A Story About My Hands

Editor’s note: Today I am re-posting my first article for Joyous Paradox in honor of the blog’s second birthday coming up in December 2013. I’m drinking my coffee out of a commercial mug rather than a hand carved porcelain cup, but my hands are still central to my work as a caregiver. The illustration, a World War II-era poster, is new. Thank you for reading; may you be well.  — MAB

If you were here this morning as I write the first entry in the Joyous Paradox blog, I would offer you tea or coffee. We would take our warm drinks in carved porcelain cups shaped by the hands of the maker, my potter friend Lisa Dolliver, and sit side-by-side on the living-room sofa, watching the words appear on the laptop computer screen.

Wash Your Hands Often, Poster by Seymour NydorfPerhaps the best place to start is for me to tell you a story about my hands. When I look down at them now I see how much broader and more muscular they are than they were the day I knocked on the door of a home-care client* as a newly-minted certified nursing assistant.

“I’m her nephew,” announced the tall man* who opened the door. “She just started a new round of chemo, so she’s going to be throwing up all day.”

“All right!” I said to myself. “It’s going to be a battle day!”

I dumped my bag behind the chair and pulled on my new disposable latex gloves, the ones we’d practiced putting on and taking off in the approved, sanitary manner during my course for nurses’ aides. We were supposed to wash our hands before putting on the gloves, but I figured I better be ready. I held the pink plastic emesis basin as my client retched into it and then helped her sink back onto her pillow. She looked up at me and our eyes met.

Later, emptying the emesis basin in my client’s bathroom, I remembered telling myself that I’d rather clean toilets for a living than work in a cubicle again. My previous occupation, despite its noble purpose, had not always been a good fit. On the other hand, this new role required a willingness to get way closer to the naked truths of ingestion, digestion, and waste elimination than most people I knew seemed willing to do.

Years of helping elders wash and tend their bodies or clothing or living spaces have roughened my hands and put calluses on my fingers. My nails are short and in winter my right thumb especially tends to develop little cracks in the skin. But as I would tell you if we were here together, I think that on balance getting close to the often messy realities of bodily experience has been good for me, as well as being essential for many of my clients.

Sometimes when I see a new client for the first time I make a point of cleaning their bathroom, not just for the sake of good hygiene and infection control, but also because I want them to know that I’m here to do anything they need, within the bounds, of course, of my strength and skill. This caregiving work has made me feel a little more comfortable with my own physical frailty and emotional vulnerability. To feel that comfort is to experience the paradox of human connection, wherein our deepest moments of shared fear, pain, and loss can bring healing — and even joy.

*Names and descriptions of clients and families have been changed to protect their privacy.

Image credit:  Wash Your Hands Often, poster, 1941-1945. By Seymour Nydorf, Office of War Information, via Wikimedia Commons. I found the poster available for sale at the New York Times Store by searching on Seymour Nydorf.

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