Aging hands, Aging Souls

The slow aging of our children makes us acutely aware of our own progression of life. Our own mortality. 

The slow aging of our very last child creeps the nail ever more definitively towards our coffin. 

They learn to crawl, our bodies spread. 

They learn to walk, our legs begin to ache. 

They learn to talk, our voices mellow out and become stronger, more confident. 

And their hands….especially their hands….their hands learn to manipulate larger objects while ours learn to finely tune loving caresses. 

I often notice people’s hands. 

I’m drawn to them. 

Just like faces, hands age as life takes its toil and their appearance silently displays someone’s inner story. Strength. Fragility. 

Determination. 

The hands of my friends in their mid-30s and 40s have taken on a more mature look over the years that I’ve known them. Mine have begun to change as well. 

Gone is the plump thick smoothness of our 20s. 

We have scars. 

Skin is thinning out. 

Knuckles more defined. 

Lines are deepening. 

Age spots appearing. 

Weathered and worn. 

Those accustomed to hard manual labor are easily detected by now, betrayed by the permanent calluses and sandpapery feel of their inner palms and fingertips, with grime ground so deep even the harshest soaps can’t return the shine. 

Others are pristine, palms and fingertips kept soft over the years due to the activities of their own life path. 

But none of us escapes the aging. 

I remember my Granny’s hands during her 70s and 80s. 

Rough. Gnarled like a century old tree along a nearly dry riverbank. 

Fingertips always painted blood red. 

Arthritis prevented her from pointing straight, a quirk that didn’t escape teasing by immature grandchildren. 

I watched those small leathery hands feed hens and goats. 

Plant corn and water flowers. 

Fry chicken legs and spread peanut butter. 

Once, as a small child, I even watched those hands shake while chopping wood for her pot belly stove, causing her to miss the log and drive the ax head deep into her calf bone. 

She didn’t flinch. 

She just sighed, glanced at me and said, “Well……shit.” as those aged hands pulled the ax head out, blood pooling down her leg, turning her white ked sneaker a dark mottled scarlet. 

Surprisingly, of all the hands I’ve known, I associate those gnarled, leathery aged hands with “strength” because of that one moment. 

And I thought of all this while watching a friend’s hands last night at dinner. 

Funny what moments trigger memories in us when we should be focusing on other things.

Loss of a Grandmother

Time nor space nor age nor maturity can provide complete relief from internal losses we have suffered during this human journey. Whether a sudden sniff of faint remembered odor, a sudden shift in the coolness of air, or a certain twang of a familiar country song note hit just right, we are transported back in time swift as warp drive. 12 years in and today I still find myself suddenly longing for my beloved Granny!
Just shy of 5 feet tall, this tiny little country powerhouse survived the worst that life in the mid-20th century could throw at her, starting with the death of her mother at a young age, the Great Depression, the birth of 5 children during the 1940s, a massive heart attack, and the eventual death-by-cancer of her husband, whom she went on to live 22 years without. She also raise numerous goats, chickens and crazy tall ears of corn – all of which provided me with a wealth of fond childhood memories.
At the age of 80 you could still find her out front chopping wood for the iron cast stove in her 1940s cozy cinderblock 5 room home she had lived in since her youngest child (my father) entered school, hoe’ing one of her many garden plots, and calling on “them dadburn chickens” to come in their pen at night.

She could play a thoroughly wicked game of poker and taught all of us yougins the fine art of Go Fish, Old Maid and Gin Rummy, holding well worn cards with beaded, arthritic hands, capped in chipped ruby red nail polish…all while a lit Salem dangled from her leathered smiling lips. But don’t sip from her red solo cup mistaking it for her always-on-tap sweet tea or you may end up with a mouthful of Granny’s hard whiskey! If that DID happen though, be prepared for haughty laughter over the sound of the slamming forest green wood screen door in your rushed attempt to spit it out in the front yard! Ehem.. not that I would know personally, of course. 😉 Then there were the spooky fall nights, filled with crackling stove fire, 80s country music playing softly from the old grey tape deck, the eerie creak of the back porch swing, and whispered tales of UNK, the resident headless ghost who wandered Granny’s yard peeping through windows in his tireless quest for a new head (preferably from a brown haired child with a red shirt and white shorts…or whatever look you happened to be sporting that particular evening).

And now here I sit, well over a decade since I last heard her voice. I have so many questions I would love to ask her that never occurred to teenage-me! Questions about birth, raising multiple children, overcoming modern materialistic desire, what her thought about war were and how she survived without air condition. And although her voice timbre is almost faded from memory, and I’ll never get the answers to specific questions, her age-old life lessons still ring fervently in my ears.

And I hope she is proud of me.

Cancer Takes My Uncle

This past week, in the front bedroom of a small white 2 story unassuming peaceful country dwelling just past White Knoll High in Lexington, lay a small man barely 6 decades old, his shaved bald head pressed awkwardly into a white pillow as he slept. The peppered grey unruly beard upon his chin was the only vestige left of his earlier normal appearance.
In a mere 3 months time, his entire innocent body had fast succumbed to the most vicious mutant cancerous cells; his breath (even in sleep) now came in painful shallow, uneven gasps as his skeleton-thin chest heaved from life’s most basic instinct. Pillows were strategically positioned to elevate his spine and relieve pressure from the bone crushing tumors. A window air unit a few feet away was turned to low, spreading the sweet smell of cut gardenia blossom that sat in a vase nearby. It’s steady hum along with the soothing baby blue and white linen color scheme offered a sort of mind cooling atmospheric peace.He had no children, and no wife to comfort or grieve him. Instead, round the clock vigil was being kept by 3 of his 8 siblings. Other extended family members had been in and out for weeks, bringing food, cutting grass, and providing solace. But these 3 were a permanent fixture at their youngest sibling’s side. There would be no more graver a sin than to leave him alone now! He needed their presence, and their unmentioned sacrifice came as no surprise.

This proud family exuded love and dedication in their very bones – a heritage given to them by their parents who had bravely endured life (and death) together during some of the most heinous moments of the early and mid 20th century.

In a rocker at the foot of the man’s queen size bed, sat a tough, strait back, solemn purple-heart decorated Marine who had himself looked upon Death intimately during his years in the tropical jungles with the Vietcong. His civilian life the past few decades however had been dedicated to the housing, love and care of this youngest brother, who due to severe mental challenges and failing eyesight had been unable to provide a solo life for himself.

Just beyond the bedroom door, in a quaint old fashioned kitchen with black & white checked tile, RX medicine bottles sat organized and labeled in a plastic tub on the round oak table. Picking up the morphine and mouth syringe, his older sister adjusted her glasses, caught a ragged breath, and steadily measured out the appropriate dosage, which was being administered every two hours to edge the pain. What better a caretaker than she, who had provided the same tender end-of-life nursing to her own beloved soulmate of over 40 years as he suffered through the wretched stage 4 prostate cancer that finally claimed him in 2009?

Setting down a small bowl of finely puréed food they had attempted to feed the dying man earlier, the younger sister approached. “Sit down and rest, please, sissy. I will take it in this time.” she offered, absentmindedly smoothing down the front edge of the emerald blue kerchief she kept tied around her own fuzzy bald head, as her stomach rumbled in remembrance of too many skipped meals. A perpetual tiredness shown in her beautiful aging eyes, belying her own struggles with chemotherapy the past 6 months. No time for self pity. She paused only long enough to pop a lone gummy bear in her mouth. A moment later, medicine in hand, she eased into the quiet bedroom…and shut the door.

This morning, June 27, 2013, at 6:35 am, the morphine dosage was no longer needed. Instead, the pain ceased forever for the dying man – my poor uncle, my mother’s youngest brother. He was part of a very proud, close knit family of 9 children from Winnsboro, SC, born during the two decades spanning the late 1930s and late 1950s.

Uncle Floyd was an Artist, quiet, a loner, and laid back. He was not one for ridiculous small talk….but catch him at the right moment and his insight into life and sudden wit would overtake you, leaving you breathless. In life, he never had the opportunity to be a leader. But now, as the first of the 9 siblings to cross that great divide between here and eternity, he has earned his place as a leader amongst them….a General in combat, who fought his way bravely forward, alone, despite the frailness of his humanity. And like all good leaders, he will be there, waiting, hand outstretched, laughing his unique trippy laugh, encouraging us, as the rest of our family someday embarks, one by one, across that dark and lonely chasm between life and death.

But until then, the pain of his sudden and permanent absence is raw. He will be sorely missed here on earth.