Columnist John Sheirer: A power in hands that work

John Sheirer

John Sheirer


Published: 02-11-2024 2:48 PM

Last summer, I asked my boss about taking some time off to address a medical issue. “As the human body ages,” I said, “strange things happen.” We laughed.

“You must have lots of sick time saved up after working more than 30 years,” he said. I showed him my swollen hands. For several years, three fingers on each hand had been afflicted with stenosing tenosynovitis (“trigger finger”). Multiple cortisone shots helped, but the positive effects diminished quickly. I told my boss that I needed surgery on both hands, probably because of how I’ve used those hands dating back to childhood.

At age 6, I pulled my little red wagon into our hayfield, struggled to load a fresh bale, and pulled it to our barn. My dad and the hired men who hauled hundreds of bales nodded approvingly. I used all my little-boy strength to yank the hay bale from the wagon, my finger tendons straining like bailing twine. Sweat stung my eyes as I panted in the stifling summer heat.

Dad offered me the lemonade my mom had prepared that morning. My little hands ached so much that I could barely lift the jug, but I swigged it like a grown-up.

Two essential aspects of my identity emerged that day: my work ethic and my hands.

A few years later, I was strong enough to toss the bales onto the real wagons and pile them as high as a house. I also helped my dad cut, haul, split, and stack firewood to feed our ravenous basement furnace. Dad and I built fences to keep cows, and I pitchforked truckloads of manure to fertilize our gardens where we planted, cultivated, and harvested innumerable bushels of corn, beans, and potatoes. I shoveled snow before sunrise back when school was rarely canceled and even climbed onto our house roof to shovel tons of snow against the weight of collapse.

I frayed countless work gloves before I left for college where my hands spent long hours with pens and typewriters, learning to commit thoughts to paper. Since graduate school, my fingers have danced across clunky word processors and slim laptops, rendering millions of words from my synaptic impulses into electronic computer memory.

Many of those words found their way from my hands to thousands of students to help them develop their thinking, reading, writing, and speaking abilities. And my hands generated, assembled, and revised words for the public in newspapers, magazines, websites, and books.

My hands wore out a tool shed full of chainsaws and myriad other power tools during various home “projects.” I helped plan my stepkids’ weddings, even officiating one, but my main role was lifting heavy objects. “All that alcohol you’re drinking,” I said at my stepson’s recent rehearsal party, “was heavy. I carried every ounce.” My hands still spend the winter aching from moving snow. And if a branch drops on a neighbor’s garage or a tree falls across the street, neighbors know my chainsaw is a text away.

My life sometimes feels defined by my hands. Who am I if I’m not the guy who lifts heavy objects, pulls words from thin air, sends reassuring messages to panicked students, opens stubborn jars, wrestles playful grandchildren, carries bulky suitcases, and lugs bags of groceries? Well, I’m finding out.

I’m finishing this column left-handed because I recently had right-hand surgery to repair three trigger fingers. I’ll have left-hand surgery next month to fix three more fingers. One-handed typing reminds me of the old joke: It took me so long to write this letter because I know what a slow reader you are.

Fortunately, I’m on medical leave this semester, cared for by doctors, nurses, therapists, technicians, and, especially, my wonderful wife. Twenty years ago when I was single, I had knee surgery in the morning and taught from a wheelchair that evening. Those days are gone. My work ethic brings nagging guilt for taking time off, but I can’t do the constant typing and handwriting my job requires. My job this semester is to heal.

I appreciate friends pointing out that I’ve earned medical leave after so many years. But I also recognize that everyone deserves medical care. If I’d spent my life unemployed, should I be condemned to malfunctioning hands? More realistically, what if I’d been an adjunct faculty member and freelance writer or lacked a strong union and good benefits? If human beings were to reinvent the world, would we recreate a system that allows some people essential medical care but not others? I hope not.

As I sit here at my desk and look out across my snow-covered backyard, I still feel twinges of guilt about not teaching my customary five courses this semester. But I dream of a world where everyone gets the medical care they need. I’m glad I worked hard all those years and would do it again because I’ve helped make life better for thousands of students, friends, and loved ones.

But we need universal health care that’s not yoked to employment. If we can’t do something as basic and humane as helping each other heal our pain and suffering, then what’s the point?

John Sheirer is an author and teacher from Florence. He will read from his new book, “For Now: One Hundred 100-Word Stories,” at Easthampton Public Library, 6 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 14. Find him at