Dad waited until our car had left the turnpike before he told me the bad news about my mom’s surgery. “The doctors couldn’t save her hand,” he said. “They had to replace it with something else.”
“With something else,” I repeated.
White fuzz covered my dad’s unshaven face. He smoothed the front of his hair, which reminded me of withered grass. “That’s right,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, squinting in the morning sun, which was bright and hot against my face. Dad had left me overnight at my uncle’s house, just so he’d know I was sleeping in some familiar place, instead of the hospital waiting room.
He reached for coffee then wiped beaded sweat from his chin instead. “They opened her arm and the cyst was worse than they expected. Cancer actually. The doctors came out in the middle of the night, after ten hours of surgery, and said they had already spoken with her. I needed to sign a consent form right away to do a transplant.” Dad glanced at me and turned back to the road, where shimmering heat rose over the cars. “Lee, they had to use the hand and wrist of an orangutan. She wanted something natural, not some prosthetic.”
I smirked. Since I was named for Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man, he should have said her arm was bionic. That would have been a much cooler lie, I thought.
I was twelve years old. The only apes I had seen were in the city zoo, trapped behind Coke-bottle-thick glass. I had heard a scary tale about a monkey’s paw at summer camp, but it didn’t scare me at all. As if I would believe that my mom’s hand was cut off and in its place was a shriveled and inhuman limb. I said, “You know, people shouldn’t mess with fate. That’s what the moral in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ was—”
“It’s not a monkey’s paw!” he shouted, veins in his neck creating a blue “y.” He shook his head as if arguing with himself. “It’s not as bad as you think,” he said. “You’ll see. It’s not.”
We had to park the car in the lowest level of the garage and take the elevator up to the lobby, where a giant board marked the progress of surgeries like arriving and departing trains. Dad looked at the number he’d scrawled on a slip of paper and held it up. “2214—that’s her. She’s been moved from the recovery room finally.”
He led me through a maze of pale green hallways, lit with sickly fluorescent lights, and I tried to imagine her hand the way it might be. Black, rough fingers that stretched too long under orange, matted fur. “An orangutan. She has black hair though,” I said.
He must have been pleased because dad stopped at a vending machine and bought me a soda and another cup of coffee for himself. I tapped the lid, cracked open the top, and drank.
“It would have been terrible if they had given her a gorilla hand—too strong. She has had trouble holding spoons with the ape’s awkward fingers,” he said and smirked. “A gibbons would have been more ideal, but the hospital has limited organ donations. We’re going to have to trim the fur when we get home, you know. Some fell out. A lot didn’t.”
A doctor came out of her room and dropped a clipboard into a slot on the wall. When he saw my dad he came over and shook our hands, his palm soft from so many washings. “Well, this must be the son I’ve heard so much about. Lee, your mom can’t stop talking about you. Going to be an astronaut when you grow up?”
I nodded. “Mars mission,” I said without thinking. It had been my dream ever since I’d heard about the international space station and eaten the freeze-dried ice cream at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
“You’re very brave then,” the doctor said and kneeled. “Can you be brave when you see your mom, too? She needs that.”
Dad tossed his coffee cup into the garbage. “How is she?”
“She’s resting, but awake. You can go in if you want.”
Part of me wanted to see her hand, to study every stitch and seam of flesh that would become gray scars. I wanted to hold the new hand and let her know that I would always be her son, even if she had changed. The rest of me, though, was revolted and hoped to never see it. How could I go to junior high with a mom whose left arm was half animal? I slipped around the edge of the doorway into her room.
“Lee, I’m so glad to see you. How was it with your uncle?” she asked. “Come here.”
Her arm was concealed by the comforter and I crossed to her side quickly, away from the arm, in the hopes that I could avoid even a glimpse. “I missed you,” I said. It wasn’t a lie, not exactly.
I stood near and kept looking into her eyes, hoping that my expression conveyed concern rather than fear. I didn’t want to look down. Still, I could feel its presence on the other side of the bed.
“How are you?”
“Sore. Better though, especially since they fixed my arm.” A sadness like sparks of electricity flickered across her face.
Dad sat in the chair near the window. “It’s good to be together again,” he said.
Mom moved toward me, the bandaged hand on the other side of the bed reaching out. “Yes, I could use a hug,” she said and slid her hand over my back. I could feel the rake of long fingers through the gauze.
I recoiled at their touch — the hand fell away and hit the table. She screamed in surprise and pain.
“Lee!” Dad yelled.
She panted, gathering herself. “It’s OK,” she said finally. Mom pulled me close. “Hush now.”
I forced a weak smile. The thin fingers closed around my neck and stroked my head. Fur as coarse as a hairbrush touched my cheek. I shuddered and closed my eyes, trying to push away the feeling, a sensation of rough skin scraping my ear. I opened them again, just for a moment, and fought back a wail as my eyes passed over mom’s bandaged arm: copper circles of blood stained the cloth, and dark, cracked nails jutted out like tree bark. Everything’s OK, I thought. Everything’s OK.