February 10, 2014

The Hands of Time

Time is all around us.  It reminds us; it surrounds us, haunts us, envelops us in darkness and memories.  Ghosts rewind down empty hallways....

My good friend and I were talking today, and we went down a path that lead to a discussion of fathers.  Immediately I recalled my father's hands.

Why his hands you might ask?  I remember that last day of his life, and knowing that his life was near its end, and I took his hands in mine, and I felt the firmness, the solid meaty firmness of my father's hands, the meat and potatoes and way too much gravy firmament  of his hands, his hands in mine.  

These were the hands of a man who grew up in the Great Depression, a man who always had great stories of his adventures growing up in East Vancouver.  How he used his last dime taking his girl home on the streetcar to Dunbar, then walking back to Granville and Broadway, he stops in at the Aristocratic.   He sees a neighbourhood man who was a boxer, a gangster perhaps.  The man says, Freddie, what are you doing out here at this hour?  So my dad tells him the story, and the man says, Well, Freddie, do you want to hang out with me the rest of the night?  If you help me with this favour I will make sure you get home safe.   Then he put a big roll of cash in my father's hands.
My dad was to hold this cash for him, and they ventured off  to various houses of ill-repute.  It was an adventure, and just one of the many adventures that my father used to tell.  Each time he told the same story, there was a new detail that was not revealed in the previous telling.  

How telling were the histories in his hands: the years working on the Great Northern Railway, when a  conductor grabbed him by the ear, pulling him on to the train as it was moving, which explained his cauliflower ear.  At least that was the story we got; what really happened to cause that mishapened ear will never be known now.   These were the same hands that laboured in the restaurant my mother and he started in Qualicum with the help of my grandfather.  The same hands that stirred the pot and held the restaurant soup ladle that resides in my drawer.  Just an ordinary soup ladle that one can find in any restaurant supply store, but still, it is imbued with the hands of my mother and father who used it so many years before the economic realities of running a restaurant crushed that dream.
These were the same hands that went off to war, that opened the door to the rooming house my mother stayed in while they were stationed in Halifax, sneaking past the landlady who was used to putting a stop to these kinds of late night visits of young people in love. 

These were the same hands that held my mother in his arms, so many nights, caressing her, holding her, creating eight babies(that we know of), seven of whom survived, one of which is me.

These same thick working man's hands of my father are so different than my own hands.  His fingers were thick while mine are thin.  His fingers short, while mine are long.  His hands so warm and my hands so cold, so icy cold today.  His wedding ring a simple gold band, which is the same as me.  I wanted a simple gold band, just like my father who was married to mother until the day he died.  

As I sat there looking into his sad eyes knowing this moment would haunt me the rest of my life, I felt the warmth of his hands in mine.  And later that night, after driving back to Canada from Olympia Washington with my sister, after listening to Smashing Pumpkins and screaming and crying in her Golf as we knew, we knew that this was the day, I was awakened by my wife's father, my father in law, who told me the voice on the other end of the phone had just told him that my father had died.  So we all got out of bed and met in the kitchen, and the whiskey was poured, and glasses raised.
A week later, sitting in a room with my mother and brothers, my brother said something about my father passing away, and my mother, without missing a beat, said, "He didn't pass away.  He died.  He is dead and he died."  No candy coating it here.  And that is my mother in a moment, a perfect mother moment that was so cold and matter of fact, so disimilar to everything else about her, but yet, like me, this duality exists.   The warmth and the cold.

Her hands are very different than my fathers.  Her hands are more like mine.  More like her mother, my Nana and her father, who died before I was born.  Long, cold English fingers, descended from the Huguenots, runaways from France, elegant, aristocratic hands, fingers that seemed destined to play the piano.  

Her hands were so soft, worn down and worn in from all the children, the laundry, the dishes, the endless cleaning that a house of seven children would bring.  

I remember my hunger for her hands.  How I wanted and craved the caress of my mother, wanting wanting always waiting and wanting more.   Lying in bed with scarlet fever, chicken pox, or measles (both German and non-German) my head burning with fever, and the bed spinning, and the room coming in and out of focus, the kind gentle hands of my mother, so cooling, so soft wiped my brow, brushed my cheek, and held my hands.

How those same hands found me in Atlanta, when at age 49, I had a heart attack.  There was my mother, before the dementia set in, by my bedside holding my hand, her little boy in bed. 

Those same hands now connected to the arms and body of my mother, whose mind is lost within her.  
Still,  she gifts me with her occasional laugh, what I take as recognition and a conspiratorial wink, making me think that just maybe she is still in there, not completely lost, but struggling to get to the surface of her congested mind.  

These are the hands of time, the hands of my mother and father, hands gone, and hands lost.  Johnny Thunders says, "You can't put your arms around a memory", but sometimes you can get a hand in there, grasping for fingers, pulling up these memories from the dark pool of time.