Curl your nailbeds into the meat of your palm, thumb on top. This is the letter S in American Sign Language. This is S as in stomach, where Uncle Sean’s hand now goes instead of his chest when he signs me and mine. S as in scars marking where his colon should be. As in sorry when he draws that hand, his thumb, in circles on his chest.
This shape is for resting your chin while the geneticist speaks. His diagnosis is nothing new. You’d seen pictures of your uncle’s infested colon already. This was only about identifying his polyposis, spread now to his lungs.
This is for pulling your jacket tighter, for seeking comfort, alone. You’re standing in the chill of the Central Sierras three hundred miles away from all of it, in a meadow Uncle Sean loves but hasn’t seen in years, waiting for the Perseids. The meteors crest over trees and draw blue trails between them. They hurtle down the creek toward the sliver of moon. You want to catch their light and bring it back to him.
It’s also for marshmallow-roasting sticks made from Oregon grape shrubs growing along the creek, just like he taught you. Pick the greenest one you can find. Cut it long, just above a knot so it grows wild again.
And for hanging the lantern on the nail his grandmother hammered into the ponderosa pine, ninety years of butterscotch sap clinging to it. For dipping towels in the creek to lay over the ice chests, keeping them cooler longer.
Fists are for opening a hospital door and holding a surprise. You give your uncle something he missed: a pressed alpine shooting star from the meadow, Dodecatheon alpinum, bright purple against his pale palm.
This hand is for hanging on.
If you touch your fingertips to your chest and make a fist as you pull both hands away, you’ve signed bold, courageous, whole, like your uncle. You’ve also signed heal, recover, feeling well. He knows you’ve never handled grief well. He sets the flower on his bedside table and nests your fist in his hand. Inhale deep, your uncle signs, and imagine it floating up from your toes, through your stomach, across your collar bones–imagine it glowing in your fist. You imagine the Perseids streaking down your arm, pooling in your hands. When you’re ready, exhale, uncurl your fingers, and let it go.
Leah Dawdy is an elementary school teacher living in Spokane, Washington. She was born and raised in Southern California, and taught in the Inland Empire for several years. She is a recipient of the William Henry Willis Memorial Poetry Prize.