Her hands were rough and weathered from years of hard work. Her knuckles protruded too much either side of her long fingers and many blue veins bulged from the back of her hands, spreading down into the sinewy delta of crooked fingers and oval nails. Her skin was now translucent with age, brown and blotchy and creased and cracked.
Each crack was stained black with dirt that no amount of scrubbing would remove. Each stain told a story of a day when she had ridden on horse-back to muster the cattle, or fixed a fence or fought a fire late into the night, or cooked a feed on an open fire for her family . . . Days gone but a life lived mapped out on her hands . . .
I would look at her face when I came into the darkened room. She was exhausted. She was withered. She was dying. This once proud and strong woman was reduced to a puff of cotton nightie on a bed struggling to understand how she’d come to this – she had so much more to do.
Each day I would take her old hands into mine and gently massage them. My hands were younger then, they were strong and plump and not yet showing the work of child-rearing that would come to mark them as experienced.
I was careful and gentle so I did not wake her. I knew she knew I was there. She could sense me come in at the same time each day. She could smell the cucumber and aloe moisturiser I used. I could hear the constant hum of her oxygen respirator. I just sat on the edge of the bed, not sure if I was sitting on her or the bed sheets as her body since she was now flat and wispy. Her lustrous red hair, short and wavy was spread out like a fan on the white pillow . . .
I was so careful to lift her arm by supporting it with mine to rest her hand in mine. Then I would massage what was left of the flesh on her long arms and ask her if the pressure was ok. She would nod slightly and just ‘Mmmmm’ her approval.
We would sit like this for hours, my hands, her grand-daughter’s hands entwined with hers working the cream into her skin. I liked making her feel good, even though I knew it was fleeting; a temporary reprieve from the inevitable, such is palliative care.
Today I sat with my chubby Master 5 months in my lap and watch his involuntary grabbing of my hands and fingers and I wish that she could have met him, in fact all of my boys and my husband. I think how she would’ve enjoyed belly laughing til she coughed at a well told dirty yarn from Mr MF and smiled smugly at her red-headed great grandsons and loved them in the prickly kind of way of her generation.
I looked down at my hands. They belong to someone older. My nails are bitten, my cuticles ripped and my skin is dried from constant hand and dish washing. I remember looking at my mother’s hands as a child and thinking that the veins on the back of her hands were beautiful; they led down to long gnarly fingers too and ended in well maintained nails. My mother has her mother’s hands. If I could stop biting my nails I would have the same.