They were something beautiful. Her nails, that is. Bright red and perfectly painted with a strong, shiny lacquer- causing her long slender fingers to look like they belonged on a movie star. They’re what I noticed first- what I made a point of observing before anything else, when I saw her for the very last time.
She was dying, and my mother called for an esthetician to come. We often hear of doctors being called, but how many women have the bittersweet joy of being treated to a massage and manicure the day before the die? She wasn’t responding as much anymore, although her eyes were open. She could still see. She could hear. And I believe she knew what was going on around her.
But she was dying, and dying quickly.
My mother wanted her to be comfortable, but she also wanted her to be touched. To be touched is to be treated humanely. Tenderly. To be recognized as being alive, as living. When we are not touched, we begin to curl inward. We retract. My mother wanted to keep her spirit close, so she constantly held her hands. And she brought those types of people in to her bedside who were not afraid of touching. Not afraid of death.
Not afraid to care.
The esthetician massaged her arms and shoulders and she massaged her scalp- something that always brought great pleasure to my aunt when she had been able to express such. And when the young woman had finished the massage, she painted her nails in the most vivid colour she could find. Red- a colour so warm and cheery one couldn’t help but smile. It was a color that announced to the world “there is still light and colour in this life!”
Even at the eve of death.
Yes, her fingernails were something beautiful to behold. And they were the first thing I noticed when I saw her lying there peacefully in the casket. The fact that her nails were painted brought me courage. Because we are alive as long as we are living. We are human as long as there is breath. We can’t believe anything otherwise. Even those we keep locked away inside those brick-faced institutions- they are life. They are story, they are song. Their existence- a work of artistic splendor, brushstrokes painted by a master storyteller’s hands. Stories told in myriad ways: chronicles of a life which count for something. For the life of a precious soul is beautiful and sacred, even to the very last breath.
For thirty-one long years she lived life paralyzed and motionless. Virtually silent and unexpressive. And while she lived in the various manors and hospitals she occupied, she waited. We stood by and watched this waiting process, wondering if she would ever come back to us. Wondering if she would ever be healed. I am forty years old now, but I was eight when that pick-up truck plowed into her little car, leaving her motionless. Leaving her childless, her eight-month pregnant body giving forth a babe three weeks before Christmas who was then left to die in a cold, clinical sink while the doctors worked on his mother’s brain.
And what his Mama was left with at the end of the day? A debilitating brain injury which would snuff the spark from her eye. Snatch her emotions away- and all this because of a fateful trip home on a snowy night after a long day’s work. That trip on a snow-covered road would leave her to sit and wait for the remainder of her life, leave her only able to moan out the occasional word. A few repetitious verses and phrases retained from childhood her daily mantra. She: constantly rubbing at her crusted eye, often swollen shut from irritation. Her lifeless hands and legs a testament to her injury. No animated gestures to light up a room. They were nearly all but gone, but for the sudden reflexive movement.
But there were times in those years when one could see it in her face- a knowing. A deeper sense. That there was more to the story than we would ever know. The way she sometimes looked at you, as if she understood. And in that knowing was where we found the deepest wounding – that was where proverbial knife meets flesh and gouges. It cut to the heart. For as she sat year after year after senseless year in that chair by the occasional window gazing outward, we all wondered. Do thoughts of everyday miracles ever fleetingly pass through her mind? Does she know? Does she ever question why? And does God care? Is He with even her, there in the dark recesses of her mind?
It’s all I really wanted to know for sure. To know that there is true, healing beauty even in the brokenness.
This is in some measure why I think continually about care and its implications in my life. Why I ponder care nearly every waking moment and why I cannot escape it’s relentless mantra- as a mother, as a teacher nor as a human being. My life’s goal: to care deeply. Love much. And live my life like every moment might be my last.
That we take time to give consideration and credence to the role of care in our world is necessary; essential, actually- for care is important in every milieu, every aspect and every facet of life. When people take care with us and those around us, take care with our world and the beings and living things that inhabit our earth, our world is a better place for that care that has been invested. bell hooks (2000) in discussing the importance of caring community says “there is no better place to learn the art of loving than in community”(hooks, p. 129). She borrows psychoanalyst Alice Miller’s term “enlightened witnesses” to describe those whom for us that have experienced unnecessary suffering in childhood (and I would assert even beyond that time frame) have a story to tell about someone whose kindness, tenderness, and concern restored their sense of hope (hooks, 2000, p. 131-132). I believe that this story written here gives proof to an “enlightened witness” in the form of Erica the esthetician- a community member who restored my family’s hope in our deep time of grief just over two months ago, proving to me that one who was formerly a student (as we all were at some point in our lives) could transcend her classroom and become this type of enlightened witness hooks refers to in much of her work. Although one could argue that the role of an esthetician on the eve of a sixty-eight year old woman’s death is too little too late, I know in my heart that the role this unrelated professional played in my aunt’s life was an important one. If everyone in this world could only realize- from the youngest of students in a kindergarten classroom to the eldest of men and woman in our assisted living facilities and manors: how we treat one another matters. It matters. And we never may know how our choice to care and show kindness made all the difference in the life of another.
When all is said and done, it’s not just students who value care and love and thoughtful interest.
We all do.