“Where are we going?” she asked again.
“We are going to get your hair done,” I tell her for the third or fourth time in the last few minutes.
I look over at my mother-in-law, “Min” as her grandchildren had renamed her. She nods and looks out the window. Her hair is a mat of fine white-blond straw, her face is calm but with an agitation brewing beneath as she remains confused despite my answers and assurances. She notices a woman walking on the street, disheveled and unkempt. “Would you look at her!” the judgment revealing Min’s preserved image of herself as carefully coiffed and outfitted, despite her own mass of snarls and house-coat attire. We maintained this ritual of the hair salon appointment for as long as possible but it would soon go the way of her other lost vanities.
Matt and I were already on our way to the house when we got the call. “Min is gone.” My husband looked into my eyes with all the knowledge of love and grief we had shared. When his father died 28 years before, our first shock of death, I remember Matt’s voice over the phone, heaving with sadness and shock. That incredible vulnerability opened a new place in my heart for him. Now we were fatigued with grief. We had borne more than our share that year, unable to regain any sense of equilibrium before the next blow would fall. And now his mother had also left us.
We arrived at the house a few minutes later with our daughter, Cassedy. It was her 26th birthday, an auspicious day as she already lost one grandparent, my father on her birthday six years earlier, and now her beloved Min on the same day. At her young age, she had become accustomed to the rituals of death and dying. None of us knew exactly what would transpire over the next hours, but we knew we needed to be present and allow the parting ritual to develop.
My sister-in-law, Pam, who shared the house with Min and doted on her over the past many months, and their eldest brother, Merv, were sitting with Min as she lay still on the hospital bed that had been set up in her master bedroom of over 50 years. She looked serene, her face calm, eyes closed, gently resting. We encircled her bed, each looking down on her with love and loss. I reached out and took her hand in both of mine. I was surprised to feel it soft, warm and supple. I stroked her hand and noticed her fingernails, neatly filed.
A few days earlier, I had been sitting with her. She was resting off and on but even when awake was not really cognizant of her surroundings. She hadn’t recognized us over the past few days. I was reading and attending to her as she roused. Then she turned her head, looked right at me and said, “Sherry, I think we need to do my nails.”
I was delighted at her clarity. This was Min in her essence, always the lady, well-coifed and manicured. I went over and took her hands to examine them. “Well, I think so!” I agreed seeing that her nails were chipped and misshapen. I searched about for her nail file and went to work. Taking each finger in turn, I worked the file around, behind and over the nail to create a short but finely shaped oval. Until the last months, she had a weekly manicure with acrylics producing long, hardy and always brightly enameled nails.
This had gone the way of her other rituals, the weekly hair salon appointments, the regular shopping trips and even fashion shows she was invited to join. But her dignity remained and that included having her nails “done”. “I wouldn’t be caught dead with those nails!” I could hear her exclaiming.
Standing over her body, as I held her still warm hand, stroking it as if to bring it back to life, noticing the recently filed but naked nails, I turned to Cassedy and said, “I think we need to do Min’s nails.” My daughter stepped closer unsure but trusting. “Red, I think,” I encouraged her. She caught on and was more than willing to assist. She knew right where Min kept her polish as they had engaged in this ritual many times together. She selected the brightest red and we went to work.
As I held Min’s lovely hand, Cassedy took each finger and carefully applied the red enamel. Time stood still. Min was suspended between life and death as we performed her final request with the rest of the family looking on. When we had finished, the effect was graceful and elegant, just as she would have insisted.
Now that she was properly appointed, her children and grandchildren all gathered around her. Matt put on some music, an ethereal chant we had used for another recent vigil. “Returning, Returning, Returning to the Mother of us all.” The simple lyric resonated with Min’s devotion to the Blessed Mother, her mothering of each of us in various ways, and her reign as the matriarch of the family. We sat and listened, cried and chanted quietly off and on for long about an hour, until the music came to an end. Then slowly, we each took a last moment with Min’s body before leaving her with her daughter to bathe her, a final anointing.
At the viewing, we shared smiles as Min’s friends noticed her brightly polished nails, and commented on her elegance to the very end.