It was the way her hands were folded. Pulled to a strained overlap of tulip shaped fingers. I had known those hands. They had applied toilet paper to my squirming butt; choo-choo’d quarts of applesauce into the cavern of my mouth and applied gallons of maternal universal solvent spat hastily onto tissues between the car and church. No baby boomer boy’s cheek went more than two weeks without an anointing. Mother spit. As sure a cure for the filthy cheek as Christ’s blood was to the soul.
I had hoped that some embalmer’s trick would make the hands lay flat and not be the clenched, gnarled claws they had become. Arthritis bound and enlarged the knuckles and bent her hands as though she wished to cup water to her mouth. They had done good work with her color and her hair looked so natural that she might have just returned from the beauty parlor. But the hands held me back from mourning as I hoped I would.
I wondered if I might slip away from this small group of family, whispered condolences, occasional laughs and small talk, button hole one of the funeral directors minding the sign-in pad at the back of White Oak Church and ask, “which tendons can you sever to make her hands lay flat?” There was nothing in the room to focus on; only the body. The blood had been drained, siphoned off; replaced by an otherwise toxic mix of chemistry. We in the room were left with the wafer and no wine to lighten the mood or lubricate the tongue. Maybe that was why speaking had this dry, powdery feel on my teeth.
‘How ya’ doin’, boy?,’ it was Uncle David. Even though I’d passed five decades on this earth, Uncle David retained the right to call me boy. His back was bent like a man searching for lost quarters at the beach, but his hand was still roughly calloused by years of farm work and cigarettes. I could feel the sandpaper skin as he caught my elbow to steady himself. With effort, he turned his head in an attempt to make eye contact.
‘I’m okay.’ And I reached my free arm around him in a half embrace. I was glad to see this solid man of the earth. He had grounded my youth and revealed the mysteries of table fare to my city-boy eyes. Pigs, cattle, chickens, eggs and fish; all in their natural habitat. All in their paddocks, pens, coops and ponds. He had taught me where they lived and how they died so we could live and how their flesh changed from field to table. In that semi-intimate embrace, I managed to look past his shoulder and keep mom’s hands in sight. ‘I’m okay,’ I repeated, softly at his ear in a raspy, throat catching sort of way. As I straightened up, I added, ‘ I was just headed to find a water fountain.’
Uncle David gave a tug on my arm in the direction of the hallway and without a word, we turned and made an inch by inch, searching traverse of the small chapel. ‘I’d take a sip from the fountain, too,’ he spoke towards his shoes now as we made our slow regression toward the door. The words were superfluous. We both knew where we were going. I hadn’t seen this man in more than fifteen years, but I knew at his turning that he would hold my elbow to steady me. He would take me to the fountain and be certain that I had a drink. And before we returned to the chapel, he would buttress my flagging strength with some humorous observation or oddity of life.
Like any lifelong farmer, he had seen the unexpected in his fields. The snake that choked to death on too large a toad. The ear of corn grown in the shape of a cross that even had three tassels. Uncle David could start and stop conversations just by showing up. But, unlike just any farmer, this man had raised part of me. He knew the soil I was shaped from.
The water fountain was set in an alcove between the men’s and women’s restrooms, just off the narthex. Years ago, Uncle David had saved an otherwise compliant boy from certain punishment by walking me to the back of the nave, out the narthex and around to the Sunday School wing of White Oak United Methodist in the middle of the dullest possible sermon. Where two hallways met, there was an alcove between restrooms. His observation on that day was over a simple act of plumbing; an engineering stratagem to reduce construction costs. All the pipes, the water in and the waste lines out, were located in one central place. Uncle David’s wit jumped over that mark and landed at another. ‘How does the water know if it flows to the toilet or the fountain?,’ he had asked, deadpan. And he had waited until I was well into the process of taking water in. I had gagged and choked that water right back down the fountain drain.
Today, a little more than forty years later and, for Uncle David, past the death of his wife, my Aunt Maggie, he caught my elbow in a stabilizing pinch. But his wit was humorless. ‘It’s alright to feel some relief,’ he said. He had caught my eye, this time, with his upturned head.
‘It’s like drinking at this fountain,’ he explained. ‘You drink. Sooner or later, you have to pee. Life and death. It’s like drinking and peeing. You take it in and you let it out. God lets us feel relief in both.’
He returned his gaze to the tops of his shoes and we made our slow procession back into the chapel. Everyone was seated. I escorted Uncle David next to his step daughter, Anna Lee, and walked to the family row where I could see mom’s hands again.
Pastor Young read from Romans 9:21 about vessels for common use and vessels for special purpose. The sermon ended. Mom’s silk soft hands lay, chilled and pale and flat. Pall bearers walked to the front. The lid closed. And I cried.