The Hand-Holder

Today I am sitting with Mrs. McNamara. Her hands are not too sweaty but they are little and delicate and old. Spider hands. Her mouth is slightly open but her eyes are closed, and her chest moves ever so slightly with each breath. A tiny pink tongue darts out to moisten her lips and the muscles at the sides of her mouth tighten as if preparing for speech.

“I met an angel once, you know,” she breathes on me. Her hand doesn’t move in mine.

“He came to my uncle’s farm when I was just a girl. I was helping Aunt Ada with her pies when this man came up to the door and said he had some business with my uncle. Course he was out in the fields with cows then, liable to be gone for days. But the man kept saying he had to talk to him now and could we please go find him.

“Well, my Aunt Ada don’t like to take orders from nobody, but just as she was about to give this man what’s for she closes her mouth and sets off to look for Uncle. She found him fifteen minutes later, trapped under a bale of hay in the barn with a pitchfork sticking through his leg. It looked like his horse had been spooked and upset some tools the workmen had left lying around. By the time we got Uncle back in the house and got the doctor there, we clean forgot about the man. Not that he was anywhere to be found…”

Mrs. McNamara gives a little cough here, and I can tell by her wheezing that her story is finished.

The bright morning blends into hot afternoon, sweeps into cool evening and bleeds into night. I do not take my hand from hers. Her daughters visit briefly, stroke her hair and hold her other hand. One of them – Shanna, the youngest – has been crying. Mrs. McNamara doesn’t open her eyes but from the corner of my eye I see her fingers move almost imperceptibly in her daughter’s hand. The daughter – Joan – doesn’t notice, and she watches her mother with a worried expression. The children didn’t come today. And they won’t come tomorrow either.

I hold the hand of dear Mrs. McNamara until 3:42a.m. on Thursday morning. When the nurse on duty checks in and finds that Mrs. McNamara is no longer breathing, I slip out and make my way diligently to the fourth floor where my new charge awaits.

They don’t always tell me stories. Sometimes it’s enough for me to be there, holding their hand. Sometimes they ask me questions I can’t answer. And sometimes they get mad at me. But I never let go, and they know that. That’s why they get mad and ask questions and smile and tell stories.

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