“Those hands,” my sister says, picking up one of my mother’s gnarled hands where it sticks out from under the sheet of her hospital bed. She holds it a moment and then sets it down gently. My weary eyes follow the movement, stopping to rest on the familiar knuckles, knotted and curled from years of hard physical labor, arthritis in every joint.

It’s hard for me to see my mother like this, so still and silent, this tiny woman who bore and raised fifteen children. In life she was always moving, always busy. My brother said she’d been shelling peas the evening before she had a massive stroke in her sleep.

This morning, the doctors remove her from life support, telling us she probably has no more than 48 hours to live. My father is heartbroken. After 68 years of marriage, he does not have the chance to say goodbye.

One by one, her children and grandchildren, come to her side. Some stroke her cheek. Some kiss her face. Up until this point, I do neither. I find it hard to equate my active and talkative mother to this still, quiet figure alone in the hospital bed.

Now the others have returned home.
Only my husband, sister and I remain, keeping vigil. It’s in this moment, when all is lost, and there’s little hope she can hear me, I cannot resist reaching out and touching my mother’s hand. If she knows I’m there, she gives no sign.

Her hand is warm and solid in mine, surprising me. Can she really be near death? How many tasks have these hands completed?

I run my thumb across her knobby knuckles, worn with 88 years of living. A fragment of memory surfaces. I’m a toddler, tugging on my mother’s skirt while she does the dishes. She talks to me, but her hands keep moving.

These hands changed dirty diapers, cooked meals, washed dishes and scrubbed toilets—all without a word of complaint. And when one of us didn’t feel well, which was frequent, it was these hands that felt our foreheads for a temperature and whipped up batches of strawberry jello or poured Ginger Ale.

More memories burst forth from a well buried deep within my heart.
Her hands rolling out dough to bake pies in the old kitchen in the century home where I was born. As she works, she gives me instructions.

“The secret to pie is to touch the dough as little as possible,” she explains. She gives me a piece of dough and tells me to roll it out and smear it with butter and cinnamon and sugar to make what she calls tootsie rolls. I do it, trying to handle the dough as little as possible.

I watch as my mother makes her signature design in the top of the pie crust, a curved line with individual grains of wheat. Sunlight streams through the window.

“How did you learn to make such good pies?” I ask.

“My grandmother taught me when I was a little girl. She would give me a piece of dough to roll out and put in a little pan. My early pies did not turn out so well.” She laughs, and I smile as I picture the scene she describes, right down to the tiny toy pie pan she must have used.

We put the tootsie rolls in the oven and when they come out a short while later, they are so hot and bubbly, I burn my hands and mouth trying to eat one. But man are they worth it.

Someone coughs, and I’m back in the hospital room, still holding my mother’s hand. I lay it gently down, wondering if I’ll ever make a pie as crusty and flakey as my mom’s. I never expressed much interest in cooking as a child, and as an adult, I’ve been far too busy to make a pie from scratch. Little did I know that early lesson would be my one and only.

But wasn’t that always the way of things?
My mother’s lessons were never planned. They came in the midst of a multitude of tasks.

Once during canning season, I asked my mother how she could possibly enjoy her life of constant chores and sacrifice. “How can you like this?” I asked. “Don’t you get bored?”

In a rare instance, my mother set down her vegetable peeler and turned to face me. “Never,” she said. “I am very happy with my life…with Daddy and you kids. I can’t imagine a different life. I’ve never once been bored.”

And that was that. She picked up the peeler, finished the mountain of carrots in front of her and went in the house to make enough cheeseburgers and french fries to feed a small army.

I swipe at my blurry eyes that haven’t seemed to stop watering once since I heard the news. My head understands what is happening, but my heart can’t seem to keep up.

Two days later, she is gone.
The day before her funeral is July 4. I don’t have the heart for fireworks, but I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I decide to invite the neighbors over for a picnic.

In a rare instance of domesticity, I ask my daughter, who is named after her grandmother, to cut some daisies from our backyard and find a vase for them. She returns from the kitchen, a vintage blue canning jar in her hands. Where she found it, I don’t know. In must have been buried in the back of a cupboard. I gasp when I read the familiar writing, so bittersweet in this moment. Organic Mixed Beans.

In death, my mother’s hands send me a final reminder.

“Life is meant to be lived,” they say. “A life well-lived can be a simple life of baking and canning and taking care of others. In simplicity, we discover true happiness…we find fulfillment.”

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