Last winter, when your hands became knotted and inflamed from your arthritis, it didn’t help that the notion of “less is more” defined our relationship. Watching how they burrowed under a heating pad and were dulled by pain medications, and how you stretched them, tenderly, I remembered to never pry too deeply—to keep, above all, the boundary between physician and son. But because your hands had always been in motion, in constant occupation, the sight of them stilled in space struck me.
I knew your hands for their restlessness. For the plants they fussed over each day. For the furniture and rugs they made disappear and reappear in peculiar places. When an unusually quiet grace fell on your hands, all you could hold without wincing in pain was a photograph.
Naturally, you took to organizing boxes upon boxes of them. Our family’s glossy history was fanned out over the dining room table and, passing over them one evening, I picked up a photograph from the rest.
In it was the dream that took you away from your first home. Deep River was a sleepy, wooded town on the banks of the Ottawa River. There, you imagined a life where you could feel like yourself in your skin. One that wouldn’t draw bewildered looks from dozens of pale faces. When you were 18, you made for Toronto, sparing me those soundless judgments.
Soon, your hands were full. They kept the fist-flying peace between my brother and me in the backdrop of a cramped apartment where you and Dad headquartered a lawn-mowing service. Hunched over those memories, you reminded me how collecting the clippings of grass turned my hands green and made them smell of fresh earth—like, for you, a new beginning.
You got me a job at a nursery heaping burlap-wrapped trees and bags of soil and rock onto customers’ trucks. The other workers knew me as “piano fingers,” meaning that my hands lacked a certain roughness. My palms were not calloused. Tobacco had yet to stain my fingertips.
Now, I’m a physician. I carefully inspect hands by the ridges of a nail and the bulge of a joint, the texture of their skin and the tremble of their reaches. They are my gateway into our many inner workings.
Until the pandemic. Until I held the labouring hands of couriers and cleaners, of meat packers and factory workers. Hands overwhelmingly black and brown, and written with turns of ache, lifetimes of love and sacrifices unthinkable. Hands all too familiar to me.
I eventually moved back to our home in Scarborough, Ont.—to stave off my own isolation. When I did, I unknowingly became an extra person for you to look after, to worry about. The stress of life under the virus fell disproportionately onto you, Mom.
Sometimes, I caught a tear rolling down your cheek, which you quickly wiped away. Or you would storm off, slamming the door. Your hands expressed the feelings you retreated with, the ones you walled off from prodding sympathies. It made you hard to help. But I understood why you did it.
Though I lent my hands where I could, I needed yours in those moments when I told you how difficult work in the hospital had become. When I told you I wished to quit. When I told you, broken and fragmented, “I’m done.” But I never was, because later your hands would find me, clasp me in their tight embrace, absorb my grief and infuse me with the courage to press forward.
Is that the effect of a pandemic? Maybe you had done these sorts of things all along, and I’d taken little notice of them. We live now in a different world: one where each act of kindness is made kinder when it is a hand that comes to offer it.
As I scrubbed the day’s dishes or fashioned the dals you once made for me, I learned a final lesson. I caught the picture of a time when my hands might touch a more fragile you: steadying you while you stand, holding water to your lips.
An experience I’ve shared with many patients, this is where your hands hold a great gift. For a love they quietly passed on.
This essay appears in print in the November 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Mom.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.
The piece is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.