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The One Moment in Life No Woman Is Ever Prepared For

My mother's life was spectacular and her death is still haunting.

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My mother died on March 8th, 2023. She was 93. It was just past dawn. I alone was with her as she took her final breath.

The moment was still, but not serene. It was not spiritual. I felt no transcendence, no leave-taking soul. Her face was drawn into a tight mask with eyes and mouth partially open.

What I felt was sorrow, unmatched in my life. It wrenched me open. It left me sobbing in the stark California sunlight.

We had prepared. But there is no real preparation for this moment. 

The funeral home sent two men. As they pulled back the blanket covering her thin body, there on her chest, just above her heart, were her hands. They were crossed at the wrist, one lying gently on top of the other. To me, they appeared posed as in classical paintings of the Madonna. The image was stunningly beautiful.

I asked her caregiver if she’d placed the hands in that position. She said she had not. It was clear this last gesture came from somewhere within my mother. It seemed to say, “I am ready. I am at rest. I am at peace." The image of those hands is seared in my memory forever.

Now, when I think of my final morning with my mom, I try not to dwell on the devastating moment I lost her, forever. I try, instead, to think of her hands, like porcelain. I try to think of what those hands had touched and done and accomplished in those 93 years.

My mom divorced in a time when women just didn’t get divorced. She moved, as a single mother of a toddler, to a city where she knew no one. She found a job and put me in full-time care from Sunday night to Friday. My first memory, when we finally were together Friday nights, was of her stroking me lovingly. I called it "scratching my back" and it was what I always asked for first. It was a precious intimacy between a parent and child. I can still feel her fingers gliding up and down my skin.

Through time we used our hands together, my mother and I; taking care of an infant sister and then brother as she re-married. We cleaned every surface of the house where we were raised. In the 65 years in which she lived in that house her hands touched every inch of its surface, wiping, polishing, painting; it was in that house she took her last breath.

Over time those hands prepared thousands of meals, corrected homework, applauded our accomplishments, more than once slapped in anger, held protest signs and then textbooks when she went back to college in her 40s.

It was during my visits home from college I first noticed my mother’s hands. For me, they became a study in aging, a precursor of what I could expect with time. Over the years I noticed the thinning skin, the knotting knuckles, the spots, lines and veins.

Years later, when my mother came to visit, one of my twin girl’s favorite games was to take my mom’s hands and direct them downwards until the veins filled with pulsating blood. The girls would then quickly raise them up and watch the blood drain out. It happened fast and never failed to prompt delighted laughter.

My mom was vain about her hands. She kept her nails perfectly manicured and when, as little girls, they introduced her to their friends it was always as, "our grandma with the beautiful nails."

When I took my last look, before her body was zipped into a dark, plastic carrier and wheeled away, her nails were painted pink. Pink nails on perfectly placed hands. Hands that loved and labored for 92 years, 11 months and 14 days.

My own hands are not so manicured. My fingers are not as long and elegant as hers. My own veins don’t fill and empty to the delight of children. But I have these hands because she had me.

Since that day in March 2023, time has passed. I’ve celebrated a birthday without the phone call first thing in the morning to hear my mom’s “Happy birthday!." No one is left to tell me the story of the moment of my birth or all the chapters that followed. She alone knew my complete history. It left when she left.

At first, I filled the emptiness with photos. I put them everywhere. Then I’d share out loud memories of moments and events with family, trying to ensure they’d never be lost.

But lately, I don’t have to do anything to summon her. I find my mom is with me almost all the time. I hear her voice and know exactly what she’d say in answer to any question. If I need advice or comfort I repeat to myself the words I know she’d offer. In my mind’s eye, the death mask is gone. It’s been replaced by her ageless smile.

In the past year, I’ve learned that once grief enters it never really exits. It’s becoming a silent companion. And, if I pause and force myself to contemplate my mom’s utter and eternal absence, it’s there. She’s gone. And each time it breaks me.

But, then I recall her hands, so peaceful. And I am reminded of what remains; her care, her wisdom, her enormous fighting spirit and her beauty.

I am an older woman, and my hands are not as beautiful as hers grew to be. Though, someday when my own daughters take their last look I hope they see what I saw: the hands of a mother who loved with a love that never leaves but is passed from heart to heart.

For those who have lost their mother, what do YOU most remember about her? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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