What’s to Learn From an Arthritic Hand?
A positive attitude is like a muscle. It gets stronger the more you use it.
“It is interesting what one can experience when circumstances shock the system,” writes Anandhi Narasimhan, M.D., in Psychiatric Times. My upcoming surgery to correct my now-deformed dominant hand is just a warning shot—an inconvenience, not a life threat. But I suspect that it will shock my system nonetheless.
The trick of good aging, says my dear friend Zelda, who turned 103 on September 12, is to “look for the good” when anything difficult or bad happens. She explained this a few years ago when telling me about her son-in-law, who’d just had a stroke:
“One of the first things he said to me was, ‘At least it didn’t affect my speech.’ That meant he’d already found something positive about his situation. And I knew he was going to be okay.” Zelda learned this attitude as a child. Whenever life got the best of the family, her mother would say (in Yiddish), “It could have been worse.”
Let’s be honest here: I’m not going to enjoy being one-handed for the next few months. I don’t look forward to anesthesia, the scalpel, or six weeks in a cast and another six of rehabilitation. But Zelda is proof that attitude can trump actuality. So I’ve been pondering the best that can happen:
- I will carry less. I’m a person who always tries to “make fewer trips.” Every morning, with my right hand, I carry a thermos of coffee up to my bedroom, an empty cup looped around one finger, the New York Times wedged between my biceps and body. A canvas bag dangles from my left forearm, containing clothes and assorted items that belong upstairs. It’s a job for two hands. Maybe having to make more trips up and down will remind me to unburden myself and simplify.
- I will be limited. I know I won’t be able to drive. To figure out what else I won’t be able to do, I hold my right arm bent and stiff at my chest and attempt to execute tasks I normally take for granted: making coffee, putting on Bogey’s leash, dressing myself. Some one-handed maneuvers are very hard (buttons, zippers), a few impossible (shoe-tying), most manageable (sweatpants). Everyone says my left hand will get better at compensating, but no one knows how quickly that will happen. In the meantime, I’ll have to work on acceptance and surrender. I’ll have to walk more. I’ll slow down. Everything will take longer. This will be my hardest challenge. Film footage of my much-older brother’s bar mitzvah in 1948 shows a gussied-up four-year-old in a white organdy dress, standing on the bema, fidgeting, repeatedly sitting down and standing up. I haven’t changed. I can’t imagine how this forced slowdown will affect my brain! At the very least, it will force me to practice patience and mindfulness.
- I will have to work hard at rehabilitation. I’m incredibly diligent and determined when it comes to writing. When it comes to fitness, not so much. “You’ll stick with this!” a friend reassures, but I know my own start-and-stop history with yoga, Pilates, distance-walking, swimming. That I am relatively fit (at my age and so far) is more a function of luck than of anything I actually do. But now I feel a new motivation.This will be different, I tell myself. It’s my right hand. I remind myself that sticking with anything makes the next hard thing less daunting.
I am fortunate. Losing the use of my right hand for a few months is only a temporary handicap. I think of it as a luxury surgery. For sure, it could be worse. Maybe it will even make me better.