I spent 18 years looking at my mother’s hands. They were elegant, unique, and busy. Her nails, perfect ovals that extended a few centimeters from the edge of her fingertips, were always manicured and always up to something: gripping the stem of a wineglass, holding the end of a pen, picking at the rare blemish on her chin. She was an effortlessly beautiful woman with a distinctive, shoulder-shaking laugh and an even more distinctive personality: caring but indignant, reckless yet judicious.
You could read her like a book, at least most of the time. When she was happy, her face would visibly illuminate, almost as if she conducted her own electricity. Her white-toothed smile would open up, filling the room with something that made you feel indisputably tipsy if you were near her – a contagious kind of happiness that was nearly tangible. When she was angry, she pursed her lips together into a tight, unyielding circle and a thick cloud would unfurl over the room. She didn’t like to express her sadness outwardly when she felt it, though – it was an emotion she usually reserved for moments of perceived solitude. In the rare event that you caught her crying, she’d be embarrassed, almost as if she felt guilty for including you in her pain. Every once in awhile, her sadness would creep out after a few glasses of wine, but she’d quickly shut it back inside as soon as she realized it had escaped. Most of the time, though, she was happy. To me, she was larger than life.
I remember all of these expressions well, but when I think of my mother, I think of her hands. They moved in tandem with her mouth when she spoke, frequently reaching above her head to comb through her hair as she leaned back in a chair or click delicately against the tablecloth when she shifted her body forward. She was the best cook I knew – always chopping or mixing something, dish towel draped over her right shoulder. During nights when I couldn’t sleep (nights that made up the bulk of my childhood, truth be told), she’d lay down next to me and run her nails up and down my arm, the rhythmic motion so comforting that it put me to sleep in mere minutes. She told me it was a trick she had learned from her father; he died when she was only 8. I couldn’t see her hands when she scratched my arm, but sometimes when I can’t sleep now, I imagine she’s laying next to me, that same comforting rhythm relaxing me until I can close my eyes. I’d bet she pretended her father was doing the same thing for her long after he had passed, too.
The best and worst thing about my mother’s hands is that I have them as well. Not a vague resemblance that alludes to shared DNA, but a literal replica. We wear the same impossibly small ring size: 4 ½. We have the same oddly long nail beds, the same lengthy fingers, an extra hitch in the spot where our thumbs meet our palms. We wrote with different hands, but they possess many similar talents. I can cook, for one. My handwriting is neat, and I frequently find myself using my long nails to reach out and scratch someone’s back, run a hand along the side of their face. My mom’s hands, like her, were beautiful, and I consider mine to be the most physically attractive part of me. I used to think that together ours were sort of like friendship bracelets, two pieces of the same puzzle meant to visibly brand us as an unbreakable team. Bonnie and Clyde. Batman and Robin. Mother and daughter.
It’s why I like looking at my hands today. I always wear a little pink-stoned ring on my right ring finger, a gift she gave me for my sixteenth birthday – the same ring she’d gotten from her own mother when she was 16, too. I imagine that if you took a picture of her hand then and placed it next to one of mine now, you wouldn’t be able to decipher a difference. It’s why I like looking at my hands today, but it’s also why I hate it.
See, our hands are so strikingly similar that sometimes, when my mind is elsewhere, I’ll look down and think they’re hers, just for a second. I’ll be pouring myself a glass of Chardonnay, fingertips perched on the stem of a wine glass, or running my hands affectionately through someone’s hair, and just for a second, they don’t feel like they’re attached to my body. Just for a second, she’s alive again. The whole moment lasts maybe a second, but it’s a deep, thick tear right in the middle of me. That second always leaves behind a burn, reminding me right as it ends that she’s gone. When she was alive, I might have thought this momentary confusion to be amusing. Now that she’s not, it feels like a cruel practical joke.
Our faces aren’t as similar as our hands, but our expressions are. I might have blue eyes while hers were hazel, my hair dark and curly while hers was blonde and straight, but our faces have the same shape. The resemblance is strong enough that every once in awhile, when I glance up at a mirror too quickly or catch my reflection in a window in the middle of a conversation, I see her instead of me.
Grieving as the child of a parent who has passed away is interesting like that – you’re a souvenir of sorts, a physical reminder of the lasting ripples their existence left. You’re your own person, but you’re rendered from their DNA. When she died, I half expected that I would stop working too, like an electric doll that had been unplugged from its power source.
I can’t tell you what grief is like for everyone that’s lost a parent, but I can tell you that shared genes connect you to your grief in a unique and inescapable way. Some people who knew and loved my mom find it a little difficult to look at me and my brother, almost like we’re shaking them out of dream they’d sought as shelter long ago. To sink into that dream ourselves, Connor and I would have to stop looking in the mirror entirely.
It’s difficult to describe what grief feels like in plain terms, but I can tell you what it doesn’t feel like: It doesn’t feel like the nostalgic smile that creeps across your face when you tell an old story, and it doesn’t feel like looking at the framed photo you keep on your nightstand every morning. It doesn’t feel like the phantom sensation of long fingernails gently raking across your skin. These things are all part of my life now, of course, and they all mean something to me. They help me keep her close, but they are remembrance. They are not grief.
No. Grief is sobbing in a cemetery, head in your hands, grass stains leaving permanent smears on the knees of your jeans. Grief is staring at the wall in the shower, water turned up so hot it leaves visible burns on your skin, your fingers and toes shriveling until you don’t even feel the spray of the water. Grief is a river of emotion that swells up so big it won’t fit inside your body and begins seeping out the wrong crack, showing up as a tattoo that you wear on your arm like a scar. Grief is an ocean, and you are the island.
You are the island, and with each passing year, you build a new wall. At first you have only a flimsy shelter, sides caving in, roof thatched out of hay. The next year it’s a house, the bricks grouted together haphazardly, a dead bolt freshly drilled into the door frame. Before you know it, your house is a castle, its turrets towering over a thick moat that extends, unbroken, along the entire perimeter of the shoreline.
Unfortunately, life isn’t a fairy tale, and on an island like this, there isn’t anyone mucking through the moat or beating down the door to come inside and find you. There isn’t anyone out there that can break down your walls or excavate you from the tower you’ve tucked yourself inside. No one can save you. No one even knows you’re missing.
My aunt and I were discussing grief recently, an experience she’s a veteran of herself. In the midst of my own reluctance to unveil my feelings, she reminded me that we don’t help anyone by hiding what’s behind closed doors, by keeping everyone outside in hopes that the people we care about will be content to simply play in the yard. She’s right, of course – when we hide our pain and the damage it’s done us we paint a superficial, idealistic portrait of who we are, what grief is, how those of us who’ve lost someone really, truly feel. If we could let other people who are grieving inside, at least, we’d probably all make a really great support group. But if no one can break through the thick walls I’ve built, I thought I’d push them over myself and show you what’s inside.
On my island, the color of the sky is always suspended somewhere between a clear, calm blue and an opaque, rolling gray. The air is thick and humid, the way the air always is right before it rains; so heavy you can taste it, metallic and sweet on your tongue. In my castle, the paint on the walls is peeling off in thick strips, the ceiling leaking amorphous puddles onto the carpet, the surrounding floorboards warped and slanted. When the days are particularly gray and stormy, mold grows in thick, fuzzy layers on the walls and the ceiling. If I had a neighbor, you’d like his house better. My castle isn’t a place you’d want to take up residence – in fact, you wouldn’t even want to stake out in here for the weekend.
Then again, I probably wouldn’t let you inside to see for yourself. Not on purpose, anyway. The door is locked, and I’m putting out pails to catch the rain where it drips through cracks in the roof.
I don’t know what the antidote for grief is. On my good days, I look in the mirror and I feel nostalgic. On my bad days, I look in the mirror and my heart breaks.
The walls are always getting taller and thicker on these islands because building them quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a strategy that bars you from both heaven and hell. You’ve done everything you can to shield yourself from pain, but in doing so you’ve deflected so much joy. You’ve hidden yourself from everyone, but you’re angry and hurt when no one sees you. That’s the thing about locked doors, though. They don’t discriminate between friend and foe.
It’s an interesting premise: When you build your own walls, you hold yourself hostage. You can’t cross the ocean alone, it’s true, but you can unlock and open your doors whenever you want, send off a smoke signal to let someone – anyone – know where you are. That you’re lost. That no book you read or movie you watched prepared you for this, for how grief would cling to you and isolate you – because nobody else who’s experienced it wants to let you see inside their desolate, decrepit castles, either. Why would we burden happy people with such a tumultuous and gloomy tour?
But as both my aunt and my stepmom astutely pointed out during recent conversations, we are not amusement parks. Our purpose is honesty, not entertainment. It’s something I wish my mother had known, too. Her castle might have been the tallest one of all, and if I had been able to get inside, I would have grabbed her matching hand and helped her find her way out.
I don’t know what the antidote for grief is. But I know I won’t find it out on this island, behind all these walls. I’m running out of pails to catch the rain, and the place is finally starting to flood.
So this is me, trying to cross the ocean. I’ve only just opened the door, smoke signal in hand, but it’s as good a start as any.