Woman washing hands

Our hands are dangerous.

That’s the message we hear every 15 minutes in the Days of Coronavirus. Wash them often, sanitize them, keep them away from faces and keep them away from other hands.

Really? We say to ourselves as we trace our lifelines.  I could kill somebody with these? 

Well, sure.  But you could save somebody, comfort somebody, protect somebody, too.

That’s how hands work.

Our hands’ odd duality hit me in a shocking instant.

My father, who had suffered physically and mentally in his later years, decided one spring morning in 1999 to end his life with an old hunting rifle.

When the family gathered in a side room just before the funeral, I was flabbergasted that my mother wanted the casket open for a few minutes. The mortician earnestly took us four sons aside and apologized that we wouldn’t see my father’s face, concealed by bandages.  

So, I thought the walk to the side of his casket would be a grim formality.

It was revelation.

My father’s hands were resting on his chest. There they were, the hands that pulled the trigger.

But that was a fleeting impression. As I drew nearer, I realized I probably knew those hands more intimately than his face.  

A fiercely modest guy, a social distancer by nature, my dad habitually talked to his shoes.  

Perhaps that’s why he reveled in manual work. He was a respected machinist, a home mechanic, a carpenter, a mason, a gardener. We kids were often his tool fetchers and hod carriers, watching those hands remove a spark plug, level a brick or graft a bud.  With those hands, he had resurrected engines, stacked walls and brought forth seven types of apples on a single tree.

So, his knuckles and wrists and even the traces of veins in his hands were eerily familiar. I touched them for a moment as the memories flooded. Those hands built and bent and bandaged so many things. They were miraculous.

Today, during my 20-second soaping-and-rinsing rituals, I find myself thinking of those miraculous, dangerous hands.

I can’t help thinking of the miraculous, dangerous hands in hospitals, the doctors and nurses, technicians, therapists, food servers and janitors who desperately want their hands to heal and not infect.  

I think of the hands in nursing homes, homeless shelters, day care centers, the hands driving trucks and ambulances and police cars, those delivering mail, the hands stocking supermarket shelves and harvesting crops.

For me, these unsettled times feel much like that grim walk to the edge.  And the shock we’re experiencing also feels revelatory.  

We’re seeing familiar hands differently, realizing how mundane, daily tasks keep us all safe, housed, fed and well. 

It’s wise to regard them all with caution, to use the wipes and bleach on the doorknobs and counters and packages.

After that’s done, it’s wiser still to see all those hands anew -- with awe and thanks.

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