I’ve been staring at my hands for three days trying to figure out what’s bothering me about them.
On the surface, they just look like my hands. My short, stubby fingers. One is crooked from playing trombone in high school (I wish I were kidding… actually, no I don’t). One is crooked because I broke it playing basketball in 5th grade, before I stopped growing and everyone else got tall. The others are all mangled from when my brother wound them up in the car window as I was reaching through for more papers on my paper route one day in 8th grade. They’re all knotty from the juvenile arthritis that set in when I was 15. On my left hand I wear a Claddagh ring that my grandmother gave me the day I graduated from college. On my right, I wear a ring that I truly can’t remember where it came from. I’ve been wearing it since my junior year of high school, at least. These are my hands as I have always known them to be and they haven’t changed drastically.
Stick with me here, because this is not as shallow as it will at first seem: A week and a half ago, the day after Christmas, my sister and I went to get our nails done — a Christmas gift from our mom, and a good chance for some me-time for my sister, who had just returned home from spending 76 days in NICU with my nephew. We got gel manicures, which was a first for me because I basically never, ever get my nails done (I type a lot, they break and chip, etc.). The manicurist said the “shellack” (this makes me think I’m wearing Mod-Podge on my hands) would stay on for two weeks.
We left and were going to go to the mall, but decided to go back to my parents’ house instead. My aunt and uncle, cousin and his wife came over, and we all visited for a few hours. My mom made a huge batch of pasta salad and set it out for everyone to devour, which always happens when my mom makes pasta salad (the secret is homemade dressing).
My aunt and uncle asked me how life was going in Philly and we chatted about how I love it. I have this very clear image in my head (it was only a week and a half ago, I suppose), of sitting at “my seat” at the dining room table, a plate full of carbs in front of me, my dad to my left, my aunt to my right, and my uncle directly across from me, reaching into a red striped cellophane bag of toffee that someone had given my mom.
“What’s this? Peanut brittle?” he asked.
“No, it’s toffee,” I replied.
He started chewing on a piece.
“This is good. You said this is peanut brittle?”
“Toffee. It’s kind of like candy.”
“It’s like peanut brittle.”
“It’s — yeah. It’s like peanut brittle.” I smiled.
A short while later, we said our goodbyes and they headed home. I got ready and went to visit with my best friends from high school.
A week and a half later, my nails still look perfect. There’s no chipping or peeling or anything that, to me, makes the time it takes to be continually painting one’s nails not really worth it.
My uncle, on the other hand, is no longer here. We had that conversation about Philly and toffee versus peanut brittle and we said our goodbyes and they left. Until next time. How could anyone have predicted that next time would be a week and a half later, and that it would be for his funeral? How could anyone predict that just a week after that, he would be gone? It was sudden and not expected.
How could I ever predict that on the same night I get this gel stuff plastered to my fingernails, I see my uncle, and my uncle will be gone before my nail polish even starts to peel?
It sounds ridiculous, but I think this is exactly what’s been bothering me. That something so stupid and shallow and cosmetic can outlast a human life. I’m sure it happens every day. But these little details seem so strange in the context of everything that’s happened.
It hasn’t been an easy few months for my family. In early October, my sister and nephew both nearly died during child birth — a birth that was very unusual and 3 months early. My nephew was born just before he hit the 28th week, weighing 2 lbs, 11oz. Over the course of 76 days in the NICU, he had one life flight, 4 blood transfusions, was intubated for several days, and had a pretty critical infection in mid-November. After he finally started improving, they were allowed to come home just a few days before Christmas.
I was home frequently during that time to help out with my older nephew (who turned 2 the same day that my uncle died). I can’t count the number of times, over the course of those trips, my uncle called to ask how my sister and the baby were doing. That’s just what he did. A few years ago, when my dad was very ill and spent several months in and out of the hospital, my uncle came to visit him and called and stopped by to see how he was doing. He was a nice guy, and I certainly see that trait reflected in my cousin, who will finish med school this year and become one of the most caring and compassionate doctors around.
So what’s bothering me isn’t really about something as frivolous as nail polish. It’s more about how fast things can change; how someone can appear to be fine one day, and then gone the next. How you might think there’s a next time and plan for a next time, but that doesn’t guarantee a next time. These are things, I suppose, that we’re always told and always warned about. “Always make sure people know how you feel and never walk away angry because what if you never see them again?” and whatnot. But no matter how much you try to prepare yourself for that and to practice that belief, part of living is to just live. To always assume that life is just about to end is a kind of morbid way to exist, and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to actually internalize that way of thinking.
The older I get, the more aware I become that time isn’t stopping. It’s not slowing down. If anything, it’s going faster, and to someone like me with anxiety issues, that’s pretty terrifying. Aging, itself, doesn’t really bother me. But I’ve become more and more aware of how fast and how drastically things can change, and I’m still learning to process that.
I’ve spent three days staring at my hands, trying to figure out how something like the length of time a gel manicure will last can possibly be a marker on a person’s life.