On My Own
I wish someone could
have told me, while still in the womb, how it would go. I wish
someone could have prepared me before I was born. So I could get
ready. What they told me might have gone something like this:
You will be born with
right hand and not because of Thalidomide. Your fingers will
be twisted, almost unrecognizable. The nurse in the hospital will
ask your mother if she wants your hand covered. Your mother will
say No. Leave it as it is.
At the Mayo
Clinic in Rochester two small fingers were removed from my right
hand to give the remaining fingers more mobility. A bone from one
of my toes was inserted into my middle finger, to straighten it.
Deep under the gas I believed the doctors and nurse were aliens,
that the hospital, with its brightly lighted halls, was on another
planet. Skin from where my legs meet my torso was grafted to my
hand, so that heavy scarring will mark me for life. When I was an
infant I had stomach surgery, too, and as I aged that scar moved
up to my chest.
I discovered my hand
was different in first grade when classmates nicknamed me "Twinklefingers,"
twisting the fingers of their own hands in imitation of mine. One
afternoon I told my mother about this intimidation as we sat together
on the living room couch. She held me as I cried. I'll remember
this always because it was the last time she held and comforted
me this way.
When girls ran from the
sight of me in grade school I would run after them, waving my hand
at them. On the school bus kids asked if my hand hurt. Instead of
answering I would demonstrate how freakily I could bend back my
I stopped doing these
things when they were no longer fun.
I should tell you I was
also born without a pectoral
muscle on my right side. From shoulder down the entire muscle
is absent. My ribcage has shifted to create a better balance and
one shoulder is less broad than the other. Even in junior high the
difference in my chest was apparent. During basketball practice
I refused to take off my shirt. The classmate who was my main tormentor
drew a caricature of me and passed it around, snickering.
At my grandparentsí house
I tried to explain how it was for me at school. At least they listened,
even if they told me that my classmates teased me because they liked
me. I knew better. I knew that those classmates who thought of me
at all believed I was stupid, halfway to being mentally retarded.
For a time I almost believed it myself. I knew that some people
felt sorry for me; as I grew older I worried I was so freakish no
one would ever want me.
Walking shirtless to
the lake in summer I was afraid that some girls might turn to see
who was coming by. I could relax only when covered by the water.
Hidden, I didn'tít want to come out again when it was time to leave.
When shaking hands I
shake left and will do so my whole life. This was especially difficult
in church when people congratulated the confirmation graduates.
Once when a visiting pastor was shaking hands I gave him my right
hand for some reason; he was startled. My driving instructor advised
me to get a special tool for shifting gears. I did not need it.
Though pull-ups in phys. ed. gave me trouble, I found my own way
to lift things. My right arm will always be slimmer than my left,
no matter how many pushups I do. I began to shave the skin grafts
on my hand, something I will need to do every day for the rest of
The summer after high
school I saw a shirtless kid at a sports meet. Like me he had just
one pectoral muscle. I wondered what his future would be like.
Nineteen, fresh off the
farm and excited about being away from home, I made plenty of friends
at college. AIDS was still far off and being young and cute it was
easy for me to get laid. Still, I found that some men were uncomfortable
I moved to the big city.
I met a guy at a party who took my right hand and kissed it. I nearly
jumped. He'll be my friend for the rest of my life. A co-worker
told me her mom thinks someone with a hand like mine might be psychic,
or have some unusual spiritual link or connection. I liked that.
I was comfortable in New Wave and Punk. I read about freaks in history.
I identified with monsters, aliens, and animals.
When Iím alone I never
think about my right hand but I remember it instantly if someone
else is there to see it. In my pocket it is protected from the stares
of others. Iíll often carry something, even if it's just a rolled-up
section of newspaper, to make my hand look useful. In winter I stuff
the fingers of my right glove with tissue to help it look more natural.
In my twenties, while
working in a sandwich shop, people sometimes gasped at the sight
of my hand. Because I feel awkward about taking hands, shaking hands
with new people, I once thought Iíd be more comfortable around people
who knew me.
I began to wear loose-fitting
shirts that mask the difference in my chest. When I see other men
remove their shirts in public I wish I could do the same. I want
to be free to feel the sun on my body. Alone one night in a park
I dared to take off my shirt. The cool breeze on my skin was thrilling.
When I meet a guy who
is interested in me Iíll make sure he notices my hand, but Iím afraid
to let a sex partner get a good look at me naked. If he can get
past my hand I feel the rest of me shouldn't be too much of a problem.
I know that two of the men Iíve fallen in love with were in love
with me. How that happened to a guy like me I cannot explain.
When I was younger I
found that my good looks had fooled a few guys unintentionally;
they felt that because of my right hand I ought to be less appealing,
so they would know not to consider me as a potential date.
I remember the kid on
the street who would not stop staring at my hand, looking over his
shoulder as he walked away. It was a week after ďBatman ReturnsĒ
premiered. Was he picturing the Penguin, born with flippers instead
Iíve been angry, lost,
messed-up, and went through a phase when I enjoyed making other
I wanted to find others
like me. When I returned to college at age thirty I saw a guy in
a computer lab with a hand like mine but he gave me an unfriendly
look when I said something about it. I introduced myself to another
guy with a similar hand, a Frenchman who spoke with me a little.
Later when I saw him in a coffeehouse he seemed to think I was a
Through the years counselors
have told me they just don't ďseeĒ my hand. This does not help.
One insisted that disability doesn't matter, that Iím OK, but to
me it does matter. Did they believe I was being unfair to myself
somehow, or even that I was misrepresenting myself? Did I make them
uncomfortable by claiming my hand as part of my identity?
I wrote an academic paper
in my senior year about physical disfigurement.
The most ignorant question
Iíve heard came from a lover for one night who, when he saw the
scars in my crotch, asked if Iíd had a sex-change operation.
In the world of work
(where Iíll never be eligible for most administrative jobs because
I canít type more than forty words-per-minute) Iíve learned that
itís my responsibility to make others feel at ease around me and
In New Mexico a lesbian
couple, psychics and Tarot readers, told me that in my astral body
my right hand is a different color. I like that.
If a redneck gives me
a fag-baiting stare, I let him see my right hand. This has a diffusing
effect. If panhandlers pester me too often I hold out my empty hands.
Usually they leave me alone.
While visiting Toronto,
a handsome new friend I became crazy about took hold of my hand
and in a brotherly way told me I would be OK. This never happened
where I live; gay men in Toronto seem more open to difference.
I admired the gay
cowboys in the St. Patrick's Day parade, proud and handsome
on their horses. Later, at Gay Pride, I was surprised at the sight
of the cowboy booth. As a former farmboy, they made me proud; I
felt we might have a few things in common. Their eyes went directly
to my hand, though. I imagined they saw I could never measure up
to the cowboy life. Once again I knew I could not belong and moved
on. My best friend, who wasnít there, tells me Iím mistaken about
this, but the feeling has stayed with me.
Is my mother in denial
about my hand, because for her it means too much guilt? Back home
Iím told that mentioning it means I feel sorry for myself. Others
have it much worse, Iím told. I have no right to mourn, is the message.
At my 15th high school
reunion a few classmates who had not seen me since graduation assumed
that I live with my mother, that I need to be taken care ofóalthough
others had told them that I live in Minneapolis.
I discovered biking on
city trails and I love it. One morning with not many people around
I dared to take off my shirt. I thought the difference wouldnít
be obvious if I leaned over the handlebars but I could tell that
the bikers who passed me noticed something different. I kept my
shirt off anyhow and had a good time. Later I would proudly tell
my best friend what Iíd done.
While looking at myself
naked in a mirror I see what is missing, what is not symmetrical.
I mourn still for what is lost. I want it back.
What if I had been born
whole? Would I be more outgoing, less angry? I might be more stable
emotionally, but I might be less imaginative as well. I know that
my different body makes me nervous and often too quiet, but I also
know that caution and introspection can be positive attributes.
Although my uniqueness is something I value (things I try in life
seem more daring), it has also led to loneliness. I canít say that
I prefer my asymmetrical body to the perfect body I might have had,
but I have learned to enjoy my own company, my one-of-a-kind self.
© 2006 Jake Brand Heldberg
Illustration: Marble statue of Aghias, Archaeological Museum of
Brand Heldberg has a B.A. in English, is employed in an art
school, and believes that writing and making art are acts of magic.