For the first few years of my elementary schooling, Sister Thomas would come to the classroom and lead the good catholic school children of St. Ephrem Elementary in a recitation of the rosary.
Sister Thomas was a tiny lady afflicted with Scoliosis and Arthritis. At ten,I didn’t know what Scoliosis and Arthritis were- maybe a pair of Russian defensemen for the Red Wings. I just knew she had something wrong with her. Her back was hunched and she was rail thin and her hands looked like winter tree limbs. Her digits were raw and bony and bent in all directions. She had trouble carrying anything and often the rosary would slide through her hands and fall to the floor and she would call on a student to pick up the rosary and drape the sacred string across her gnarled fingers.
Naturally she became an easy target for pubescent mockery. As she would pray, often with her eyes closed, my friends and I would bend our fingers into little hooks and laugh.
Let me be clear. I had no intention of including Sister Thomas in this book. She was not a mentor to me. She never gave me sage advice that changed my perspective on the universe. This does not turn in to Tuesdays with Tommy. In fact, I was writing another story when my hand began to throb and as soon as I dropped the pen in pain,her memory rose up like a submarine filling its ballast tanks with air and regaining its buoyancy.
I mimicked her twenty three years ago. And now she is at the forefront of my memory in an airless classroom under fluorescent lights. Her nose sharp and her cheeks shiny as if she was cut from wax.
I see myself. A ten year old boy, with a crew cut, in a catholic school uniform.Yellow shirt, dark blue tie, dark blue pants. My feet barely touching the floor. Contorting my hands into claws to the rising delight of my friends.
I am embarrassed by him. Ashamed. I want to smack the smugness from his face. I want to discipline him. Put him in the corner. Tell him to leave the old nun alone.
I want to tell him that in twenty three years he will stand in front of a classroom full of his own students.That papers will fall from his hands. That his students will chuckle and that he will smile and make a joke to control the moment like he did twenty three years ago.
And though he is standing, he might as well be falling, as weightless terror flutters about his chest and as a kindly girl gathers the papers at his feet.
I want to tell him that at thirty three he will pray not for the mysteries of the rosary or world peace or for the first pick in his fantasy football draft.
He will pray for his hands.
He will pray that his hands may have enough strength to do important things. Like holding his daughter’s hand on her wedding day and play catch with his boys on the first day of spring.
I want to look deep into his freckled face and further into his small blue eyes and tell him many years later, in the late hours of the day, under the throes of a single lamp light he will pray that his hands will still have dexterity in them to teach his children the things a father should teach his children. Like how to make a fist and snap off a punch. How to change a light bulb. Work a screw driver. Scramble eggs. Shake hands. Write in cursive. Tie shoes. Build a fire. Draw a family of stick figures.
I want to tell this kid that he should pray for his hands. To pray that his hands may hold on. Because those hands will one day want to show his children how to lift weights and rake leaves and turn marshmallows over a summer fire.
Those same hands want to plant tulips in the spring. Carve pumpkins in the fall. Change a tire. Build a fort out of couch cushions and crawl inside and make hand puppets by flashlight during a thunderstorm.
Those hands will one day yearn to tussle hair and flip pancakes on a slow Sunday morning and raise a glass to his children and clap at the echo of their name.
The boy doesn’t know that his hands, the ones that are bent like question marks, mocking Sister Thomas as she struggles to finger the rosary beads , will one day seize with pain and those same hands will want to let go. Of everything.
The boy does not know that twenty three years later, on a cold February morning, when his genetic test results sleep in a sealed envelope, when the world is shifting shades of blue, that he will sit by a window and clench his fists and cry at the fleeting thought of pressing his hands alongside his children’s hands in wet cement to prove their existence.
To prove their aliveness.