On August 23, 1995, my grandma, Vivian Cisneros, finally died. I say finally because she had spent the last year of her life confined to the hospital bed that we had set up in the living room so that her family and friends and nurses could care for her more easily. She’d spent a month in a nursing home, but during that month her ankle was broken and bruises and sores kept appearing on her body. She began to lose touch with reality and she would flinch and shy away from anyone that came near her. We had a doctor evaluate her condition and he said it wasn’t uncommon for a patient in a nursing home to experience Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from the rough handling that they receive there. After all, he said, these people aren’t loved by their care givers. We brought her home that very day and vowed that we would take care of her ourselves, no matter what the sacrifice.
Once home, she relaxed and seemed to be much more at ease, but she never fully regained her faculties. She had lost touch with this world and was looking forward to the next. During the last few months of her life, she spent more time staring into the corner of the living room and having conversations with dead relatives then she spent talking to those of us that were still here. So when I say that she “finally” died, I say that only because I know she is where she wanted to be, not because I wanted her to leave. When it came to my grandma, I was selfish. I would have much rather had her stay here with me, no matter how much she needed to go.
I was kneeling by her bed and holding her hand when she died. After she took her last breath, I lowered my head and cried. I remember looking at her hands through my blurry eyes and thinking about all of the ways that those hands had influenced my life. Now they were thin and bony and her tendons were tight and ran under the skin like wiry cables. Blue veins criss-crossed up and down like lines on a road map just under her delicate skin which had become thin and transparent like tissue paper.
I thought about how many diapers those hands had changed. There wasn’t a member of our family who hadn’t been bathed, powdered and diapered by those hands. Besides family members, Dozens of other children spent their days being pampered by those hands in the daycare she ran from her home.
I remembered Grandma’s comforting hands patting my back as she sang me to sleep and rocked me in her chair. I have vivid memories of my grandma’s hands holding a counting book in front of me, turning the pages as I sat on her lap and pointed to the pictures of kittens and ducks and pigs and counted them out loud.
Those same hands taught me the seemingly impossible task of tying my shoelaces into bows. She gave me an old shoe and guided my fingers as I knelt at the green footstool in front of her rocking chair and practiced making the complicated loops and tucks.
I remember standing with her at the kitchen sink, watching her wash the brown and white eggs that I had just gathered from the chicken coup. Her hands moved quickly and carefully, never breaking a single egg. When I was young, and my own fingers were clumsy, I was impressed by that.
In the summertime, those hands pulled countless bee stingers out of my hands and feet as I cried and fought her. The orange, stinging medicine that she would apply afterward seemed worse than the sting itself. She would tell me to blow on it to stop the sting of the medicine, but I think that was just to keep me busy or make me dizzy and hyper-ventilated.
Throughout my childhood, grandma’s hands always smelled like onions, or garlic, or yeast from the meals that she was constantly cooking for the endless stream of cousins and aunts and uncles that flowed through the doors of our house. I remember thinking that Grandma’s hands smelled like dinner whenever she would touch my cheek or brush my sweaty blond curls off of my forehead.
Those hands of hers gutted dozens of chickens on the kitchen counter after my cousins and I would bring them in after they had been beheaded and plucked by my grandpa and uncles in the backyard. I remember being glad that I was a boy and would never have to sit at that counter with grandma, like Tammy and Lisa had to do, and learn how to cut open the chickens and take out their guts. Swinging an ax in the backyard with the men was much more fun.
Those hands taught me how to do long division when my fourth grade teacher couldn’t Grandma would teach me how to do the work and then she would make up a dozen or so problems on a clipboard and have me practice. Once I mastered those, she would give me another dozen that were a little harder. Because of those late nights with her, I usually went to school knowing how to do more difficult problems than were required, instead of feeling confused and behind the rest of the class.
Those hands gave me some of the worst haircuts of my life. I remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I heard grandma say, “Oops,” after a snip of the shears.
When I was in high school and didn’t want to get up to go to seminary, I remember her throwing a cold wet washcloth on my face as I slept, and then running away before I had the chance to throw it back at her. As angry as I was, I had to fight back the laughter at watching this chubby old lady try to run away quickly.
These were the same hands that wrote letters to me every week while I was on my mission, even when the ache in her arthritic fingers kept her awake at night. Sometimes the writing was so bad that I could barely read it. But I’m so grateful for those letters now. I remember one time she tried to type me a letter, but her fingers were so crooked that she couldn’t hit the right keys and it ended up being harder to read than her longhand. When I got home from my mission, I teased her about that letter and she threw her head back and laughed like a little child.
Once she became too feeble to care for herself, our roles reversed and it became my job to care for her needs. It was a way me to repay her for all of the years that she had spent caring for me. Part of this duty involved tending to those hands. I would file her fingernails and rub lotion on her hands to keep them soft. One day while I was clipping her nails, I accidentally snipped off a piece of her skin and she started to bleed. Grandma didn’t even flinch and seemed to be totally unaware that anything had happened. That’s when I realized how far gone she really was. It was only a few weeks later that she died as I held that very same hand.
As I cried and pondered the influence that those hands had on my life, I was struck by the fact that I had only been fortunate enough to have known them toward the end of their time here on earth. How much more must they have done when they were youthful and sturdy? How many other people had been influenced by those hands before I was even born? What experiences had those hands been through that led them to point when they first held me as a baby? I wondered about the first time those hands were held by a boy. What did they look like when they were young and nimble?
Fortunately, in a final act of giving, those hands had worked daily to supply some answers to these questions. Those hands had left behind volumes of journals and diaries, written out tediously in longhand over a lifetime. I cherish those stories now because they teach me what my grandma was like before I came into her life. By reading them, I know I will be able to recognize those hands when I hold them again — when they won’t be the old and worn out hands that I had known in my life, but the youthful and strong and perfected hands of woman who had spent a lifetime in the service of her family.