“Cold hands, warm heart,” my grandmother chuckled. I remember her squeezing my adolescent hand so tightly that my bones gnashed together. I smiled through the discomfort, silently praying for the release of my fingers from her grip while sitting still next to her. I felt sorry. I was sorry we were not close like my mother’s mother.
My hands were made by my father’s mother. Long and dexterous. A temperature comparable to ice. Best warmed by the heart of my mother’s mother where they were warmed in the summer sun at her cottage, in front of her fireplace, and in the palm of her soft leather glove, walking side by side.
My father’s hands are sturdy and tanned. Taken over by the tributaries of veins that stream into the valleys of his knuckles. I remember his hands by the repeated motions of his obsessive compulsive behaviors, like the way he slid an envelope into the inner pocket of his sport coat. Repeatedly, pulling it out and tucking it away. Fidgeting with a stack of papers on his desk. Moving a salt shaker around on the table. Everything had to land just right. We didn’t know if he truly suffered or it was all a tactic to test my mother’s patience. I also remember his hands by their deceit. Discarding a cigarette behind his back. Hiding a beer behind the skirt of his armchair. Turning the channel when anyone entered the room. And, like my grandmother, my father used his hands to restrain us too tightly. As if holding someone long and tight would make them love you. Or keep you.
My brother’s hands are rough. Fingertips tinted yellow from cigarettes. Nails bitten down to nothing. The last time I saw him, one hand held his fourth or fifth beer and the other struck his heart while choking back tears for my mother. He works hard to get by fine. Stocking groceries by day and creating music by night. Picking things up. Putting things down. Putting things back. Putting things away.
When I think of my mother’s hands, I remember how she looked at them or what she held in them. Inspecting her fingernails, sliding Rosary beads between her fingers, or sneaking a Hershey Kiss into my pocket before dinner. I can’t remember the details of her hands before the second time she got sick.
The second time was worse. I massaged her hands and feet to level out the anxiety from her medication and help her fall asleep. She refused this gesture at first and then it became one thing she looked forward to. She sat upright against her headboard with the lights and TV on all night to keep her awake until I came home. Waiting for me to sit at the edge of her bed with a soft hand balm and a prayer. A call to another saint that maybe would hear us this time.
The last time I held her hand was in her hospice bed where she turned cold. I was away for a few minutes and came back to her hands resting neatly at her sides as if they had been positioned this way. They were two colors, a warm tint blending into a cold pale glaze. You don’t realize there is a tone to life until it becomes contrasted with its absence.
I put my cold hand on top of hers. How do you describe the feeling of life leaving the body. Or, death taking over it. The feeling of halted blood flow. The grip of my hand tightly clinging to keep life in her fingers. To keep her. These were the hands that carried me as a child. That massaged the charley horses out of my legs after soccer practice as she sat at the end of my bed. That applied sunscreen heavily to my freckled nose and arms. Still, now, I can’t remember what they looked like.
In my younger adult years, I strived to be wholly like my mother, forcing myself to be just like her. In my adulthood, I have accepted that I am half my father and half my mother, living in inner turmoil the duality of sinner and saint. Secretive and kind. Obsessive and patient. Cold and warm.