From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Holding Hands

My husband Paul’s hands had a fine, firm feeling: warm, never cold, never moist, their slight pressure always reassuring. And whenever those hands sought mine in the final days of his life, he pressed them both together around one of my hands.

It was during that time, as I sat by his bed, that I tried to memorize his hands. They were twice as long as mine and half a hand wider. His fingers did not taper; they were long and square, laced with fine veins all the way to the tips. His nails squared off the ends of his fingers, with clearly defined moons at the cuticles and clearly defined white edges. He had always taken great care to keep them neat. They were not tough hands nor soft, either. They were the hands of a college professor whose tools were chalk and felt-tipped red pens.

I wondered if his students had difficulty reading his hieroglyphics. I had grown used to them the year we were apart—engaged to be married, but separated—so he could pursue a master’s degree at Bradley University, 800 miles away from our Pennsylvania hometown.

Had I remembered to tell him that I found his large hands beautiful? Did I ever explain that, in our years of courtship, when he was invited regularly to dinner in my home, my mother was fascinated with the quiet way he managed the silverware and coffee cups in hands in which they nearly disappeared? Did I mention that in his clasp— in a movie, in poignant moments in church, in the hospital beds to which the illnesses of his last four years confined him—I felt pure and honest expressions of his love?

In those hands, also, originated his caring for his children. It was a point of pride that he gave our newborn daughter her first bath. At seven pounds and fourteen ounces, she fit comfortably into the length of those two hands, but his large fingers moved with grace and delicacy to bathe her and the five babies who followed.

Those hands, in our lean early years, gave haircuts to three sons in the course of their growing up and toweled three daughters’ hair dry after showers.

They manipulated suitcases, with a maximum of sweat and a minimum of profanity, in top-of-the-car carriers of station wagons for twenty-eight annual summer pilgrimages to Pennsylvania to visit grandparents. They distributed Communion in church—a most honored and honorable task. They traced patterns in the air as he taught his marketing students in the university in which he had studied so many years before.

Those hands clasped mine in the most frightening moments of his illnesses. They reached for mine through seven months of chemotherapy and its agonizing side effects, through the bedfast few weeks of the end of his life, when children came to visit, give service and mourn in advance what they could clearly see was the end of their father’s seventy-five years.

Those hands clasped mine in the deepest, darkest moment when he whispered into the curve of my neck, “I wonder . . . how it is to die. I wonder if it hurts.” I could only give him what I believed was the sum of his life— that he would be surrounded, uplifted, overjoyed with the glory of God.

Finally, he was no longer able to hold my hands. Early one morning, I prepared Paul for the priest who had come every day for the past week to give him a fragment of Communion on a teaspoonful of water and bless him. After offering Paul a breakfast he could no longer eat, in a state of nervous anxiety I clipped, filed and whitened his fingernails. There was no movement, no recognition, no response as I laid his hands across his chest, where they had lain uncharacteristically still for several days. Within an hour, when the hospice nurse checked him with her stethoscope, there was nothing left for me to do but close his luminous green eyes and lay my hands on his for the last time, in the quiet haven of our bedroom.

Months later, I opened the top drawer of Paul’s dresser one Sunday and reached in for one of his clean, pressed handkerchiefs—I liked to use them now. What I touched was an opened pack of emery boards.

For seven-and-a-half months, my grief for my husband had been frozen within me like an icy presence that would not yield. Then, this last Sunday of February, I was undone by the simple presence of emery boards. Tears came as I closed my eyes and tried in vain to remember the clasp of Paul’s hands.

Soon after, Stephen, the youngest—who most resembles his father—came to see me. When it was time to go, Stephen kissed me good-bye and then, impulsively, took my hand in both of his large, broad ones. For several moments, I couldn’t speak. It was as though his father’s long, graceful hands clasped mine once again. Still reassuring me.

Helen Troisi Arney

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