Note: My mother died in February of 1998. Several months later, I found myself mourning her death more than ever and decided I needed to do something to help me heal. I wrote an essay about the one thing that kept coming back to me while she lay dying. During the countless hours I kept vigil at her bedside, I remained fascinated by her hands and held them often. This piece eventually became my first published column in October 1998 and hooked me forever into this writing business because wherever I went after its publication, people told me how much the piece had helped them heal after the death of a parent. Happy Mother’s Day to all who have nurtured another living thing.
Her hands lay on the sheets with the tubes in her veins leading into the stand next to her bed. The grayish-blue hands showed that life had already begun to ebb from them. As I picked up the nearly lifeless form and held it in my own rosy hand, I examined the age spots that had always been there as far back as I could remember. The nails remained beautifully polished as if she had done them just before leaving for the hospital. I found out later from my brother that’s exactly what she’d done.
The polish on the nails reflected a softer hue now instead of the fire-engine red of my childhood. I remember my father honking the horn in the driveway while my mother put the finishing touches on her nails. He was always so impatient with her. He couldn’t comprehend the reason she always painted those nails just before we left on any journey. The truth was she didn’t have any other time to care for herself but in those last frenzied moments before departure. And her nail polish made up for her old ill-fitting clothes and worn shoes.
As I sat holding her hand as she drifted in a coma, I imagined my mother, very ill and weak, sitting in her chair the week before she died, polishing her nails while my brother waited impatiently to take her to the doctor to find out why she hadn’t recovered from the flu after a two-week illness.
The nurse startled me back to reality, telling me I would have to remove the nail polish from my mother’s left forefinger because they were having difficulty getting her oxygen count. My brothers all made themselves scarce and left the task to me. I imagined my mother waking from her coma as I removed the polish and scolding me for removing the polish from one nail. I prayed for her to sit up and take me to task.
At times during the last few days of her life, she would raise her hands from the bed and move them together in a certain rhythm, and then she would reach out mid-air and fuss with an imaginary something on the sheets. Finally, one of my brothers recognized the hand movements, and we realized she was crocheting. One of her concerns when she was admitted to the hospital was the blanket she was crocheting for one of her great-grandchildren whose birth was imminent as she lay dying. She’d been unable to finish it despite her furious attempts to finish it even while feeling the effects of the lingering flu. She had crocheted a blanket for all seven of her grandchildren and nine great-children, so even in her weakened state she continued to crochet her final one.
The morning she died, I stood by her bed, holding and squeezing her right hand, hoping for some sign she knew I was standing there. The day before, even with her eyes closed, when she heard me calling her name, she squeezed my hand. This day the squeezing ended, but the hands remained indelibly marked as the hands that raised me.
Her hands were bluer now as most of the blood was going to her heart as it took its final beats. I imagined all the tasks performed by these appendages. How many diapers had they changed while raising five children? During the twenty years of raising her children, she only had a wringer washer and never a dryer to wash all those cloth diapers. Since I was the youngest, I don’t remember the diaper washings, but I do remember the day my mother got her first washer and dryer. She clapped her hands high above her head and never hung another thing out to dry the rest of her life.
How many times had I held my mother’s hands during times of trouble? Her thumb would caress my knuckles as we attempted to comfort one another. I also saw those hands kneading the dough for her famous gooey cinnamon rolls which had been a staple at family breakfasts for as long as I could remember. I remembered the flowers my mother’s hands nourished over the years. Her gardens were a symphony of reds, yellows, pinks, and oranges. When winter came to our Michigan home, the house bloomed with African violets. Her hands nurtured all things they touched.
I remembered it all as I stood by her bed and her breathing became labored. When it was over, I asked the nurse to remove the IV from her hand so I could hold it close to me and take from it some of the strength, dignity, and courage, which my mother kept throughout her life.
While my mother and I didn’t always have a perfect relationship, I know now I can take the good that flowed from her hands and use it to show my own daughter the value of acceptance and comfort in a world where love is what we need the most.