My Mother’s Hands
I told Mom that her hands looked really dry, and asked if she’d like some skin cream. “Sure,” she said. So I rubbed some Jergen’s lotion into her leathery palms and crooked fingers––which used to play the piano so meticulously––and then into the thin, dry skin on her forearms. As I did this, she closed her eyes, and let out a deep sigh.
I could sense a ripple of happiness, or relief, or something, and then realized she was simply enjoying a rare moment of physical intimacy. “That feels good,” she said. “It’s really hard to be old isn’t it?” I asked a little while later. “Yes, it is,” she said, her eyes still closed.
That was the last conversation I had with Mom in person. She died two months later in the middle of the first Covid surge, leaving me with this picture of her beautiful 95-year-old hands, and all the love they carried.
That summer I sprinkled some of her ashes on the shore of Lake Michigan, at a spot where she liked to swim. When the wave arrived, Mom swirled in the light for a few seconds, then was swept out into the deep, dissolving into everything.
In the morning I walked over to the gravel bar on Lookout Creek to take notes.
Rain drip-ticked on the yellow maple leaves above me. Drop-tocked in the puddles collecting on the ground. Ping-ticked on a shiny black cedar log. Plop-tocked on an overturned plastic bucket some researcher left. Though the wet drum of rain was nuanced andlovely, when I got within 100 yards of the creek, the rush of whitewater overwhelmed everything.
I sat on a flat rock in the hard rain listening to Lookout Creek. Given three days of rain, and all those boulders and deadfalls, it had a lot to say. Over time, the gurgling water dissolves rock, rots logs and leaves, and carries them downstream, along with trout and pine pollen and needles and cones, and bits of moss and lichen. Over time it will reshape its bed and banks and habitat, physically expressing its character and history in the forest. Over time, its diversity and biological health will be denigrated due to climate change and other human activities. Over time, as with all streams and rivers, Lookout Creek will measure and reveal both our culpability and response-ability as a species. Over time it will measure who we are.
The fourteen smoking, glimmering rocks—arranged a foot or less from our bare toes—were beautiful and frightening. I was dripping and trying to pray, but it was getting harder to breathe.
Then Tiger sang prayers for the ancestors. His low, clear voice––my only compass in the darkness––seemed to point everywhere. Then he ladled water from the metal bucket onto the rocks and an intense cloud of steam rose from their sizzle. I kept breathing and trying to let go of my fear, to pray, to belong to the circle, to listen. I remembered what Francis told me when we were undressing: “The heat breaks down the ego and opens you to the spirit.”
Feeling more lost than found, I tried to focus on this line, on the word open, until I fell adrift in the rising spiral of Tiger’s song, and in the heartbeat of Ray’s drum.
Then Tiger sloshed more water on to the iridescent rocks. And in the mingle of light and darkness, the rocks cried out. Their soft hissing arms of steam lifted heavy waves of heat that pulled me back into their wordless prayer, back to the water and fire, back to the earth, to the Wild, and the great Belonging.