What Does That Say?

I’ll admit it: I’ve never had great penmanship. As a young child I was an overachiever with report cards filled with “E’s” for “excellent.” The one exception was penmanship, for which my teachers typically gave me an “S” for “satisfactory.” My older sisters used to tease me about my messy letters, laughing at me in comparing my writing to a toddler’s. So I acknowledge that a career as a calligrapher was never in the cards for me. That being said, the impact of rheumatoid arthritis on my penmanship has been striking.

My fingers always have at least some swelling, which makes it hard to hold a pen. Even though I spring for the larger (and more expensive) ergonomic pens, it’s difficult for my fingers to maintain a firm grasp on them. Fortunately I live in the technology age, where it’s expected that any formal writing be typed. (I shudder to think of the reactions I would have garnered a hundred years ago when seemingly everyone had gorgeous longhand.) Yet, there are plenty of times when I still write notes, cards, and even checks, as old-fashioned as that’s beginning to seem in the era of debit cards and paying via smart phone. Over the fifteen years since my diagnosis, my scrawl has become looser and looser, making my penmanship less and less legible. Leafing through journal entries of years past is like watching a flipbook of the progression of my disease; as my joints have suffered deterioration, so has my handwriting.

My penmanship has become so bad that even my husband, who is able to decipher my scrawl better than anyone I know, has difficulty reading it at times. I take pride in the heartfelt cards and notes I write to friends thanking them for gifts or kindnesses or offering support during difficult times. However, I not only put care into the words I choose but must also concentrate on forming the letters on the paper. Otherwise my carefully selected sentiments will be illegible to the loved ones I am trying to communicate with. If I don’t slow my writing pace to at least half of what I consider “normal,” my friends and family will have as much luck reading my notes as they would a doctor’s scribbles on a prescription pad.

While thirty years have passed since the days when my sisters taunted me about my poor penmanship, it has now become so bad that sometimes even my friends will tease me about my “chicken scratch.” I don’t mind the teasing, as I can’t argue that they don’t have a point. However, recognizing that my RA is the cause of just how bad my writing has become does sting a bit. Each time I realize the ways in which my body cannot do things as well as it could five, ten, or fifteen years ago, I feel both the grief of the loss of physical ability as well as worry as to what the coming years will bring. While the writing may be on the wall as far where my disease progression is heading, it is as difficult to discern as my penmanship.

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