Although it has often been said that you do not miss something until it is gone, I did not fully understand the truth behind the statement until I lost the use of my right hand for a month. Carpal tunnel syndrome is something of an occupational hazard among writers. When I noticed numbness and weakness in my hand, I began to worry. When holding a pen became excruciating, I panicked.
“This will keep your fingers from moving,” the doctor said as she fitted a strapped contraption onto my right hand. “Don’t use this hand for three weeks,” she added, pressing the last strap in place. “Then, we will see.”
“May I take it off to sleep?” I asked; visions of insomnia loomed before me.
“Only for bathing,” she answered.
“But I’m a writer,” I moaned.
“Just use the other hand,” she said crisply.
It wasn’t until December that evening that the full enormity of this dilemma hit me. Bob and I had been discussing the impending arrival of our second grandchild when I suddenly remembered my promise to help after the baby came.
“What if my hand isn’t better?” I fretted. “What if I still have to wear this?” I dropped my brace onto the table with a loud clunk.
“You can be plenty of help with one hand,” Bob said encouragingly.
True. I could probably manage some simple meals. I could push the vacuum and mop. I could even drive. But I’d hoped to take full care of our first grandchild, Carter, so that Jill could rest and attend to the needs of the new baby.
Perhaps Carter would have mastered the art of dressing herself by the time I arrived. She had been working on buttoning during our last visit, something I certainly couldn’t help her with now.
“But how will I do Carter’s braids?” I wondered out loud to Bob.
“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “She will think having a robotic grandmother is cool.” I threatened to bop him with my brace.
“And how will I play finger games?” I groaned.
Bob looked up, quizzically.
“You know,” I said, “‘Here Sits the Lord Mayor’ and ‘Two Little Men’? And who ever sang ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ with an aluminum and Velcro spout?”
Bob nodded soberly.
One of the delights of being a grandmother, I’ve discovered, has been playing again all the little games I played with my own children. Like bubbles rising slowly to the surface of my memory, songs and riddles, finger games and crafts burst into consciousness. Just like riding a bicycle, one never forgets how to balance a child on one’s knee and, hobbling her gently, sing, “This is the way the lady rides, trot, trot, trot.” The art of making a fort from sofa pillows and blankets is not easily forgotten.
I hadn’t sung “Itsy Bitsy Spider” for years, but the words came right back. With my immobilized hand, however, I would only be able to make half a spider to crawl up the water spout. Nor could I fold my hands together to make the steepled church with its wiggly-finger congregation that always sends Carter into fits of giggles. And forget about making silly pictures.
“Draw me a horsie, Gammy,” Carter orders with the imperious tone that is born of knowing that, for now at least, her word is my command. I draw a horse and, at the last moment, give it an elephant’s trunk.
“No, that’s not right,” she squeals.
“Oh?” I say in mock surprise. “Is this better?” I ask, drawing duck feet on the horse.
“No!” She giggles.
“How about now?” I ask, putting horns on the horse’s head.
Carter hugs me around the neck and says, “Silly Gammy.”
But I cannot even make a straight line with my left hand, so silly pictures are out of the question. Finger painting might work, though.
I always like to bring Carter a surprise each time we visit. Often it is a book that we can read together at bedtime. Sometimes it is a game. Last time we finger-painted.
As I showed Carter the finger-paint designs you can make with your hands, I could almost hear Mrs. Miller, my second grade art teacher, saying, “Now children, if you lay the side of your hand on the paper and wiggle your little finger back and forth it will make a fish.”
I showed Carter that one, then we made snaky vertical movements for underwater plants. Fingers and thumbs made five-petaled sea flowers and our pinkie fingers created bubbles rising from the fishes’ mouths.
For three weeks I wrote stories by computer, picking out about 10 words a minute with the fingers of my left hand. But my right hand still had no strength.
“Sometimes these things take more time than we expect,” the doctor said. “Come back and see me next week.”
But the baby was due soon.
“No signs of imminent arrival,” Drew said when we called that evening. “Although tomorrow would be fine with Jill.”
“Tell that baby to wait a bit longer,” I sighed.
“Take vitamin B complex,” suggested my friend Shirley, who had had carpal tunnel syndrome three years ago.
I faithfully popped two maroon pills morning and evening, but the ache continued. At my next visit, the doctor mentioned surgery. Seeing my face pale, she hurriedly assured me that would be a last resort.
As I slumped my way out through the doctor’s waiting room, I passed two people in wheelchairs and a woman who was almost completely immobilized by an upper-body cast. I suddenly felt ashamed of my self-pity, realizing that my handicap was minor and, hopefully, temporary.
That night the phone rang at 3:00 A.M. “It’s a girl!” Drew announced happily. “Mason Hannah is her name and she’s beautiful.”
“Of course she is,” I said, rolling over and nudging Bob awake. We listened sleepily to all the details.
I made my plane reservation the next morning, doubled my vitamin B dosage, and prayed for recovery. We got daily updates on the baby’s progress: nursing well, gaining weight, sleeping soundly, doing wonderfully. I wished the same could be said of my hand. When Drew corralled Carter long enough to get her to speak on the phone, she shouted, “I’m a big thither, Gammy.”
I told her that was a wonderful thing to be and promised to see her very shortly.
Perhaps my hand just needed a deadline. Four days before my flight, I noticed that it no longer ached; I could pick up light objects. The doctor put me through a few exercises. “I think you may have recovered.”
I sighed. “But don’t rush things,” she cautioned quickly. “I want you to wear the brace at night and do no heavy work with that hand.”
“Is finger painting okay?” I asked.
She looked puzzled, and nodded.
Carter greeted me at the door with a big hug. “I’m almost free,” she declared, holding up three fingers. Her birthday was in two weeks.
“Well, I’m totally free,” I said, smiling and slowly rotating my finally unbound hand.
“Silly Gammy,” she said. “You’re not free; you’re big!”
My hand worked just fine. It poured tea for tea parties and diapered Mason; it played dolls and made dinners; it swept the floor – gently. As I quietly rocked Mason, while Jill read Carter a story about King Midas, I realized that all the money in the world cannot buy wholeness or guarantee a sound mind and body. And without them, nothing else matters.