My Mother’s Hands

I have always hated my hands. Unlike the slim soft hands of most women, they are work hands- made for wringing diapers and kneading loaves of bread, like my mother’s.  Other women wear colored nail polish and sparkling jewelry to call attention to the delicacy of their hands.  They easily slip into slim leather gloves and tiny gold rings with diamonds that catch the light.  But I am embarrassed by my hands and do not call attention to them, but rather keep them hidden, even stuffed into pockets whenever possible.

Today, I helped my mother prepare for her transition to a nearby hospice house. After several days in the hospital, she was unwashed and uncombed.  Her soft curly hair was matted from lying in bed and her hospital gown was twisted and wrinkled.  Knowing how this made her feel worse, I volunteered to give her a sponge bath and she agreed.  As I gently rubbed her back with a warm wet cloth, she sighed in contentment and told me how she remembered washing her mother shortly before she died.  I felt honored to be part of this legacy of love- to be the one to carefully wipe her face and rinse her feet.  Her hands were bruised and swollen.  Afraid that her rings would become so tight they would hurt her, I soaped her hand, and in one gentle motion, slipped them from her finger to mine.

We moved her to the hospice house where angelic nurses fluttered in to welcome her to her new room. The walls were washed in sunlight and the furnishings cozy and inviting.  The sterility of the hospital was replaced soft footsteps and cheerful chatter, as the nurses worked to make her comfortable.  She smiled in relief and appreciation.

Later that evening, as we stood by her bedside, I watched her hands shakily finger her rosary beads while praying the Chaplet of Devine Mercy.  Her hospital gown had been replaced by a soft white flannel nightgown, her hair combed.  Her hands counted their way through the prayers.  The same hands that rubbed my back to put me to sleep. The same hands that braided my hair, and hemmed my dresses, and hammered nails into the wall to hang my artwork.  The same hands that wrote on the chalk board for hundreds of middle school children.  The same hands that held my father’s when he passed from this world to the next.

When I got home this evening, I took a long hot shower, letting the water wash rivers of tears down the drain.  As I dried my face, I caught a glimpse of my hands in the mirror.   The two silver rings, one filigree and the other turquoise, still were on my finger.  They fit my hands.   My hands.  Made for wringing diapers and kneading bread, and washing my mother in her final days.  They are big and strong.  And beautiful.  They are my mother’s hands.

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Catch a Falling Star

This morning, my friend Gerry sent me a testimony he wrote about a dear friend who suddenly passed away.   Through the email I could sense the sting that he is feeling- the kind of shock that sends you reeling and leaves you disoriented and confused.   I remembered that same feeling one evening when I opened a letter from my sister.  When I tore open the envelope, a newspaper clipping fluttered to the floor.  I picked it up, expecting to read some cheery news about one of my nephews.  Instead, I found the obituary for my closest childhood friend.

The winter I was in first grade, I moved from the parochial school in nearby Three Rivers, to the public school in my home town. This was done because I spent the first half of the year standing in the corner, rapping my own knuckles with a ruler as penance for horrible sins only a six-year-old can commit, such as spelling my name wrong, or arriving past the second bell when the bus was late.  The months between that September and December were filled with fearful tears and the few memories I have of those days are shrouded in lonely darkness. 

First grade in public school was very different from St. Anne’s.  The classrooms were bright and sunny. My teacher was Mrs. Cassidy, a petite lady who wore flowered dresses and corrected me with a gentle smile. At St. Anne’s, I had been taught to write in cursive, using the Palmer method.  Mrs. Cassidy showed me how to print rounded letters between the wide lines on special penmanship paper.  It was fun, like artwork, and when I was finished, I decorated the margins with small sketches of puppies and tulips. How Sr. Lucien would have cringed!   Under Mrs. Cassidy’s guidance, I learned to add and subtract, to read and to sing songs about April showers and the grand old flag.  My Monday morning stomach aches were replaced by enthusiasm, and I finally relaxed enough to begin making friends with some of the other children.

One of those children was Linda.  She was delicate and blonde and reminded me of a spring lamb.  She wore a red and black cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and fringed shirt to school, and her lunch box was shaped like a barn. Linda invited me to her sixth birthday party and on a beautiful May afternoon, I gathered at her house with other little girls in pastel dresses to eat cake and play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  I still remember my party favor- a string of amber beads to wear around my neck. They were translucent and glistened in the sunlight and to me they were as precious as diamonds.  But more precious was my friendship with Linda.

Despite her fragile stature, Linda was daring and adventurous.  She and I would spend overnights at her house, rise early in the morning and armed with chocolate covered graham crackers,  explore the woods behind her house.  We swam in the icy waters of her brook during the summers and slid down her snow covered hill in the winter. We sang songs to each other over walkie-talkies, earned 4-H badges by planting Mother’s Day seeds in paper cups and shot BBs at each other’s feet.  As teenagers, we rode a motor scooter through nearby pastures, daringly cutting the headlight in the dark, as if to look danger in the eye and tempt fate in a wicked game of roulette.  We whispered about boys and borrowed each other’s clothes, and smoked cigarettes in the school bathrooms.  And through the years, we watched the clear night skies for shooting stars.

After high school I went away to college.  Linda did not.  Our paths didn’t cross again until many years later, when I was in the early months of my first pregnancy.  She arrived at my house, her baby boy- Micah- happily packed on her back.  He reminded me of her as a child with his elfin eyes and wispy blond hair.  We excitedly caught up on each other’s lives and went for a walk. When we returned, I started to bleed and within a few days, the baby was gone and I was left in a quiet house with empty arms.  Buried in my own grief, I mourned for weeks.  Months turned to years, and somehow, Linda and I lost touch, never to see each other again.

Linda’s memorial service was much like she was- free, open and non-traditional.  Her friends and family spoke fondly of her sense of adventure and her zeal for life.  We all agreed our lives were brighter and happier for having known her and then with a tear and a hug, we went again in our separate ways.   I will always carry the regret of not being there while she was sick, of not standing with her in the dark days, of not saying goodbye.

People’s lives are much like the shooting stars Linda and I sought.  Some do a long, slow swan dive, leaving trails of red fire so bright that we can still see them long after their lights have burned out.  Others, like Linda, dance so quickly across the night sky that if we look away for an instant we’ll miss them.

Life is short.  Take a little time, look up a falling star and say hello, before it’s too late.

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