I have always liked my hands. Liked the smooth, hairless skin that stretches taut over tendons and bones. That allows me to see how my fingers work. I love how if I extend my fingers, the skin is softer, malleable. The veins soft and spongy, filled with blood under fingertips.
I remember looking at my mother’s hand when I was little and noticing that it was not quite the same as mine. The skin had a different turgor, but was still malleable. Still smooth. In contrast to my grandmother’s skin. Which was leathery and wrinkled. Old. Never desiccated, always a bit plump, but not youthful.
When she died I remember holding my grandmother’s warm, lifeless hand. And feeling the tendons and bones and her tiny fingers, even smaller than my own. I kept waiting for the squeeze back into my hand, the universal symbol for life. But it never came and it never will. Because even though she was still warm, even though cells were still going about their enzymatic business, that which gave her life had gone. And soon those cells would stop, and then there was nothing.
I work closely with the dying now. I meet people who are going to die. Not just as a far off certainty, like taxes and crazy Christmas shopping, but as a finite days to weeks to perhaps months timeline. And it is endlessly confronting. Rewarding, important and sensitive work, but confronting as well.
It’s easy to stick a cannula into a plump juicy vein and prepare someone for surgery. It was easy to listen to a chest and order an x-ray when my whole raison d’etre was to patch people up and send them on home. But the challenges involved when they are not going home, or if they are, it’s not to get back on with regular life, are endless.
My mother’s hands remind me of my grandmother’s lately. My breath caught as the concept plainly presented itself to me, that any day my mother could present me with the diagnosis that I am witness to daily here in the hospital of terminal demise. That while there are still decades left of my relationship with her in my mind, so too did others believe that of their loved ones.
My own hands are not quite the same. They are still smooth and soft and capable. Unwrinkled and barely marked, but they too will show signs soon. That age is inescapable. I guess this is why plastic surgery is so popular, no one wants to be reminded that they are ageing, edging closer to nothing.