The first time I broke a bone, I was twenty-five years old. I fractured my right hand while exercising. The base of my pinky was cracked open and required immobilization. Otherwise, as my doctor cold-heartedly put it, "I'd have to perform a surgery where I break it further to have it heal in the right position.” This injury reshaped my relationship with the hands of those around me and changed the way I perceive my own. It made me realize the strength my hands had built up over the years, despite all odds.
I remember sitting anxiously in the hospital’s waiting room that night. The air was somber, and no one around me was smiling. I noticed the plastic plants decorating the reception. They were perky and boastful of their own fakeness, their immortality, their inability to feel pain. As though they were saying to me: Hurt is the curse of the living. How great it would be to not feel anything, I mused.
My doctor said I needed eight to twelve weeks to recover. I sobbed uncontrollably as the orthopedic technician, bewildered, applied my cast. He must’ve thought I was a spoiled brat. But he didn’t know I was mourning over the other broken parts of me, the cracks and abrasions even the most advanced MRI machines couldn’t read. I irritably kicked open the door with my foot on the way out.
I was crippled by my inability to perform basic tasks like brushing my teeth or starting my car. I was stripped of the very things I took pride in as an adult woman: the ability to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, without anyone’s help. It’s not like I could’ve relied on my family members for support; they were busy leading their own lives. My turbulent upbringing left a sour zest on my tongue that I didn't know existed. I was reminded of the darkness within me that I thought neither medicine nor doctor could ever cure. I ached beyond bone.
Hands move the world irreversibly, like a basketball arrogantly spinning on a fingertip. Without them, the world would come to a halt. Hands build everything. Imagine an ordinary Monday morning progressing without the kneading of bread. Some say Mahatma Gandhi welcomed his death with joined palms in unmistakable surrender. Moses parted the Red Sea with his hands. Had the likes of Leonard Cohen not scribbled lyrics on napkins, many of us would have not been able to express emotions failed by words. Everywhere I traveled in Asia, I saw Buddha in temples and corner stores, hands always still, either rested on his lap or as pillows under his cheek, while tourists and believers placed banknotes over him.
Hands can spin stories if you let them. Hands learn from other hands. Our way of living is often indoctrinated by the actions of the hands that raised us. We are either taught how to love and caress or how to break and strangle. Or both.
My childhood felt like a backhanded slap in the face. I had been pulled apart at the seams. Memories of my parents constantly bickering chased me in dark alleyways like a wicked hand with hideous nails, and fingers for legs. Any time things were going well, this uninvited hand pointed at everything wrong in my life, reminding me I was simply not worthy of petty things like true love or joy. The injury to my hand held up a magnifying glass to my past.
I closed my eyes and saw the world in hands: mama’s, baba’s, my sister’s and my own. I saw hands that broke me and built me, the narrative more vivid than ever.
Mama’s hands are small and white as chalk. They have webbed veins and bleach burns. She uses them to chop onions furiously and stuff croquettes and roll vine leaves. She anxiously bites her nails as she switches TV stations from one dubbed Turkish show to the other. When I was young, those soft hands braided my hair. They dusted every hard-to-reach corner in the house, fed me, pinched my skin when I told a lie. Her hands are sewn from the same patience that strings rosary beads together and keeps countries from starting wars. They throw coffee in baba’s face. They quiver as she scolds him.
Baba’s hands are always in fists when he remembers his mother. She never held him enough in hers. He has neglected yellow nail beds. His hands eat mama’s cooking every day but constantly sprinkle salt in criticism. On good days, his hands hold poetry books as he recites Al-Mutanabbi to me with beaming eyes, like a little boy who has just realized his hands might be capable of magic. On bad days, his hands fling family picture frames and shatter rose porcelain tea cups and open mama’s closet doors and cut holes in her favorite dresses vindictively. They wipe the luminous drool off his face from all the screaming. They administer pills to keep the monster at bay for the rest of the evening while I lie in bed, nails digging into palms, wondering what the next attack will be like. His hands light up Marlboros as he watches the evening news, zombie-eyed. Physically present, but his mind always wandering elsewhere. I can feel his hands around my neck, although they aren’t.
My sister’s hands are industrious. They are worn out. They honk horns in traffic impatiently and answer emails and make calls and beg for a decent living. They pay baba’s bills. Then our bills. They carry heavy grocery bags from the co-op. They cover my ears and my eyes from the atrocities. I watch them perform shadow puppet shows in our shared bedroom next to a dimly-lit table lamp. They do not have a wedding ring on them yet but they desperately search every nook in our apartment for a compass to guide her escape.
As the painkillers kicked in, I relived the hazy details of my hands and their own suffering.
For years, my hands were violent. They killed flies with a clap and always pointed the blame at everyone but myself. They facilitated addictions and rolled dollar bills hoping to see a brighter tomorrow. They copiously filled Burgundy wine glasses. I walked around like an open wound, unable to speak, afraid to smell flowers. My wrists wore razor blades for bracelets. My hands scribbled suicide letters no one would ever read.
In a lucid dream, I saw Rumi, a Sufi mystic and world-renowned poet clothed in white with a red headdress on his head. His eyes were closed, and his arms were extended with his hands cupped open. He spun in circles around my bedroom dizzyingly, yet he somehow managed to avoid bumping into anything. I tried to get out of bed to get closer to him, but as I sat up, he had already faded away. A voice then whispered into my ear, sending goosebumps across the back of my neck. It said, “Open your hands if you want to be held.”
The palms open at birth
One holds gems
The other holds hurt
The key to Freedom’s door
Is in neither
It lies in the openings and closings
The weaving and unweaving
And all the spaces in between
My hands unlearned the teachings of the hands before them. They lifted fists in the air, they demanded a second chance. I remembered the second half of that narrative, which was just as true.
My hands rubbed my crusted tears. They turned on the shower tap, where I plotted my recovery. They placed bookmarks in self-help books and reached out for tissues at the psychiatrist’s office. While they turned fist-like as I spoke of baba, I knew deep inside that breaking things wasn’t the right answer.
My hands wrote poetry instead of flipping middle-fingers. They burnt sage and Palo Santo and pointed a gun up at God during yoga classes. I became bone strong and callous. I healed more than what was broken in me, and it took the physical breaking of my hand, and all the ruminations that came after it, to begin to see that.
My hands wear tangerine nail polish. Chopping ginger, mushroom, broccoli, and nourishing me with stir-fries for one. How they proudly change flat car tires alone and fix stubborn leaks. How they present eyelashes to greet friends for whom I finally opened doors. How they turn post-its into origami animal kingdoms, when they point at what they want and eagerly trace maps to get there. My hands release trapped butterflies into worlds of magnolia, sunset, robin songs, and fresh blades of wet grass. They paint the sky with kites. They collect salty clamshells by the sea and feed lovers melting strawberries and pour chamomile tea for other cold and lonely hands and place bandages over paper cuts.
My hands mime a secret Love Language.
No one can speak it or write it like me.
I originated its alphabets.
I carve its symbols wherever I go.
It fills the voids between Tongue and Heart,
And spaces between bud and bloom,
Earth and Wilting root.
It pets the distraught Grizzly Bear
and rubs his wounds with Milkweed.
It is Discourse for the Mute.
And Light for the Blind.
It is the only truth I know.