Last week, we lost our beloved Mother Mary. She passed peacefully at home, without pain, surrounded by all of us. It still hardly feels real to me, so it isn't easy to write about. My head, and my heart, aren't ready to put her in the past tense.
I feel lucky I was able to be with her for the last weeks she was home with us. I tried to help however I could and keep her company the rest of the time. But hospice is a game you play to lose, and it was difficult to adjust.
Often, I felt helpless.
So when my uncle said that my grandmother had specifically asked for me to do her nails, I was elated - unlike the daunting medical side of hospice, this was something I knew I could handle.
My grandmother took meticulous care of her fingernails. She always carried an emery board in her handbag, and even when her knuckles knotted with arthritis, she kept each nail filed to a perfect almond shape.
Even now, she could feel that her nails were long, but she couldn't feel the advanced cancer in her chest.
One of many blessings.
So I was happy to help. I envisioned giving her a salon experience, complete with soaking bowls of warm, sudsy water and a hand massage with scented lotion. I wanted so badly to do something nice for her, something special.
When you know that anything could be the last something, you want everything to be perfect.
But the next morning, I could see she was exhausted, more so than the day before.
It takes a lot for a body to launch a spirit. Especially one like hers.
I put my hand on her shoulder as she napped on the couch. "Is it all right if I do your nails while you rest?"
She opened her eyes for a moment and gave a nod.
I took her hands one by one, my fingers threaded through hers. I filed each nail gently, so as not to disturb her, rounding the tips into half-moons. I ran my fingers over them to make sure they were perfectly clean and smooth, no rough edges.
I thought of all these hands had done in 90 years. Before my time, she was a songwriter, her hands played many melodies on piano. I imagined her penciling in the margins of a new song, adding dynamic changes, a ritardando at the end.
If only there was a ritardando in real life. But you can't hold onto one minute longer than any other. And the more you try, the faster they seem to go.
I thought of all these hands had done for me. How many meals had they prepared? How many other babysitters served homemade ravioli as an after-school snack? How many times had they stroked my hair? Touched my cheek? How many gestures of love can a lifetime hold?
In my grandmother's case, countless.
So I held onto her hands while she slept. And I whispered to her, told her things, some important and mundane, some I'd said a thousand times before, some I'd never said till then.
I hoped she could feel in my hands the love returned to her, the lessons learned, the strength she'd instilled in me now trying to be strong for her.
I always admired my grandmother's combination of grit and warmth, she could be tough and tender, hard and soft.
Although she was all soft with me.
She loved without rough edges.
After some time, she woke up, or maybe she hadn't been asleep at all, and she ran her thumb over her fingertips. She smiled. "Good," she told me, and she blew me a kiss.
I wondered if she had heard me say that I loved her enough to hope she could let go.
Even though I wanted to hold her hands a while longer.