Look, Ma! One hand!

For a little over two months, I was a one-handed man.

About two years ago I developed arthritis in the basal joint of my left thumb. Soon after that, my right thumb followed suit. Over the course of the next few months, daily activities and playing the piano became uncomfortable, and eventually painful. I saw doctors. I tried therapies: splints, ice, cold laser, acupuncture. And then, at the end of last July, all other options exhausted, I had surgery on my left thumb.

The jaw-breaking name of the surgery is “trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition,” arthroplasty for short. I have been assured that in another few weeks my hand will be back to where it was before the surgery, and in six months to a year I will have, as one friend of mine put it, “The left thumb of a 20-year-old.” I do have limited use of my left hand already, and I have even begun playing the piano again for a few minutes a day. I can tell that the joint pain is gone; the swelling and healing pain is in the process of fading away. I’m very much looking forward to having the use of both hands again — at least until it’s time to do the surgery on the other hand.

But in the intervening time — in the last 10 weeks — I have been living the life of a one-handed man. This has been a bit of an eye-opener. I was lucky enough (this time) to have the use of my dominant hand; and I was surprised how much I was, in fact, able to do once I got the cast off. It’s turns out that a great deal of what I use my left hand for, besides playing the piano, of course, can be accomplished by the heel of a hand, or a strategically placed elbow, foot, or knee. Gripping of an object so the right hand can work with it can be done with an armpit or between the thighs, or in desperate circumstances the teeth. It turns out that everything I keep in both of my pants pockets will fit quite nicely into one. Shirts don’t really need to be buttoned or unbuttoned all the way, and they can be taken off and put on like pullovers. The right pair of tennis shoes can become slip-ons. And so on. The one thing that I absolutely could not do turned out to be: rolling up my right sleeve. On days on which the weather started sufficiently chilly to be wearing a long-sleeved shirt but turned warmer later, you could see me with one sleeve rolled up and the other one, well, not rolled up.

Shortly after I came to New York a quarter-century ago, I got a job as the music director for a performance by the New York Theater Workshop for the Handicapped. The director of the group, whose name I unfortunately do not remember this many years later, was a one-handed priest; one of his arms ended just above the elbow. I remember wondering how he managed his life; even more than some of the wheelchair-bound or blind people in the group, his disability seemed fearsome to me at the time. Now I have some idea.

Strangely, there is no piano literature for the right hand alone as there is for the left, or I might have attempted it. As it is, my musical activities were confined to composing, arranging, and copying, all of which, insofar as they involve the computer, turned out to be more or less adaptable to my single-handed state. I was even able to compete in the Iron Composer competition two weeks after I got my cast off; as it turned out, I did indeed overdo with my left hand that day, even though I was trying to keep its use to a minimum. In the adrenaline of the competition, I apparently didn’t notice; the swelling had started to go down, but the next day it swelled right back up like a puffer fish. (It was worth it.)

I consider myself very lucky to have had a few musical things to do during my recovery period.  I suspect I’m not alone among my fellow musicians in feeling that my identity is somewhat bound up in my ability to play. But one group I work with hired me to lead rehearsals and actually hired a pianist to play for me; I was able to do an arrangement for a singer’s recording, using the computer one-handed; and I was able to copy a short piece for a fellow composer, with my ability to argue about notational questions intact.

I have a very vivid memory of one episode of the sitcom “M*A*S*H,” in which Major Winchester chooses to repair the leg instead of the hand of an unconscious soldier who turns out to be a concert pianist. When he finds out his error, Maj. Winchester somehow sends away for a copy of the Ravel left-hand concerto, in order to prove to the soldier that even though he no longer has the ability to play as he once did, he still has the gift of being a musician, to be exercised “through the baton, the classroom — the pen!” I will, in due time, be able to play again as well as I ever did, thanks to a surgery that did not exist as recently as 15 years ago. A moment of bowed heads for all my fellow musicians, past and present, who have found themselves unable to play and not as lucky as I.