Christmas Letter 2009: With These Hands
Brian’s hands never stay at his sides. They’re rolled into fists and pumping beside his body as he sprints and leaps and plays. Brian loves the outdoors. He’ll forego any television show to feel the swipe of autumn wind on his face. This year, Brian’s hands constructed elaborate Lego enterprises, precariously climbed over chain-link fences, gripped his bike’s handlebars on marvelous adventures, grabbed on to cardboard slabs which made excellent sliding mats, and flicked innumerable marbles across the schoolyard. As a third grader, his hands are learning the art of cursive writing. Brian’s hands grab life like a matador wrestling a bull by the horns: determined, exhilarated, calculating, and thrilled.
Therese’s hands are eager to create. Her hands set up the easel she received for her seventh birthday to paint, to sketch, and to color. This year, she has taken an interest in sewing; her hands love the methodic “plunk and pull” of the needle. Her hands have also been busy in the kitchen, helping mommy with dinner and baking cakes and brownies entirely on her own. In school, her left hand grips her pencil, as she carefully (and with distaste for things tedious) writes out her first-grade weekly spelling words three times each. Math comes more easily; she uses her fingers for adding sums and subtracting differences. Therese cups her artistic aspirations in the palms of her hands, knowing already that art is her passion and her solace.
Ronan’s hands, of course, do everything. With mommy going back to work this year, Ronan entered full-day preschool, a prince among four-year-olds. His hands paint letters, manipulate beading, and flip the pages of countless books. Another left-hander, his pencil carves out the names of each member on his family stick-figure drawing, his own letters R-O-N-A-N centered boldly atop the page. To my amazement, he deftly handles the computer mouse to access his favorite websites, and slowly single-finger-types his password. (This continues to amaze me, a four-year-old successfully navigating the internet. And yet, he will never know another life, will he?)
Gabriel’s hands – what can I say that you don’t already know? Here it is simply: every day, they create masterpieces in woodwork like no other set of hands in this country can do. And like few other men I know could do, Gabriel’s hands tugged the business back from the edge of the recessionary cliff, dragged and hauled its limp weight from over the brink. We are making it through – breathlessly – because of his extraordinary hands. In his precious moments of spare time, Gabriel’s fingers, like the water in a babbling stream, run melodiously over the keys of his uilleann pipes, occasionally halting mid-tune to fix a broken toy or wipe an unjust tear.
My hands brush through my children’s hair a thousand times a day. I don’t think they realize how cathartic that motion is for me. Their heads reach the height of my soft belly, which knew them first. Their hair is like their personalities: Brian’s thick, Therese’s silky, Ronan’s choppy. This year, these hands signed the contract that put me back into the classroom. At JSerra Catholic High School these last few months, my hands have been stained green with the ink from my grading pen, as they’ve flipped page after page of essays on apartheid, Macbeth, and the justified use of nuclear weapons. These hands are getting worn; they’ve always looked to me like freckled, Mayo-wind-wrinkled O’Dowd hands. My hands may feel generations old, but they are merely 40. And although this year, I clasped my hands in desperate uncertainty so many times, when I looked down at them, I found they knew what to do before I did. They were clasped, white-knuckled, ready for prayer: reminding me to unfold, release, and begin again. Open-palmed, I found all our blessings cradled there, in the palm of my hands.
And then the end of the day comes. Every day. My hands busy themselves with the end of the meal: pouring, placing, piling. I yell up the stairs, “Come on down; it’s time for dinner!” And the family emerges from the corners of the house to dutifully wash their hands. Gabriel washes off the sawdust, Eileen washes off the dry-erase marker residue, Brian and Therese wash off the school’s black-top dirt, Ronan washes off the backyard’s soil. And then we gather around the table to hold hands and pray.
“Bless us, oh Lord, and all of the gifts you have bestowed upon us in 2009, which we have so gratefully received, from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.”
And then Ronan devilishly raises his hand and says, “And God bless the whole whole whole whole (Therese’s eyes are rolling now) whole whole whole (Brian begins to handlessly nibble at the end of his plate) whole whole whole whole (Gabriel is smirking, knowing what comes next) whole whole whole (Ronan teasingly looks around, knowing he’s taunted the entire family with the suspense, and rises to the crescendo) WHOLE WHOLE WORLD!”
Amen, my Tiny Tim.
And Merry Christmas to all.