By Bob Chrisman
I took a photograph of my mother’s hands before the visitors arrived at the funeral home. When she was well, she cared for her hands and nails everyday, but that stopped in the nursing home when she lost the strength in her hands and arms. Her nails grew long and dirty. That bothered her.
As she physically declined in the nursing home, she stopped caring for her nails. Instead, she would wait for me to arrive on Sundays. She would look at her hands and say, “My nails sure are long” or “I haven’t had my nails trimmed in a long time” or “My fingernail polish is chipped.” Those were clues that I should find the clippers and the nail file and go to work.
She had never directly asked for anything from me; instead she had relied on me to assume what she wanted and to do it. Many times my assumptions had fallen short of her expectations and she let me know of her disappointment in my failings.
When I could take the subtlety no longer, I would ask, “Mom, do you want me to clip your nails?”
“I wish someone would.” That was the closest to “Yes” that I ever received.
The intimacy of taking her frail hands in my big, powerful ones was almost too much for me to bear. How many times did I say to myself, “Come on, Bob. It is only her hands?”
To hold my mother’s hand connected me to her in a way that I didn’t want. Her inability to care for her most basic needs, her aging, and her impending death flowed into me through her hands.
This woman, who had ruled much of my life, who had consumed me in many ways, sat in her wheelchair and offered me her hands. So much of my life I had distanced myself from her and here I was, in the end, sucked back into her world through her hands.
The last three weeks of her life I noticed her hands every time I visited. Her fingers and hands had become skeletal as her weight had dropped to about 70 pounds. I trimmed her nails one of those weeks.
“I scratch myself,” she had said that afternoon. I held her hand and carefully trimmed the nails making sure that I didn’t pull on her skin or clip her nails too closely because my mother’s top layer of skin had become like plastic wrap and a scratch, however slight, would open her skin and she would bleed profusely..
One week her fingers were pure white and the tiny blue veins that ran down each finger stood out. The backs of her hands were a mass of age spots and bruises, a dark brown mixed with deep purple. The juxtaposition of her fingers to the backs of her hands looked as though someone had grafted the fingers of a stranger onto her hands.
The Sunday before she died her fingers and hands were a dusky, purplish-blue color. Her blood is pooling in her extremities, I thought. I knew from looking at her hands that she would not live that much longer.
She died that Thursday morning at 5:50…Thursday, February 28, 2008.
The mortician erased many of the signs of aging from her face and hands. She looked more beautiful in death than she had in life. Her nails had been trimmed and painted a pale pink. Her hands laid one on top of the other.
I wanted to remember those hands forever — even after everything else I remember about her disappears from my mind. I raised my camera to my eye, focused on her hands and took the picture.
Bob Chrisman lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he writes. Natalie Goldberg gave him permission to call himself a writer many years ago, and he has been writing ever since. His writing friends, particularly those from a Goldberg year-long Intensive that he and 23 other students took, have made it possible for him to continue and, thankfully, only occasionally be tossed away.
About writing practice, Bob says: My practice is simple. I meditate for 30 minutes every morning and then do six 10-minute “writes.” Sometimes life interrupts the schedule, but I return to it as soon as possible.
As so many writers have suggested, including our teacher, write first thing in the morning before anything interferes with the writing. But, if you can’t write in the morning, write sometime during the day. Don’t let it slide!
After my mother’s death I couldn’t always focus for an hour, but I made a commitment to myself to write enough to catch up for the days (or writes) I missed. I did them all. That’s how important these six 10-minute writes are to my practice, to my life and to what little sanity I have left.