in the way they grip arthritic fingers, and not to fear the unknown.
There is something powerful in the act of holding hands. It is an act that literally and figuratively connects us. As mothers we have known the secret feeling of children dancing within our wombs, like stars slowly spinning within the nebulae of our own personal gravity, but for our men, it is the grip of their baby’s tiny hand around their finger which shifts time and space. As I watch my children grip their grandfather’s hand walking with him on a mountain hike, his other hand gripping the walking stick shaped with loving care by my husband’s hands, it occurs to me that I stopped holding my father’s hands after childhood, when I no longer needed his help to walk. I remember the feeling of my hand in the crook of his arm as he walked me down the aisle of our church and the way it felt when he put my hand in my husband’s, like a blessing and an absence all at once, and I know it is too soon to let go.
Today I am thankful for all the hands that shaped my life along the way. I am grateful for silly internet pictures of otters holding hands to remind us that we are all connected, and pray for the strength to hold on, for as long as we are blessed to have those we love in our lives. I’m wishing my father a blessed 80th birthday, and praying for many more birthdays like this.