At my mother’s dining room table, I draw morphine from a tiny glass bottle into a needleless syringe so it can be expelled quickly under her tongue. The hospice nurse watches me. In the next room, my mother lies in a rented hospital bed. She weighs seventy-eight pounds. Her urine drains, thick and orange into a bag that hooks on the side of her bed. It gives off a strong, slightly floral scent. When I sit with her, I act as if it isn’t there. I pretend I can’t smell it.
One part of me wants to climb over the bed rail and curl up beside her. Another wants to run screaming down the street.
My mother had four daughters in four years. Her parenting style could be described as I- don’t-have-time-for-your-nonsense. She loved the four of us as one loves a job well done. She loved us in warm stacks of clean laundry piled on our dressers. She loved us in timely dental check-ups and full sets of immunizations. She loved us in her predictability, her glowing, lipstick-stained Parliament permanently scissored between her first two fingers, her blond flip always visible through the kitchen window when we walked up the driveway after school. She loved us in her penciled-out Wednesday afternoon meal plans: London broil, frozen corn, salad, rolls, in preparation for her Thursday morning outings to the Purity Supreme grocery store. She was fervent about her routines, and we were happy to be swept along, captured in the current of her forward motion.
Now, the hospital bed engulfs my mother’s body. She has become her bones—sharp elbows, the point of knees, her cheeks a deep slash. Her fingers are an outline of long fragile bone, the knob of every joint like punctuation. Her hands, once always busy, now aren’t quite sure what to do. Occasionally, the fingertips of one hand absently brush the speckled back of the other. At times, she clutches the side rails tightly, the way you would brace yourself on a scary amusement park ride. Sometimes she lifts her arm toward the ceiling, and it lingers there, forgotten.
This is perhaps the hardest thing to witness—my mother’s hands without a purpose. The hands that housed a thousand tasks, tasks that said, I’m making ready, I’m expecting you, can no longer sketch her morning to-do list or even grasp a glass of water. The long tapered fingers that smoothed and tucked, that conducted the orchestra of our days, trail aimlessly in the air, pointing toward something only she can see.
I don’t flee. I don’t climb the bed rail either. I glance down at my hands. I notice the skin beginning to slack. The cords of blue veins have begun rising to the surface. Somewhere along the way, in loving my own daughters, my hands have morphed into a version of my mother’s. Then, I focus on my job. This satisfies me—having something to do. I take strange pleasure in thwacking the air bubbles out of the syringe with a flick of my thumb and forefinger. Whenever my mind presses, How did I get here? How did it come to this?, I turn my attention back to my work. I pull on the plunger, fill morphine to the precise black mark, remove the bottle, cap the syringe. I lift the next glass tube and start again. I place them evenly in a row.
Extraordinary. Very well written.
Beautiful and devastating. I was just discussing this subject with a close friend– the pain we know we will feel if/when this happens to our own parents. You’ve articulated it with grace and courage. Thank you.
Yes, this isn’t prose. It is poetry. It isn’t meant to be read silently, on the page. It is meant to be read aloud. When this is read aloud, you clearly hear the music in the verse. I am sure that Betty Jo read this aloud to herself to arrive at her final draft. Listen to the music here. To help you hear the music, I will break down the lines for you as I would write them as poetry. You can do this for the whole last half of the piece, but I will only break down the lines in one paragraph. It is truly beautiful. Listen to the pauses, the inflection:
Now, the hospital bed
engulfs my mother’s body.
She has become her bones—
the points of her knees,
her cheeks a deep slash.
Her fingers are an outline
of long fragile bone,
the knob of every joint
once always busy,
now aren’t quite sure
what to do.
the fingers of one hand
the speckled back of the other.
She clutches the side rails
the way you would
on a scary
amusement park ride.
Sometimes she lifts her arm
toward the ceiling,
and it lingers there,
Beautiful, succinct, writing … I loved this piece, Betty Jo.
What a powerfully poignant work. I love how you’ve used your mother’s hands to tell the story of who she was as compared to what she has become, and then made the physical connection to her through your own hands. Lovely way you bring the story full circle with the meticulous filling of the morphine bottles as your coping mechanism. This is an exquisite piece of writing. I also say, bravo!
Thank you for your kind comments, Jayne:)
Beautiful and haunting story and so well crafted! Bravo!!
Yes, beautiful essay. You have written this with power and gentleness, precision and purpose. And yet, even while we read, it is apparent that something painful must be ignored in order to read these difficult details. The way you come to your own hands at the end is a poignant bookend.
What a powerful essay, concise and stunning. I love this line in particular, “The long tapered fingers that smoothed and tucked, that conducted the orchestra of our days, trail aimlessly in the air, pointing toward something only she can see.” The shift to your own hands at the end ties everything together so well.
Thank you, Lisa.
Lisa: I would like use your comment as a chance to make a case for longer memoirs. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that “Hands” is stunning and exquisitely crafted, very powerful and moving. This, I think, is what readers nowadays call “flash”. To me, it is so well-written I would call it a “prose poem.” To me, poetry is defined by the use of words in such a way that each one carries a much greater freight of meaning than the words we use in everyday conversation. That is certainly true with this piece. This is pictorial: like looking through a camera lens, we get a glimpse of something much bigger and more complicated beyond the limits of the lens, beyond the borders of the photo. There is another kind of memoir, though, one that is equally valid as an expression of art, I believe. This form of memoir is longer because it must involve change. It is not photographic. It is fluid. I think this form of memoir mirrors the techniques of fiction in some ways: the writer shows us the way something is, and then that something changes in a profound way to become different. There is no acceptable word for this change in English. “Resolution” doesn’t cut it. The French call it “denouement.” James Joyce twisted the meaning of the change he wrote about into something a little different he called “epiphany,” a sudden realization. To show you what I mean, I would like to cite another shorter Hippocampus memoir that appeared in the July 2013 issue of Hippocampus, “Blue Eyes at the Wheel,” by Anthony J. Mohr. Mohr starts out his memoir with uncertainty about his stepfather. He feels loyalty to his real father, who was an actor. He feels his stepfather is strictly a suit and tie kind of guy who plays by the rules. His stepfather, by ignoring a traffic rule, proves to Anthony that he is a pretty cool kind of person after all. That realization on Anthony’s part is epiphany. It is denouement. Sometimes plots that involve change take more words to express than pictorial type memoirs. Thinking every memoir has to be absolutely minimalist, I think, is unrealistic. Maybe I am old fashioned, but even today I would much rather listen to a piece of music by Aaron Copland than one by Philip Glass.
Hi John, I love the wealth of ideas in your comment. Sounds like the beginning of an essay? Thanks for the perspective. All Best, lisa
You are such a kind soul, Lisa. I looked back through the archive of your comments, and I couldn’t find a single one that wasn’t positive and encouraging. I am sure you know the phrase “Be the change you would like to see in the world.” I think that phrase perfectly describes you. I would like to congratulate you for being up to the challenge of home schooling your children. After going through public schools myself, I have very little that is good to say about them. Horrible! And now they seem to have become magnets, drawing deeply distrubed individuals who want to inflict hurt on the whole world. All best to you, Lisa. All best!
My goodness, you’ve made my day! 🙂