My Father’s Changing Hands | Cup of Jo

My father’s hands were tan with dark blue veins. His left hand was darker than his right, from years of smoking a cigar out the window of his 1965 Mustang.

During services in the synagogue, we often played a game where he would clench his fist and I would try to pry his fingers free, one by one. Once all the fingers were released, I drew letters on his palm and let my fingers slide along his veins, pretending to move the blood to his wrists. His nails were always short with rounded edges and polished to a shine. This was due to weekly professional manicures.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was embarrassed by my father’s weekly manicures. I found it strange to think of him entering what I considered a woman’s space to do a woman’s thing. But by the time I reached college, I was bragging about my father’s peculiar ritual. To me, that said a lot about him. My father was a German Jew whose mother helped him escape the Holocaust. To him, having clean nails (and monogrammed shirts) signaled triumph. Plus, he wanted them to feel nice. He was an accountant who spent part of each day licking his fingers while flipping through W-2s.

We are made up of our details. The way we hold coffee mugs, unfasten bras or pronounce jewelry. Alzheimer’s began to strip away my father’s details and replace them with new compulsions, like picking fuzz from his pants, flicking his tongue to one side of his mouth and, sadly, biting his nails.

When he started biting I told him to stop. “Cut it out, Dad.” You would hate it,” I would say, as if the old him might pop out of nowhere. I rubbed his hands with lavender lotion, hoping the smell or taste would discourage biting. I asked him to tell me about his manicure, thinking the memories might discourage the habit. He didn’t remember getting a manicure.

The last five years of his life he lived in a nursing home, in a locked wing for people with advanced dementia. This part of the facility was called Memories. When I first visited, I said to the manager, “Memories is a strange name for a home for people with memory problems.” She told me I wasn’t the first to say that.

I liked to arrive at noon for Recollections. Eating gave my dad and me something to do together. The staff would give me a plate of whatever was being served that night. Fish fillet, meatloaf, marinara pasta. Dad looked at me, smiled and shrugged, as he often did before Alzheimer’s. Once he leaned over the meatloaf and announced, “It’s all bullshit.” I agree. It was all bullshit.

Sometimes I brought his favorite snack, tart Granny Smith apples. Dad always peeled his apples before cutting them into precise half circles. He invariably used the same small paring knife and whipped the skin off in one piece before placing it around my neck like a necklace.

At the nursing home, I tried to copy his technique, but I never succeeded. Towards the end, when he stopped eating but still stared at me with his misty eyes, I rubbed an apple slice along his lower lip because it would make him touch his mouth with his index finger, perhaps recalling the eating movements. In that split second he had come to life.

Last night there was a full moon, so I did what I often do. I went outside and talked to my father. This habit started shortly after he died, so for almost 10 years I have been talking to the moon. I just tell him what I did that day and if I met anyone new. He liked to interact with strangers. I picture him strolling around in the dark, smoking his cigar and asking people what they do for a living. I pretend there’s a manicurist on the moon who can still touch his fingers and keep them clean.

Rebecca Handler is a writer in San Francisco. Rebecca’s stories have been published and awarded in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at One Woman Party. Edie Richter is not alone, her debut novel, was published in March 2021, received a Kirkus Starred Review, and was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. It was recently published in paperback and is available for purchase here. Rebecca, a recent MacDowell Fellow, is writing her second novel. She also wrote about her cancer diagnosis for Cup of Jo.

PS More about griefbelow how Amy Bloom helped her husband die on his own terms, how to write a condolence messageand Joanna visits her grandmother with dementia.

(Photo by BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy.)

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