I held her left hand in my hands. I massaged the lotion into her palm and out onto each finger. They had shriveled and were now folded and curled in due to lack of use. These were the hands that cooked our Holiday ham and quilted our babies first blankies. These were the hands that crafted with the grandchildren and brought food to the food bank for thirty years. These were the hands that nurtured her sons and loved her husband. These were the hands that drove to cub scouts and baseball and football practices. These were the hands that held her husband’s for over fifty some years.
Her nails had grown around and down the bend of her fingertips and her cuticle had taken over her nail bed. Her hands couldn’t straighten nor wave nor do much of anything necessary or practical. She had lost all use, not just of her hands, but other faculties as well. I stood there at the side of that bed and I held each feeler, hoping as I pressed in and and pushed down, the muscles and joints and tendons would come back to life, back to use, back to driving and riding bikes and hugging and cooking family favorites. I looked out the window for just a moment watching the grandkids playing outside. They found fun and life in a patch of grass right outside this place that dimmed such things. I could hear them laugh through the glass and so could she. She loved them dearly and had invested a great deal of her life into them. I imagined all she wanted to do was jump out of the bed and go play.
“I am ready to say goodbye,” she said. I was sure I heard her incorrectly. It was getting harder to hear what she was saying these days. Her speech had slurred and she rarely spoke.
“What was that you said?” I asked feeling internally nervous that I might be about to have this kind of conversation. I hoped I had heard her wrong. We were all pushing towards getting better, beating this, getting the procedure that would take all this pain and inability away and we could go back to the way it was.
She said “I am ready to say goodbye. I am ready to go be with Jesus.” She began to breathe the words I hope I can say one day. All the pokes and prods, all the doctors visits, all the medicine, all the pain, all the hope of recovery and hope lost, had finally spoken. She was done. I saw it in her. I looked in her eyes and she told me herself. The hands with which I grasped had now let go. They were no longer holding on to a doctor’s maybe or a surgery promising help. These hands were no longer holding onto earthly redemption. They weren’t holding onto a vacation planned or a mortgage to be paid. They weren’t holding onto a retirement not yet lived or summer gatherings with friends. They weren’t holding onto to getting rid of wrinkles. They weren’t holding onto a picture of how she wanted her life to be. They weren’t holding onto all that she had worked for.
They, as if each finger one by one had been pried open, had let go. There was nothing they were gripping or grasping or holding onto so tightly that was going to find her kicking and screaming and having a fit because things weren’t going her way. There was nothing she was grabbing that was keeping her from the way of God’s bend and will. There was nothing that she needed in those hands other than what she had.
And what she had was Jesus’ hand and it was like, in that room, I saw His hand in hers. She was holding His promise to grasp her hand as she walks into another realm, a paradise, a perfect place. One where her hands will spring back into working order. “She will drive again down the streets of heaven” as my daughter Bella says, because grandma so missed driving to visit the kids. She will be living until we, who love her, get there. She will whip up her favorite raisin sauce and sew quilts in colors we have yet to see. She will raise her hands in some kind of uninhibited praise out of reverence for where she finds herself and it won’t be in a bed with wounds and empty promises of getting healing. She will be fully whole and she will have His Hand forevermore in hers.
She had let go and none of us had. Perhaps the most difficult thing about dying is the peeling back of each finger, the unclenching of your fist and what you hold in your hands. Our entire lives we have been holding onto what we care about that is here, right in front of us. We hold onto dreams of how we want our lives to go. We hold onto people that we dearly love. We hold onto property that we have built up and tended to. We hold onto our favorite books and our ability to hike and sing and travel. We hold onto marriage and romance. We hold onto cars and jewelry and status and titles.
There are many things you clench in your fist even now, if you are anything like me.
My dear Anna Marie taught me something, many things, but something about life and now death. Live letting go. Live with hands bent toward God’s way and will. Don’t go out fighting. There is a time to fight and then there is a time to, with all grace, let go. When that day comes, the letting go will come more peacefully and with gentleness if you have lived a lifetime that leans into this letting go. Clench little. Hold in your fist, His will, not things. Hope in more than what you can see or hold with your hands. Grab onto only what you have been handed, and at that, carry whatever it is with gratitude and know it’s only passing. One day it will slip right through your fingers.
Jesus said “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
That day she looked up at me and told me she was ready to go, she was finding her life. I saw a peace in her that I hope I have on my death bed and every day until then. All the prayers, all the “God” talk, all the scripture readings, all the Sundays in a pew, all those messages of hope in God and faith in Heaven, will they find me at peace, unclenched? Her ability to unclench when her loved ones hadn’t, came out of the rootedness of her lifelong trust and faith in who God promises to be. Those spiritual teachings were no longer words, they had to be more, they were her reality as she chose it. God’s hand was in hers and it was walking her elsewhere.
I last saw her on Mother’s Day. I rubbed her hands and moved to her feet as well. The kids sat with her and told knock knock jokes and shared stories. She smiled. She always smiled. The one thing everyone remembers is her smile. It could have been a rainy, no good, very bad day and she would smile. She could have had the flu or the turkey could have burnt on Thanksgiving and she would have smiled. Her mouth peaked open every time someone walked into a room. It was like it couldn’t help it. My daughter has been waking up every night crying, missing grandma’s smile. She asked us to let go and we asked for more time because we were holding on.
I am told, the nurse walked into her room a few evenings later and this dear, faithful, selfless woman that my family loved, she smiled, closed her eyes and took her last breath. She let go and is now holding onto Him who lasts forever, that which never perishes nor slips through your fingers. We now, are slowly unclenching…looking for the peace she found, both for now in our grief and as we continue to live, finding ourselves trying to hold on too tightly to what we cannot keep.