I read this morning of the first planned hand and face transplants in Britain, which made me think: aside from painters’ self-portraits and the self-obsessed mirror-gazers, which body part is closest to our sense of our body’s identity? I recognise my hands, see them at work, hear them on the piano and feel their sensations more, I think, than any awareness of my face. Perhaps I am revealing myself as a habitual mirror-avoider, but it feels to me – not thought out with both hands as it were – that wearing someone else’s visage would be less confronting than seeing someone else’s hand holding my pen stroking the page.
Perhaps the face is less an issue, not only because I try not to look at it any more than I need to, but also because I feel I often wear masks, imaginatively at least, for my different roles in life. I suspect that I see different faces than others do (I don’t think I am unique in this) with the layers of shared history and emotion casting shadows that only I can see. In turn I expect the face the world sees on my head has many guises and little or nothing to do with the one I inadvertently catch in the glass.
I once wrote about the honesty of feet and the personal infused in a well-worn shoe. I remember a pair of mittens I lived with for years. They were leather, lined in sheep’s wool, fashioned as somewhat elegant ski-mitts. There were three straps of extra leather across the palms for wear and grip, and a double covering of the thumb pad.
I remember gazing at them once palms up – I was probably sitting on a train – and noting the exhaustion and filth of the right hand glove and the relative pristine state of the left hand one. The right hand was glossy from friction and the polishing of handrails. When I took them off, they would lie slightly curled up like etiolated boxing gloves, the forefinger marks prominent in the hand pocket, the thumbs tucked in, for warmth.
Over the decades my hands have changed: there are one or two tiny scars from kitchen knives; the fingers are not quite straight anymore and the middle finger of my right hand has a permanent groove from holding a pen; there is a divot in my left hand from my wedding ring. Age and infirmity have left my hands slightly swollen and sometimes sore. The skin is much the same as it has always been as my aversion to the sun has – so far – protected me from brown spots or white spots, and being a ‘holy’ non-smoker, there are no yellow stains.
These are my hands, unmistakably. The idea of wearing someone else’s is shocking.
I am the fortunate one. When one is the recipient, the one lying on the hospital bed, injured, ill or dying, the whole issue would become an extravagant luxury, turned upside down. Not having a working hand or a face to protect one’s nerves and muscles, to express joy and fear, vanity, familiarity, sentimentality become grossly irrelevant. Just get me fixed, get me out of here, let me go back to being a person not a patient, becomes the refrain. A stranger’s hand would be a blessing undreamt of.
The exchange of body parts – whether living donations of kidneys or exquisite gifts from those with no further practical use or essential life-giving fluids such as blood, plasma or immunoglobulin – is beyond giving. There should be a new word for this type of donation that reflects the renewed life in its veins.