My sister’s hands were elegant with long, slim fingers and not a snag of cuticle. They were the sort of hands you see on television where the handsome prince-of-a-husband slips a diamond ring onto his beloved’s finger -- not hands like mine, utilitarian, scrub-a-day sort of hands -- but hands that were made to lift a teacup with an aristocratic curve of the pinkie.
Yet these graceful hands had nothing to do with tea parties or expensive rings. They dealt with the raising of four children, cooking countless meals, and rolling crust for holiday pies. Her hands washed mounds of laundry and dishes after a day of work pounding at her company’s computer. They cut the hair of homeless people as part of a ministry she loved. Her hands didn’t pick up teacups, but dainty seashells from her favorite Turtle Beach.
I never realized how one day her hands would become such a focus for me. She was dying from cancer, confined to a nursing facility. Her hands, folded precariously like a house of cards, lay atop her belly. Her body, once plump, had withered to the point that the one ring she wore now swung loosely on her finger like the earth around the sun.
Her visitors were many, sometimes coming alone; other times a group would come to try to lift her spirits. Her closest friend traveled from her home in Nashville to stay two weeks to say good-bye to her dying friend. Although weak, my sister greeted each one with a dignified lift of her hand. As if a plan had been previously agreed upon, each of her visitors commented on her beautiful hands. Her face, having lost so much substance, was one they could hardly recall. They all told her they loved her. I came to realize the depth and breadth of my sister’s life by the number of people she had touched and who loved her in return.
She cried only once. The holidays were near when she stared at me with sunken eyes and said, “I don’t want to die on Christmas because of my kids.”
On Christmas morning I entered my sister’s room to find a colorful Christmas bouquet had been added to the others. Someone had brought in a tiny Christmas tree complete with twinkling lights and sprinkled with button-size decorations. I read the cards to her. Former co-workers -- people she hadn’t worked with for over a year, had sent the bouquet and festive tree. “They don’t know how much this means to me,” she said as I gently dabbed away her grateful tears, reminding her of all the people who loved her.
She was rag-doll weak and wasn't able to unwrap her gifts. I opened them for her as we waited for her daughter to arrive; I prayed that she would get there in time. I showed her a photo that her daughter had sent -- my niece and her husband holding my sister’s first grandchild, a grandson. I placed the picture in my sister’s hand; she studied their lovely, fresh faces. In a rush of sudden fatigue, her hand dropped to her chest, clasping the photo to her heart in a mother’s final hug. Her eyes closed in a silent goodbye to her only daughter.
As I left that day, I did what had become a habit for me: I turned to look at her. Sometimes I was in my car only to return to her to hug her one more time -- to tell her I loved her once more. At the doorway, I paused to look at her. It was the first time she was turned away from me. It was the last time I would see her alive. She died the next day. She had lived through Christmas.
My sister was cremated. Her children wanted to return her to her beloved Turtle Beach. On a dim, bitter January day, we drove to Turtle Beach and huddled together in the salt-rich squall as the pastor bore the box that held my sister’s remains. Her baits of bone looked like chipped pieces of polished shell. They looked as though they were going home to their proper place. Her big sister hands had once held mine, but now my hands – short-fingered, utilitarian hands – nothing like my sister’s, held the box containing what was physically left of her. My hands dug into her essence. I grasped the fullness of her. Unfurling my hand, I watched her fly away with the wind as I prayed a silent prayer: Goodbye. I love you. I’ll see you again.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Linda Bragg grew up in sunny Florida where she earned a B. A. degree in English at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She has worked as a dental assistant, legal secretary, and 21 years as a Public Relations Specialist. "My Sister’s Hands" is a section from her in-progress memoir titled Heart Thieves. In her leisure time, Linda enjoys music, playing the djembe, Zumba, and hiking where she relishes the natural world found in wilderness parks and beaches.