I dreamt about my mother’s hands last night, her long slim fingers, stunning and smooth in her youth, bony and wrinkled as she aged, black-blue and withered at her death the day after Christmas. In my dream, I saw her rings that my father bought her to honor anniversaries, for Christmas gifts, and as gratitude for the life she gave him and us.

Falmouth author Susan Lebel Young is a retired psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher. She can be reached at [email protected] or at www.susanlebelyoung.com.

With seven children, those hands labored hard over her 93 years. I computed a minimum number of laundry loads, based on just 57 years at less-than-normal two loads a day, times 365 days each year, which equaled 41,610 loads. I counted diapers those hands changed for seven children, say, for three years each, four diapers each day. Total: 30,660 diapers. And food prep for 56 years: 61,320 meals. Filling Christmas stockings: seven kids times 18 years each. How many baths for us? How much teeth brushing? Cleaning? Ironing? Thermometers she carried to us through colds, flu and chickenpox, then how many shakes of that little stick with her wrist flick? How many toys she touched and lifted from the floor?

I wondered, as I suppose we all do after the death of a loved one, after a parent’s death maybe more than others, if I could’ve, should’ve, done more to thank those hands that cared so much for us. Oh, I held them and drew them close each time, in those last few weeks more than ever, when she couldn’t squeeze back with her earlier strength. She still had expressions, though, could still make what we called “the face, the look,” that scrunched up glare of censure when, for example, I’d prance in wearing my pre-faded ripped jeans, the trendy ones I bought already tattered on the right pocket and torn on the left knee. Without speaking she’d flash the face, the look and add a firm head shake, with a clear message: No, not good, not OK.
I’d laugh, reach for her hand, and lace my thicker fingers through her thin ones. She’d laugh as best she could when I’d wink, recalling her father, who ran a neat, tailored clothing store: “Pepere wouldn’t have liked these either.”

Almost wordless, her eyes would brighten, as if to say, “Yes. True.”

I cocooned her weak hands, no longer familiar to me, sometimes warm, sometimes cold, shaky only near the end. I cuddled them, yes, and I could’ve done more. My friend Lucia McBee, a geriatric social worker with years of skill serving frail elders, wrote a gentle, creative book, “Mindfulness-Based Elder Care,” in which she described using hand massage. “Slowly stroke the tops and palms … applying gentle pressure. Massage each finger, the joints and thumb. … wrist and arms.”

With hand massage, I might have noticed any tension in Mom or in me. Mom might have felt more held, more seen. I Wet-Napped her hands often after the dark chocolate I brought her melted on them. But I could’ve lingered with her hands, cleaned under her long fingernails instead of bolting up to sweep candy crumbs from the white table and splotches from the floor.

In late life, mostly non-verbal, she’d smile and nod to me, “Good daughter. Thank you for coming, helping.”

Ya. I know. I know. But grief often includes regrets, includes I-shoulda-I-coulda-I didn’t. In her death, in my dreams, she will visit and her visitations will remind me how I might have done more. Maybe regret is not a bad thing. Maybe regrets teach us. “Oh, yes, here, with this thing, in this way, I can improve.”

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