I don’t remember what it was like to first hold your hand, Mema, but I know I was a baby.
My tiny baby hand curled completely around your finger, the way ocean waves curl toward the moon: inevitable and coming home.
I wonder if you felt the world within my five tiny fingers on my soft tiny hand, for I’m sure I felt the world in the width of your finger, enclosed by my palm. I wonder when was the exact moment my hand could not fit neatly around your finger. I wonder a lot of things, none of which I can ask you now.
Remember how we used to go to the grocery store together, back when you could still drive yourself around?
I would buy those shiny magazines I loved so much: Tiger Beat, J-14, and Seventeen – which back then seemed like such an impossibly cool age and right now seems like an impossibly naïve one. Seventeen was never farther away than when I was fourteen, and seventeen was never farther away than last December when I turned twenty-three. I turned twenty-three, and it was the first year you were not there, not with a birthday phone call or your perfectly timed birthday card in the mail. You always wrote over the ‘Sincerely,’ part on the inside of the card and wrote ‘Love,’ instead. Love, Mema.
But before that last card never came, there was walking through the grocery stores on weekends home from school. I’m sure I must have held your hand at one point walking down those aisles, maybe when looking at the vegetables, maybe when you let me pick out whatever candy I wanted, maybe when you bought your cigarettes in kind of this secretive way, like I wasn’t supposed to know, even though I was right there, watching you do it.
I remember the small horse carousel at the entrance of the store, a carousel fed by quarters, and how I would ride on it sometimes. The paint of the horses was faded and chipping, and it only moved in place, up and down and curving, but when I closed my eyes, I felt like it could take me anywhere. I looked over at you, your lips up and up and curving, and I swear you would have pumped that horse with quarters all day, just to make me smile.
Your house was my home away from home.
I loved asking if I could spend the night, showing up with my little pink suitcase that one of your cats, (just one of your many pets) would curl up in, back when I was younger and still used things like little pink suitcases. I must have held your hand a lot when at your house, because I loved to sit next to you in that old red recliner of yours.
The last few Christmases you were here, you wanted me to sit next to you, to ease your anxiety (large groups of people always made you nervous), and you held my hand. I felt the sides of your long nails as you rubbed your thumb against mine for comfort, and I squeezed your hand, telling you I am here, by your side. Best friends between two hands. Mine: pale and small, smooth in the way only youth can be. That unwrinkled innocence. Yours: knuckled with old knobs of bone, stretched with your paper-thin skin. Your sweet, long fingers.
I held your hand when I said goodbye to you.
And by held, I literally mean held – the full weight of it settling against my palm and fingers, holding this one bit of you up against me, but feeling so much more, all that it was attached to. I whispered in your ear how much I loved you, my voice wet, the inside of my eyes too heavy, and my heart not sure where if its next beat would fit anymore.
My heart felt no longer a heart, just a pile of pieces, and your heart did not beat, it lay in your chest useless and tired, maybe it was just asleep, and the whole day around me was a waking dream, and the way your hand felt against mine was not a hand, no – Hands move and grip and cling tight. And when I kissed your head, it was no longer a head, just empty skin, stretched thinly against your skull, where inside your brain was now as dark as the inside of my eyelids, closed tight against the tears.
Your hand was not a hand, just bones and skin. Definitions lost meaning like your skin lost warmth.
My skin kissed yours for the last time, my hand pulling away from you. I walked away and felt the empty air between my fingers.
At the funeral, I suppressed sobs, hiccupping while the preacher read my written piece for you, things I wished I had gotten to say one last time in person. I gripped my fingers in my lap, holding my own hand.
If I closed my eyes, I could pretend that one of them was not my own.
Non-fiction piece by Sarah Pruitt