I listened to a Podcast the other day while I tried to keep myself from dying of boredom on the treadmill. It was an engaging one for me since it was about a hospice chaplain. I’ve often wondered what that job or calling might be like since it of course seems intense and difficult. We imagine the sadness of being around the end of life, dying and distraught families day in and day out but typically those who do this work do not feel this way. They find grace and deep honor in bearing witness during this sacred time of leaving one world hoping to find the next.
The chaplain being interviewed describes what the most common thoughts are at the end of life. She says that most of the time, the “patient” is “ready” or curious to find out “what is next.” Then, she described the part that really got me. A young woman in her early 40’s was in relentless pain as she lay dying in a hospice section of a hospital. Her pain control was too intense and too complicated for her to be cared for at home. She was the mother of three young children so this was particularly sad to witness. However, this woman spoke about how much time we spend railing against our imperfect bodies throughout our lifetimes. As women, we know this to be true. We are never thin enough, strong enough, curvy enough, large or small breasted enough, stomach flat enough, legs smooth enough, eyebrows thin or thick enough, eyelashes curly enough, hair thick or thin or straight or curly or long enough, lips full enough, skin smooth and unwrinkled enough, arms toned enough, butt firm enough, and on and on. This dying woman examined how pitiful it was to spend one’s life obsessing over these “defects,” wasting precious time of grace and gratitude. She proceeded to glorify her body and what it had done in her lifetime and lamented as to how much she would miss that body of hers. Her body had created, grown, formed, and delivered three human beings onto this earth! Her body had nurtured them until they could nurture themselves. Her body had done a long list of things of which in that moment, she was immensely proud and yet sad to leave. She loved her body so much that she felt it would be the worst thing to leave behind.
I thought and thought about this and while I am not there yet I have examined one part of me that I might be ready to glorify. I remain like most, horrified by my flabby belly that never recovered from huge baby number four followed by huge twins in my mid-forties. That belly was having no coming back home after that! Same for my breasts – five pregnancies and done – heading south where they are comfortable but unflattering. My hair though still full is gray and washed out. My face is full of more wrinkles than smooth spots and oh dear the creases around my mouth prove I may have smiled a lot but wore out the muscles. It is often shocking to pass the mirror and take a glance. My legs once my glory, are dry and wrinkly with saggy skin and cellulite. I have never loved my arms and now even less as I too have the happy, flappy flag underarms. Lashes are mostly gone, brows are so light they may as well be too, wear glasses full time, and so on, but you get the picture. Old, simply old.
But, I looked at my hands during that time on the treadmill. What I saw were dry and veiny with unadorned short nails and pretty rings. My emerald ring was in my Christmas stocking in 1977 and I have adored it ever since even though I never felt my hands did it justice! I began to think about what my hands have done over all these years and how they have truly earned the right to every wrinkle, crease and age spot. I felt this overwhelming moment of gratitude to my hands for how well they have served me thus far. I remembered a wedding I went to once where the officiate did not know the couple but he spoke about their hands that were in that moment, joined. He described how they would be the hands to hold their first born, to support each other in good times and in bad and to hold onto for courage and strength as they aged. I can’t remember whose wedding it was, but these words stayed with me.
So, let me tell you why I am grateful to my hands. They are the hands that used to have small dimples instead of gnarled knuckles and held onto my father’s big strong hands when we walked from the public housing projects in Brooklyn to church on Sundays. Thinking my hands were magic, I used them to hug my mother tight when she was in the throes of depression. They stroked the soft and loving face of my grandmother when she held me on her lap with a boundless love that I knew from no one else at the time. Her skin felt like velvet in those hands. These hands touched the brand new red head of my sister when she was only a few days old. They bounced a Spalding ball outside for hours, dressed Ginny dolls on the bench, sewed clothes for Barbie, and snapped photos of my friends and family with an Instamatic camera. These hands learned penmanship so that I could communicate on paper and send letters to numerous pen pals around the world. Probably the worst thing these hands did was to hold cigarettes for close to ten years while I wheezed my way through asthma attacks. Thank God the hands put those down one day and never picked them back up. My hands rubbed my grandmother’s back as she lay dying from a cancer that no one chose to inform her of.
My hands brought me the bread and the wine that recounted the Last Supper on most Sundays and folded together praying so hard for healing especially for my troubled family of origin. They gripped the steering wheel of my first car with fear and helped to drive me out to the Hamptons every weekend where I had the best of times with hands held around a glass of Mateus, while I danced most nights away with hands around the neck of a dancing partner. They held the ticket to my trips to Europe where I learned more about myself and my closest friend than any other time. My hands linked with my boyfriend’s hands early on and would hold on tight as he became my fiancé and the love of my life as my husband.
But, here’s the top of my list when I look at my ragged, dry hands now. These hands were the first to touch the fuzzy heads of six baby boys that emerged from my body. When I was in the depths of childbirth not believing I would survive one minute more, a midwife would direct my hand between my legs to feel the emerging life of my newest miracle child—these hands! They would be the hands that would guide my breast into the mouths of my rooting, searching babies and would enable them to grow and thrive from my milk, while cradled in this mother’s loving hands.
They would be the hands that would stroke the head of my father when he died and grasp my mother’s cold, lifeless hand when she died. And worst of all, these same hands clung desperately to the body and soul of my two year old who lay dying after drowning. In the less than 12 hours he “survived” in the hospital, my hands must have stroked him 1000 times while they were soaked in salty tears. And they would be the same hands that would still cradle his cold, bald head in his little coffin at his funeral.
These hands would lead each child up the path to preschool and kindergarten, holding tight, imparting confidence and security in our parting ways. They would feel a forehead to diagnose fever, hold a head when throwing up, bandage cuts and pull out ticks and force medicine down throats more times than I care to remember. They would soothe each crying child in my lap in what we called, “green chair time.”
And when it was time for these hands to return to paid work, they began holding literally thousands of babies and thousands of breasts, bringing them together for a moment of bliss and glory having found the Holy Grail each were seeking. It is my honor to witness these moments when mother and child are able to connect with the guidance of my hands in a gentle, helping direction, enabling baby to drink the milk of human kindness and of life sustaining nourishment.
As long as my hands can offer kindness and are able to help and care despite their lack of beauty, I am grateful and humbled by my work with others and my family. Thank you hands, I love you….