During COVID-19, I think about my mother every day. She was essential. She would have been there for other people.

Hands. Image by Costanza on Flickr

My mother was a nurse, and it defined her life. She fought her parents to become one, put herself through school without their money. They believed nursing was beneath her. All those bedpans. All that blood and stink. But my mom, who created doll hospitals in the backyard and ministered to stray cats and dogs all her childhood, marched herself to nursing school in 1949 and never once looked back.

I looked back for her. Playing at the back of her closet, I would lift the lids from two hat boxes to reveal her enticing separate selves before marriage: in one, the glad girl’s turquoise pillbox with a sequined net veil, bought with her first paycheck. In the other, the stiff, formal cap of the nurse, banded with a thin ribbon of black velvet. She’d pinned the Florence Nightingale Pledge to the satin inside:

“Isn’t it scary, the hospital?” I asked her once. I was seven.

She stopped whatever she was doing. Maybe she dried her hands on a towel, or smoothed down the sheets for bed, with a practiced hand.

“No, oh no,” she said. “I like the hospital. It’s where people get better.”

When we were writing the eulogy, about 20 years after that conversation, my sister came up with the best detail: that our mom’s hands were cool when you were feverish, and warm when you were cold.

She was the consummate nurse: always there and unflappable. She made even the most unacceptable acts of care somehow okay. She performed private ablutions for us as if just pouring tea. She held our heads, wiped our bodies, washed our linens, and woke in response to the lightest, faintest cry.

When I was12, an anxiety so deep took hold of me that — every night for three years — I crept into my parents’ room and stood by their bed to call her name. Without fail, in that deep, interstitial hour of fear, her eyes blinked open at the first whisper: “Mom.”

“What do you need, baby?” Awake, no transition, just present and waiting to know. What I needed was so complicated that it became simple. I needed her awake to know I was there. That’s all. I would settle down with my pillow and blanket on the floor beside her, reaching my hand up as she reached down to hold mine. The terror retreated to a distance, and I slept. It was true what my sister said: If my hand was cold, my mother’s was warm. When mine was hot, hers was cool.

I inherited those hands. I have used them to soothe my child for 16 years and counting. In this, the worst winter of our lives, I have used them a lot. Sometimes I feel them doing the only good possible, which is to say, I feel it when they fail.

They are good hands, as my mom’s were. They often work well. But in the nights of my adulthood, I know what my mother knew: Sometimes, your hands can’t make things better. Sometimes, the most healing hands won’t do. Yet those nights you will lay your hands on anyway, knowing all the harms you can’t touch.

I’m a 50-something bohemian with a mountain of debt and regrets. Can I dig out before it’s all over? I brake for poets.

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