What Do My Hands Remember? (part 3)

Here is the third and final installment of “What Do My Hands Remember.”

Thanks again to writer friend Luis for the inspiring writing prompt!

Feeling Schroeder Die Under the Water… I Was the Grown-up Now
There comes a time when you realize you are a grown-up. It doesn’t happen just by crossing some arbitrary line, like turning 18 and being able to vote. It comes when you look around and realize there’s no one else to perform the hard task before you, no Daddy who will do it for you. My hands remember that day. We were already married with a 3 year-old child, in the Philippines as missionaries and studying the Tagalog language in a town south of Manila. Then our young cat got poisoned and the vet said there was nothing that could be done. I had to drown our kitty to end its terrible suffering and spasms. Feeling her struggle and then relax was horrible. That was the hardest thing I had been forced to do in my 25 years of life. The thought hit me, “I’m the grown-up now. I’m the dad who has to do the hard stuff.” Growing up wasn‘t quite all I’d imagined.

The Saw Wound While Making Monkey Pole
It’s bad luck to be the left hand of a right-handed man, and most left hands have the scars to prove it. And it’s not just boys outside of piano lessons who wound themselves. Right-handed people hold the object they’re working on with their left hand, so hammers and sharp tools get thrust in the direction of the left hand. It wouldn‘t be a problem if we never missed.

I was sawing a round pole for our pet monkey to play on when my brand-new hand saw skipped and hopped over and ran across my left hand at the base of my thumb (yeah, the opposite side of same thumb I stabbed on the when I was a kid.) It was a deep cut and involved an artery, very messy, as my hands remember and would reluctantly tell you. Sorry for its mistake, my right hand quickly grabbed its wounded partner and squeezed hard to stop the bleeding. The sight of the blood made my normally level-headed wife woozy. But I couldn‘t let go of my hand, so I had to get my eight year-old daughter Elisa to help me use the radio to call the plane, so I could get flown out to a doctor. She would press the microphone button and hold it while I talked, then let go while the pilot’s wife answered. Back and forth we went. Then while the plane was on its way, I told her what to put in my carry-on bag… my brown shorts, a couple shirts, some boxers, my Bible… okay, that’s good. That was the only time someone else had to buckle my seat belt harness around me in the plane. My hands remember just holding onto each other, letting someone else do their job.

Stupid monkey.

The Feel of a Typewriter’s Keys
I took typing in summer school before 6th grade. Ugh. My hands remember those stupid drills. f fgf fgf f. But knowing how to type was a good thing, even in those days. And in high school when typing term papers. But as a kid I never would have believed that typing would so define my life. “Bible Translator.” Nice job title, but they don’t tell you that it really means, “Types An Awful Lot.” Now at age 54 who knows how many thousands of hours I’ve typed. And when I’m not working on translation, I’m writing emails, Facebooking or writing blogs about my hands. Just can’t get enough, I suppose. Our first few years in the jungle, I did translation on a manual typewriter (you younger readers can Wikipedia that… it’s a machine that put letters on a page without electricity.) My hands remember typing those drafts, retyping each new version, making revisions while accidentally adding new typos and mistakes. Click, clack, clack… and of course, hitting the return lever to start a new line. No “word wrapping” back then. It was more like “word whacking.”

Carbon paper. To make multiple copies back then I had to stack paper and carbon paper (making sure to get the carbon paper facing the right way) before inserting it into the typewriter. My hands remember that… vaguely. What a memory of how things used to be. And my hands remember the unique challenges of tropical rain forest typing: for example, wiping sweat from one’s brow before it drips on the paper. And the urungew! Little gnats whose sole mission in life was the land on my eyeballs. So I developed a rhythmic system where I would wave my hand in front of my eyes as I hit the return, accomplishing two goals with one action. But that wasn‘t a perfect solution. Finally, I had to develop a new strategy. My hands remember wiping a bit of Off® around each eye to keep the gnats at bay.

Wiping the Powder Off Chloroquine Tablets
There are a few things my hands remember that most Americans’ hands have never known. Malaria was endemic in our jungle, so quite often we had the pleasure of taking Chloroquine as a treatment. These white tablets are bitter. No wait, there is no word in English to describe just quite how bitter than are. The trick is to get them past your taste buds unnoticed, kind of like a dishonest kid trying to sneak a friend into the theater. But even if you coat them with banana or some other food and do not actually taste them, when the Chloroquine hits your stomach, your whole body will shiver. There are bitterness sensors in your stomach, apparently. But over the years, I learned a few tricks. Thankfully, I love hot sauce, so I didn‘t mind swishing a few drops of Tabasco around in my mouth before taking the Chloroquine. That was a taste bud distraction strategy. It helped. But Chloroquine tablets have a slight dusting of powder on them, like old pieces of chalk. My hands learned that if you wipe off this dust (both sides and the round edge of the tablet), there is much less chance of tasting the bitterness.

Holding My Guitar and Singing For Fun Night
For years I have almost always done two or three songs at our annual conference’s Fun Night. Weird Al. Ray Stevens. Or my own Yancovic-like rewrites of commercial tunes. My hands remember holding the guitar and playing the chords, especially to “Hotel Brough Manila” (based on the Eagles’ Hotel California), which the kids requested every year. People who only knew me when I was younger would not believe I would sing in front of a crowd. But this isn‘t my voice’s story, and my hands are always ready to play.

First Touch of a Computer Keyboard
In movies, they always make the computer keyboard click too loud so you know what it is, I suppose. Mine have never sounded quite that bad. But my hands sure remember the first time I typed on a computer. 1985. A screaming 8 MHz 8086 PC clone (made to run on 24 volt DC in the jungle) with 1 full megabyte of RAM (but of course, only 640k was usable… remember those days? “RAM drives”?) It had a 20-megabyte hard drive (“I’ll never fill this!”) Now I have Quicktime movies that are larger than that in a single file. But why do my hands remember? First of all, the keyboard did feel different, even if it didn‘t clack and rattle like the ones in You’ve Got Mail! But they remember an “enter” key and no more return lever. A delete and a backspace key that would delete without smudging the paper… there was no paper. And best of all, only having to type the full draft of anything once. All rewrites were simply editing the existing file. My hands found themselves with more time on their hands, so to speak. More time for typing first drafts! More time for… wiping the mold off floppy disks!

Holding a Ventolin® Inhaler
One of the not-so-fun aspects of tropical living is the humidity. It saps your energy, makes you tired, melts your brain, causes you to perspire to a degree that no personal hygiene product can handle. And it causes everything to mold. Leather molds. Paper molds. Rice and pasta and bamboo walls mold. But did you know soap can mold? How about the front lawn? Yep. There is a downside to being too “green” when it means that everything you own has verdant fuzz growing on it. Some mold is a dry white powder that lightly dusts everything. And as more and more things are musty and stale and moldy, many of us living here develop asthma. I think it has something to do with the body being designed to breathe air, rather than airborne water and mold. So my hands remember holding an inhaler of the bronchodilator Ventolin®, having to time it just right, hitting the button just as you breathe in so the medicine gets inhaled fully. Thankfully, living in town nowadays and having my asthma more under control, my hands don’t have to activate Ventolin® very often. But they remember.

Feeling My Mom’s Last Breath and Heartbeat
My mom lived to nearly 85 before finally succumbing to congestive heart failure. We were taking care of her at home and she had only recently entered the hospice program. We all knew her days were numbered. I went into her room one morning and she was sleeping way too still. I checked and her face was warm, but just barely. I leaned over and she breathed one more time and then stopped. I put my ear to her chest and heard her heart peter out, like the last few chugs of a motor that has been turned off. She literally died that moment, as I held her, feeling her breathing and heartbeat stop. My hands remember that. I think Mom held on somehow for me to come in that morning, so she could feel my hands touch her one more time, so she could hear me say goodbye and speak into her ear that she was the best mom ever. That was a holy moment.

Accepting My SDSU Diploma
I tend to live my life backwards. I did over 20 years of fieldwork, learning two Asian languages, doing linguistic analysis and Bible translation. Then, after that, I finally finished my BA in linguistics. But I did it. I went from ditching class at junior college in 1972 to get stoned, to coming back as a middle-aged man and finishing the degree, surrounded mostly by 19 year-olds. It was fun, actually. I love learning, writing papers, befriending professors. I took one year of classes in 1986 just for fun. When I realized how much I loved it, I kept chipping away at the degree requirements every time we were in the US.

Then in 2002, I graduated. Two things were particularly cool about that. First of all, Donna finished her BA within a couple weeks of me. I had stolen her away to missionary life before she finished her degree, and at last she got to finish. And secondly, one of my professors in 1986, who had become a personal friend during the subsequent years, was retiring and so he was the speaker at the College of Arts and Letters graduation where I received my degree. Oh yeah, hands… first of all, I remember my wife’s hands. I was sitting on the floor of the arena, waiting with the hundreds of other graduates. My family was up in the spectator seats. I knew the general part of the arena where they were, but not the exact seats. So I was scanning the upper levels, looking for them. Donna flipped her long hair with her hand and my eyes immediately locked on the familiarity of that movement. Donna the pysch major could tell you what part of the brain memorizes such little gestures and facial features. But my hands remember taking that hard-won degree from the deans’ hand, wondering if I was holding was my history or my future. I decided it was both.

Cutting Off My Thumbnail With a Machete
After more than 20 years of living in a Philippine jungle, hiking around hacking trails with a razor-sharp machete, building two houses using that unorthodox tool as an axe, chisel and drawing knife, I cut my entire thumbnail off in a single swift chop at my mom’s house in safe, domestic San Diego, while casually (too casually, I suppose) cutting up pepper tree branches to fit in the trash cans. Ironic. My hands remember, but don’t want to talk about it, so I’ll tell the story myself. Donna and I were working in the yard, filling can after can with cut up branches. She went inside to get a drink and on my next powerful chop, the blade of my machete hit the branch I was holding at an odd angle, ricocheted off and hit my thumb. Yes, the left thumb. We’ve already discussed this phenomenon. Through the blinding flash of pain, my mind thought, in slow motion, “Oh no. I’ve really hurt myself. Bad.”

My mind was right. A quick glance at my left hand was enough to confirm it. Without a lot of detail, let’s just say that a lot of my blood was no longer inside my body and my thumbnail was on the ground under a bunch of branches and leaves. I grabbed my thumb with my right hand and squeezed, very much like when I cut myself with the saw. But this time it hurt worse, and I knew it was way more serious. I yelled for Donna to get the car keys and off to the ER we went. While my mom had congestive heart failure, we had learned that the way to get through triage in a hurry is to have “chest pains” or to be “short of breath.” This time we learned that lots of blood will also do the trick. No sitting in the waiting room with the coughing babies for me. I was immediately whisked into the first nursing area while Donna was still filling out paperwork. When I removed my right hand’s grip to let the nurse see my injury, I felt faint. Nauseous. IN PAIN. One look at my hand and the nurse rushed me to a bed and called the doctor on call.

This is where is gets weird. Okay, I know they gave me morphine there, but Donna will back me up on this narrative. The doctor comes up to my bed, while the nurses are giving me the pain-numbing opiates, and he looks like he’s 17 years old. That’s what happens as you age—doctors get younger and younger. He smiles sheepishly and introduces himself, saying, “I know you won’t believe this, but I’m Dr. Butcher.” Right there on his name tag. I saw it. Donna saw it, too. Dr. Butcher. Is this some kind of joke? Apparently not. After a quick examination of my hand (for which I think he was paid a few hundred dollars… in 2003, no less), Dr. Meat Cleaver said I would need a hand specialist to sew me up. He called for the list to see who the next hand specialist on call might be. His face scrunched up kind of funny and he chuckled. “I know you won’t believe this, but the doctor on call is Dr. Handler.” I glanced over at Donna to confirm that this was not just the morphine playing mind tricks on me. Nope, she was laughing, too. Well, Dr. Handler was not available and I got the next guy on the list, Dr. Jose Otero. Boring, normal-sounding name.

As much as my hands hate to remember this event, they can never fully forget. For one thing, Dr. Otero had to fold the end of my thumb back over itself to make things meet for closing the wound. This means that now, on top of my thumb, where I would normally have thumbnail, I have fingerprint. Yeah, it’s weird. And if I softly touch it with my eyes averted, my brain still thinks I’m touching the bottom of my thumb, where it rightly thinks the pad of fingerprint is supposed to be.

My hands were reminded of this injury again, while I was being fitted for the tux for my daughter Elisa’s wedding. The girl who was measuring me for sleeve length kept going back and forth from my right arm to my left to my right, muttering under her breath. She’d measure one arm, pin the sleeve, measure and pin the other sleeve and then fuss to herself. “Too long!” Then she’d measure that arm, pin the sleeve, measure the pin the other sleeve and fuss. “Too short!” Back and forth. After about 4 times, I asked her what was wrong. “I can’t get these sleeves to come out right, Sir. It’s like my measurements of you arms aren‘t coming out the same length.” I smiled, because I saw that she was measuring from shoulder to thumb tip. So I let her in on a little secret. My arms are not the same length, if you measure to thumb tip. The left is ½” shorter. Ah. It was nice to be able to laugh about my injury for once.

Holding Food… Too Much, Too Often
My hands say they only do what they’re told, but whoever is to blame, as the years have passed, they held food. Too rich. Too much of it. Too often. And so I gained weight. Year by year, a pound here, five pounds there. But it adds up, and so by January 2007, I was the heaviest I’d ever been, over 80 pounds above my weight when I got married at age 20. I hated it. I hated how I looked. I hated how my pants kept getting too tight and needing replacement. I hated it, but I loved food. My blood pressure was up and I had lots of health problems like asthma and arthritis. Previously, I had been forced to double my dosage of medicines for both hypertension and asthma. Now I was going to have to add a second medicine for hypertension on top of that, so my cardiologist gave me “the talk.” You know, the talk where your doctor sweetly tells you, with all their educated authority, that you are “gonna die” if you don’t stop eating yourself to death.” She got my attention. Then when I told Donna, she agreed and lovingly told me, “Yeah. I love you but it’s not going to be very fun to take care of you when you’re had your stroke!” So we covenanted together to eat less and exercise more (sorry, folks… that’s the only proven way to lose weight!), to eat more healthy foods and work hard at living longer, and being healthier in our final decades of life. I lost 62 pounds. I was able to reduce all my medicines, including those for asthma, arthritis and hypertension. Amazing. Then my hands remember pushing a little too much food at my face again, so I gained some of the weight back. Now my hands are cooperating again and I’m on my way back down. It’s worth it. Now my hands and I have more reasons to live long and energetically…

Holding My first Grandchild, Max…
One of my hands’ most recent memories is one of my favorites to date: holding Max, my first grandchild. Supporting his warm little body, feeling the incredible smoothness of his day-old skin, the fine silkiness of his hair, having his tiny fingers wrapped partway around one of mine… it was all too magical. Love at first sight, at first touch. A couple weeks later, my hands wrote a blog about it. They wanted everyone to remember that day. But they will never forget. Just ask them what it was like.

Hugging My Daughters Goodbye… Again
From magical memories of holding Max to hugging my daughters to say goodbye yet again, the contrast is too much. Working overseas with them living in California means lots of goodbyes and long times before the next hellos. Those goodbye hugs never last quite long enough, but the memories last until the next time I see them. My hands are looking forward to holding a passport and boarding pass, and then hugging them again soon, and to walking Bethy down the aisle.

Itching to Hold the Completed Palawano New Testament
So that’s my life as experienced by my hands. What they remember. But they have dreams, too. That’s why they type all day long. To realize that dream. They are longing to hold the completed Palawano New Testament translation in the not-too-distant future. Someday they want to add that to the list of things they remember, and will never forget.

After that, I don’t know what’s next…

…but my hands are ready.

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About billdavisthoughts

From San Diego, CA. I've been a missionary and Bible translator in the Philippines for over 30 years and have travelled as a language learning consultant to 15 countries. I play piano and guitar. I write, read voraciously and love to work on word puzzles. Married for 35 years, we have two daughters and two grandchildren.
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