Since my mother basically stopped talking, I’ve become fixated on her hands. Her hands seem to be the way she expresses herself now that Alzheimer’s disease has all but taken away her ability to shape thoughts into sentences. As soon as she sees me approach across the foyer of her nursing home, she waves her hands up in front of her like two little claws and beckons me towards her chair. Her hands, once the envy of her friends, are still elegant in a gothic sort of way, the nails long, but filed to beveled edges and polished in shimmering purples by the Haitian aides. They are dramatic hands, a little frightening when she drums the tips in a staccato rhythm on the dining table. A few months ago she held up a clenched fist, shook it in my face and said, “Watch it,” for no apparent reason. But these days she is less combative. She merely pats and strokes and pushes the air away from her with open palms. It seems she is no longer in conflict with a real or remembered past. Now, when I sit down beside her she immediately envelopes my offered palm between hers. She kneads my flesh gently. She is so pleased she smiles and her eyes are wet with emotion. “You,” she says softly, “You.” A few days ago she was even able to articulate the way she was feeling. “I feel clutchy,” she told me, blushing.
This is not the mother who raised me. The mother I knew had a touch so delicate and loose, fingers so white and fragile, they were as elusive as a cat’s tail. Whenever my sister and I tried to slip our small hands coyly into hers, she would squeeze our fingers gently and then dangle them free. Decked out in a multitude of rings or cloaked in evening gloves, my mother’s hands eluded me. Manicured and adorned, they were the signatures of her lifestyle. She was a woman who happily admitted on more than one occasion, to having a closet full of party clothes and nothing to wear to the playground.
I remember one day in particular: Indian summer on Long Island. The end of October but a day so warm we had splashed in the ocean before lunch. I must have been about five, my sister six and The Beatles music had just hit our shores. We were walking along Sagg Main Drive, our mother swaying in front of us, her yellow skirt billowing, cars rocketing by in the heat, the pavement hot, bugs humming. Almost in unison, like birds falling into formation, my sister and I suddenly took flight, running to catch hold of her disappearing hands, yelling, “Let’s hold hands, Mommy!” Why were we running? She was slipping away from us up the slope of a hill. Turning we saw her red-lipped smile above the boat neck of her peasant blouse and heard her mimicking cry as she plunged behind the underbrush, “I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your hand.”
She sounds cruel. She sounds crazy. She was neither mad nor cruel, just not good at touching either of her children. She never held me; a girl from down the hall of our apartment building was hired to come cuddle and feed me. I was so starved for affection she’s told me, that my parents referred to me as a lamprey eel because I stuck to whoever picked me up. My mother liked to daydream and to walk alone. She liked to read. Books she could hold onto. She wrote, tapping her stories out on an old Olivetti with the balls of her fingers, topaz ring flashing, nails rarely chipping-they were strengthened as I recall by daily drinks of clear gelatin. She hated to be interrupted, and once slapped my sister over an incomplete homework assignment, leaving not just a red welt, but a gash in the cheek of her child. My sister and I were both so startled by her action, that we both ran to the bathroom where we stood side be side examining my sister’s pale cheek in the mirror for the evidence of our mother’s red handprint upon it.
Oh, those hands, those gloved, decorated, unreachable hands. When we were children my sister and I fought over her rings, even our cousins fought over who would own them. We drew straws to see who would inherit the topaz, the opal or the poison ring with the queen’s profile carved in jade. Since she has become ill, they are mine. The ones I could pry off, that is. They sit cushioned on velvet inside a carved box on my dresser. I will never wear them; I have stubby hands that are rough from gardening, but I take them out occasionally to hold them like loose change in my fist.
Of course, given my mother’s fugitive touch, I endeavored to be the opposite type of parent. When my son Theo was an infant, I draped my hand over the bassinet and held his hand even while he slept. My husband warned me to put him down, to learn to walk away. “He’ll get too used to it and then you’ll be sorry,” he told me. But I wouldn’t listen. Then one day Theo and I were standing ankle deep in the surf at Flying Point Beach. My son was three; still wearing a swim diaper and holding onto my hand, in his other he clutched a small, blue plastic shovel. The waves were choppy but not big that day. Bending down to scoop and then toss a shovel of sand into an approaching wave, Theo casually dropped hold of my hand and instantly the undertow pulled his feet out from under him and dragged him away from me. For a moment he was lost under a swirl of water, and then I had him, my hands grabbing, my whole body plunging into the surf and yanking each of his outstretched arms as I pulled him back. We both cried for a long time on the sand, for the rest of the summer it seemed. “My shovel,” Theo kept sobbing. “My blue shovel is gone.”
I thought of this incident three months ago when my mother underwent a triple bout of pneumonia and nearly died. She was aspirating her own saliva into her lungs and kept re-infecting herself. When I arrived at the hospital I saw her lying on a gurney, her arms tied down, an IV stuck into the bulging blue vein that snaked between her thumb and forefinger and I couldn’t help it, I whipped out my camera and began shooting. What I saw amazed me: I saw her hands as silent as weathered rocks. Old and gnarled the fingers now warped crooked, a lone turquoise ring swollen into place, they were no longer the hands she’d pampered and protected and that had flown so effortlessly away from me. Did I want to insert a feeding tube into her stomach or intubate? Her physician inquired.
“No,” I said, “No more tubes.”After he left I pulled up a chair and sat staring at her through the lens of my camera. In the viewfinder I watched as my left hand sneaked into the frame and slid over her blankets. My forefinger found her bound arm and traced the thick blue vein that ran like a river to the small pool of trapped blood at the base of her thumb. I wiggled my fingers against her withered palm and tickled the surface. Her skin looked as transparent as tissue paper, but felt as cool as marble. And that is when I remembered my son’s hands, how hot and fleshy and dirty they always are.
By the very absence of her touch, my mother had taught me to be careful. Certainly I couldn’t stop the undertow, but what had been entrusted to me, I would endeavor to hold onto. I knew that the things I let go of maybe wouldn’t come back to me.
“Mom,” I said, patting her hand. “Mom.”
I squeezed her fingers until the fingertips turned red, and, with my nail, I scratched deep into my mother’s frail, papery skin, cutting a welt into the flesh of her palm. Then I felt her grip, like an iron clasp. An old woman grabbing back onto life.
I sat there, then, one hand on my camera, the other burrowing home like a nesting bird.