THE SOUND OF ONE HAND
By Roshi EVE MYONEN MARKO
There’s a Zen koan made famous by the 18th century Japanese Zen master, Hakuin: What is the sound of one hand? Koans are questions or stories that sound quirky, but actually point to life as both clear and inexplicable. So we think we know the sound that two hands make when they come together, but what is the sound of one hand?
Bernie’s right hand, part of the right side of his body that was affected by his stroke, is always in a splint so that his fingers remain open rather than clenched. His hand must also be elevated wherever he is, placed usually on a cushion.
Bernie has not had an easy time with his right hand. It usually bends in the elbow and the fingers curve as the day progresses. At this point he is able to touch his second and third fingers with his thumb but no further, and lacks the strength to grab onto things and hold them. This is changing and improving all the time, but for now it means that he can only do things with his left hand (he has been right-handed all his life), unable to cut the food on his plate, remove his watch before a shower, or insert a charger into the phone.
Since he invariably prefers to lie on the left side of the bed, his right hand is always between us. If I’m not careful I’ll bump into it. On occasion he’s forgotten all about his right hand, not even feeling it when he rammed it into a wall, or had no idea where it is (Where did I put my right hand? I can’t find it). It lies between us like some strange, floppy object, an incomprehensible barrier, which in some way is exactly what a Zen koan is.
What is the sound of one hand? I’ve had a lot of meshugas (famous Japanese word) in connection with Bernie’s hand, at times making it a symbol of the stroke itself. What is the sound of my husband’s right hand? What is the feel, color, smell, even the taste of this one hand? It has attained vast proportions in my mind at times, especially in the middle of certain nights when I can’t sleep. I remember the therapists’ somber invocation (Usually the hand is the last to come back!) and see its ghostly outlines in the darkest corners of my agitated imagination.
But then there’s morning, when sunbeams alight on Bernie’s shoulder and there’s this one moment shared by two people in a fresh new day, the dog at our feet, infinity all around us. That’s my chance to let go of what the doctor said, the diagnosis and prognosis, and my feelings yesterday, last night and a few months ago. The right hand looks like I’ve never seen it before because at that moment my mind sees it freely rather than through my (or others’) opinions and fears. And when my mind is free, Bernie’s hand is free. It could be a barrier or a road into the hills, a magician’s hand shuffling a pack of cards, a teenage friend gleefully giving me the finger 50 years ago, the gauzy streak of an airplane plane or an arrow pointing nowhere.
What is the sound of Bernie’s one hand? What is the sound of mine?
Read more of Roshi Eve Myonen Marko’s writing on her blog at http://www.evemarko.com/