On a quiet Tuesday evening a few years ago, I was sitting with my father in his room at San Diego Hospice. He hadn’t spoken in a day or so, and I was watching his face and hearing him breathe and just staying close. As I sat there, I saw his hands. Hands I have seen my entire life. This time, they were older; this time, they had more wrinkles; this time, they were paler. This time, they were little more than skin and bones—not the strong, muscular hands I had known. But they also showed the travels and travails of a lifetime.
His hands showed hard work on the salty, slippery decks of Merchant Marine ships during World War II. His hands worked on those ships as an able-bodied seaman during war years when they sailed the Pacific with lights-out in the black of night, evading enemy ships and planes and taking food and medicine to troops and civilians in the Pacific Islands, Northern Europe, and beyond.
More than that, however, his hands showed a lifetime of work, decades of golf, years gripping a wheel and bandaging up kids’ knees. His hands showed a lifetime of living.
That’s what’s so great about our hands. Facelifts can remove wrinkles. Contacts and eye surgeries can improve sight and let you toss glasses aside. Peels, and sanding, and reductions and lifts can change so many things about us, but our hands, well, our hands tell the truth. Our hands tell about every diaper we’ve changed, every tear we’ve wiped, every car battery we’ve charged, every meal we’ve cooked, and every nail we’ve pounded.
A life written in our palms
In our hands, we can see every other hand we’ve held, every animal we’ve petted, every snowball we’ve made, every coconut we’ve opened, and every ice cream cone we’ve hung onto. Look at your hands. Hold them up. What do you see? Whose life do you see?
I look at my hands and see them holding on to a water-ski rope. I see them in gloves holding ski poles. I see them holding my daughter for the first time—just a few minutes old. I see them wrestling with peanut-butter jars, trying to turn screwdrivers, and gripping pliers, squeezing for that last ounce of pressure.
I see them arm-wrestling with my son, helping him build models, bicycles, and so much more. I see them calming him after he broke an arm at school.
I see them wiping my sister’s brow as she lay dying. I see them wiping my father’s brow as he lay dying. I see twelve-year-old versions of them, holding a shovel and helping my father bury a pet somewhere in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico.
I see them trace the ear of a high school girlfriend. I see them putting a wedding ring on my wife. I see them bandage kids’ scrapes, clip dogs’ and kids’ toenails. I see these big old hands ever so slightly grasp the brush of clear, or pink, or pale pink, or clear pale pink fingernail polish and polish the tiny nails of a six-year-old daughter (something I’ve gotten pretty good at, by the way).
Take a minute or two and look at your hands. What do you see? These are the hands of our lifetimes. These are the hands of many places, many stories, many individuals, many joys, many tears. They’re my hands and your hands, my story and your story. Look at your hands and remember one of the majestic, one of the funny, one of the sad, one of the heartbreaking, one of the humorous stories of your hands…and your life.
These are the stories of us—written in our hands.
Thank you, Miles, that was quite fine.