When I was nine I lost my hand. In some accident. How, wasn’t really the point. I was still going to manage with my prosthetic. I wore the same chipper determination when I went blind earlier that spring, memorizing my house by counting stairs and feeling corners, angrily reminding my younger brother to either leave the doors all the way open or all the way closed. With the blindfold firmly in place, I traced my three year old sister's face with my (hyper) sensitive fingertips. Deafness was a challenge, however. First, my ears hurt because of ineffective wax plugs and second, I could still hear—a terrible disappointment—and I feared I would lose the edge necessary to memorize the alphabet in sign language. I slammed the dictionary with the inky little drawings of hands on the page shut, and tossed out the white gooey plugs.
Helen Keller was my hero. When I did the dishes, I’d hold one hand over the other, playing both Anne Sullivan and Helen as I signed W-A-T-E-R under the running spigot, mumbling out a “Wh-water.”
“What?” my mother would call. “What are you doing in there?”
The day I lost my hand, we were all at Laguna Beach and I had smuggled my grandfather’s hotdog tongs in my red and blue striped beach towel. These were not the flared metal kind with the plumey ends. No. These were surgically thin stainless steel, hinged in the middle, with two little triangles at each end. I also tucked away a bright yellow rubber glove to switch out for the myoelectric upgrade when the voice over in my head talked about how much better the new prosthetic would be.
My mom, and my uncle and aunt were lying on beach towels. It was a Saturday, so my grandmother didn’t have to work and she joined us as well with a big floppy finely woven straw hat. My two cousins played with my brother, digging up wet sand for biomorphic drip castles. I was the eldest and allowed to wander off until lunch time when we’d all converge for gritty peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches and lemonade. Grandma brought a large red plaid thermos with drinks just for the grownups.
The tidal pools beckoned. My mother could not understand why I wanted to keep my sweatshirt on.
The crash hiss of the sea, the salty spray and the hard rocks were perfect camouflage for my voice over. I knelt down, my right hand tucked inside the sleeve of my blue sweatshirt with only the wiry tip of the tongs sticking out below the cuff. In my mind, the script began, softly punctuated with earnest mumbling as I went through how I had lost my hand, but still enjoyed life, my plucky determination and I could still (see!) pick up pieces of sea glass—but still, some dropped and both dexterity and flexibility were lacking. Now, with my new myoelectric hand (a quick switch to the bright yellow rubber glove) I could even pick up a dime (I hated borrowing lines, but it was so perfect) and actually could pick out different sized sea glass.
This was the scenario. I played it over and over, the story building, the quest for the perfect prosthetic and its capabilities widening in my mind. The sun burned down, the cries of gulls disappeared, nothing registered in my vision except what was right in front of me. But slowly I became aware of a man standing ten feet away, up on a rock, looking down at me squatting in my little patch of sand with sea glass, pink flip flops and a new flowery one piece. My tong-hand was deep in sand trying to dig, demonstrating the cumbersomeness of the old model.
As my eyes met his he said, “Don’t do that. The sand’ll jam it.” And he held up his arm. His real metallic arm, complete with elbow joint, cables and a three pronged hand.
I never said a word. I got up and I ran. I ran as fast as I could over the sharp rocks, over the mini canyons and lakes of tidal pools back to the sweet anonymity of just one family in a hundred on a hot stretch of beach.
That late afternoon, when we packed up and left, everyone tired and woozy and still feeling the tidal pull of the sea, we began staggering up the steps of the cliff to the car. Tasked with two beach umbrellas, I ended up behind the rest, trying to keep the poles from slipping out from under my arm.
As I got to the top of the stairs, there, draped innocuously along the white fencing was the bright yellow rubber glove and balanced on top, the metal tongs. I never picked them up, never looked twice at them and when my uncle brought the subject up on the short car ride home, I said nothing.
Later that night, my grandfather set up the BBQ. No one could find the tongs. And though I never, ever, played that game again, the dual roles of Anne and Helen at the sink with splashing water was just too tactile to let go.