- If Woman Is Five
I went to the school cafeteria to collect my son from the YMCA after-school program. An older woman behind the desk asked me to wait while she checked through a pile of enrollment forms. Her fingers were gnarled at the joints and thickened at the fingertips, and the structure of the fingers had gone rigid and wavy. She flipped with some difficulty through the pages in the stack. My throat clogged with an impatience I tried to hide; I needed to get my son fed and dressed for soccer practice. Flip. Flip. I judged her as not too bright, maybe of a slow cognitive processing speed, as her finger-pads struggled to arch and flick from one corner to the next.
Within one second, I winced at myself, the natural corrective against one’s beastish nature. I saw myself linking intelligence to the working condition of fingers, maybe stemming from my own unconscious obsession with work and speed as a measure of one’s value, a cruel equation for myself and others.
Within the space of two seconds, after correcting my judgment, my thoughts stopped. The woman’s knuckles loomed larger as I watched, as if those distended pockets of bone had become moons. Those slow knuckles and rippled fingers had been ravaged by advanced rheumatoid [End Page 19] arthritis. I had learned within the last year this was also my own disease, her hands my possible future.
The blunted splay of a rheumatoid hand is a misconjugated verb, as if the articulate word of the hand has been misspelled. I admire hands, those creeping starfish, with a secret delight: a fancy manicure, a laborer’s breadth of palm, the blur of a guitarist’s solo.
When I think of my mother during my childhood, I picture her hands: flitting at eye level, beloved, capable. One finger sports a thick gold ring with a red-orange coral stone, pirate’s booty. She flicks her wedding ring around her finger when she’s nervous. When she’s joking with friends she scoops the air as if to toss a chunk at someone. Her cigarette moving, lighting, flicking. Her strong squat fingers so capable in my dad’s home office: boxes, paperwork in the office, filing cabinet, the measured arc of her constant typing of invoices and reports. Whereas she might struggle to voice opposition or emotion, her hands run ahead of her, shouting when she’s happy, picking her cuticles with worry, turning the steering wheel to drive us home.
I began to be vain about my own hands in college, when I realized I would never be beautiful and looked beyond the win-or-lose binary of high school, hot or not. I could love my hands with their knobby strength, their uncomplaining service, and their automatic motions. Maybe I also began to love them as I learned to re-love my mother as an adult, as I saw the exact imprint of her in each squat joint and knuckle.
I use my hands when I talk, especially when I teach. Elbows splayed and sternum stretched, I scoop pockets of air, relying when my tongue fails on a pantomime of finger-fine imaginary diagrams. I think with my hands. If my hands were frozen, it might seem as though my speech itself were truncated. And if we think not with our brains but with the muscle memory of our whole bodies, what blunted thoughts straggle from a world met with finger-pads that refuse to alight where they are sent?
Prejudice against the handicapped includes, among the spectrum of discrimination, a gut-level assumption that physical ability equals [End Page 20] personality and cognition. That was my prejudice itself, as I watched that woman’s hands. I lumped her physical being with her ability to think, and merged those two categories with her personality. Blurred, then dismissed.
When my son points out someone with a cane or a prosthetic arm in the grocery store, I gently chide, “There’s nothing wrong with him. He was just born different. We’re all different in our own way.” I pretend I’m some sort...