The nurse plumped her pillow, and stroked her cheek for a moment, before bustling off to the next patient, and she found herself thinking about how precious it was to touch and be touched. She closed her eyes in weakness, but her mind did not shut off. Instead she was picturing those slim, capable hands which, just now, had been intent on making her feel more comfortable. There had always been hands, all her life, touching her, reaching her, communicating love or unlove ..
She supposed, though of course she could not remember, that the very first had been the midwife’s hands, guiding and supporting her tiny body as she came forth into the world. And then, for seven short years, her mother’s hands, gentle and careful, cleaning her, dressing her, feeding her, holding her. Her clearest memory of her mother was when she had tried to practice shaping her letters, but couldn’t quite control the pencil, and her mother, seeing her frustration, had put aside what she was doing, and , sitting down beside her, had put her hand over hers and guided it, until she could feel the rhythm and balance of it for herself.
But then her mother had died and she had been sent to live with a distant aunt. Aunt Prue had too many children of her own, and really didn’t want another one to deal with, especially one who meant nothing to her. Consequently, her hands were always rough and impatient, slapping her, shoving her into place, plaiting her hair too tightly. She had left there as soon as she was 16 and had got herself a nice, respectable office job.
But the hands continued. There were the hands of friends, tugging her along into life and new experiences, and the hands of various stammering boys (long since faded in her mind into an awkward, weak-chinned conglomerate) who took her to equally forgettable movies and groped for her fingers in the dark. And then she remembered the hands of Miss Elizabeth, her neighbour, swollen-jointed and impossibly wrinkled, that still played such exquisite music on her old piano.
And then there were his hands – lover, husband, friend – hands that caressed her, that worked for her, that had reached out to her in comfort at every difficult moment. They were large hands, calloused from work, whose stumpy fingers never looked quite pristine because they spent every spare moment in his beloved garden. These were green-thumbed hands, coaxing flowers and veggies to grow in a yard that had once been a wasteland of shrivelled grass, full of bindies and paspalum. And they were the hands that put that plain gold band on her finger, promising love and fidelity. He had kept that promise.
Her children’s hands had touched her heart almost as deeply, from the day a nursing baby reached up and patted her cheek, to the day when those nervous knuckles first held too tightly to a steering wheel. How many times had they slipped those little hands into hers, for comfort or reassurance, to cross roads or deal with scary situations? Even in her present tiredness, she found herself praying that her own hands had always responded with love. She really couldn’t remember ..
Now there were other hands that touched her increasingly helpless body: nurses, therapists, nurses’ aides, who lifted her carefully while they changed her sheets or placed her in a wheelchair to give her a change of scene. Soon, very soon now, she would be beyond feeling their touch. They would lay out her body, the undertakers would perform their mystery shrouded office, and this flesh, which had been her burden and her being for over eighty years, would not contain her any more.
But there was one more pair of hands that awaited her then, hands that would welcome her home with love beyond her comprehension. And she would know those hands when they reached out for her, know them by the scars they bore on her behalf – the imprint of the nails that had once been driven through them, puncturing the whole futility of human history and letting in the glory.