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Starting Point
Issue Date:  May 9, 2003

The God of flesh and fingers

By JAN PILARSKI

Was there anything more comforting, more indulging than my mother’s every-other-day ritual of sudsing and rinsing my hair when I was a little girl? I remember perching on a stool, my head bobbing up from a basin filled with tepid water, her hands massaging my scalp with a mixture of purpose and pleasure. On days when she was not rushed, she would let me experiment by spiking and plying foam into imaginative hairstyles, too exotic for everyday wear.

In those moments, we were like two sisters, clucking disapproval or sharing the camaraderie of discovering styles that enchanted us, laughing wildly.

Today, I reach for her hand, my fingers rubbing hers. Her skin is thin and pliant, almost transparent; her fingers bony and fragile. Wedged between the shampoos of my childhood and now, a host of changes -- marriage, children and grandchildren, cross-country moves, job changes, sicknesses, widowhood. And most profoundly, who would imagine her journey on the margins of life, the eventual slip into schizophrenia as I reached adolescence? The woman who shampooed me so tenderly began to hear voices talking to her from the television set, warning how to save the world from cancer. That message evolved into her mission, a focus that overshadowed all else. Her life was to become a revolving door between home and hospital, doctors who disagreed on her treatment, and a family struggling to understand what had happened to her, how her spirit was lost to mental illness. It was as if the mother we knew had died, and a stranger had come to take her place.

Her hair now is coarse, stringy, in need of a haircut and shampoo. I offer to wash her hair, but that is not negotiable. She desires it washed only rarely, and tells me that the only person who can cut her hair is a stylist who died many years ago. To see my mom is to look into the eyes of someone who has acquired the persona of the institutionalized, those who disturb our comfort because of their appearance or smell or tendency to talk to themselves. Despite the best efforts of the group home staff who care for Mom, she lives in a world of her own making, and few outsiders dare enter a world with such different rules.

We visit for less than an hour, a trip sandwiched between a long drive on both ends. That time period is comfortable for her; she does not seem to have the energy for longer visits. Mom is thrilled to hear news of my children and what they have been doing in the past month. She remembers their birthdays, the spelling bee awards they received two years ago, the details of their development and the ages they learned to walk and talk. I show her photos just developed, bring brochures from sports and school activities, describe what renovation projects we have been working on at home. There is much here that is typical mother-daughter conversation, and today it gives me pleasure to find something that is commonplace in the way we converse and interact.

Over time, what we have had to do is recognize new ways of developing our bond. Shampoos may be out, but nail clipping is definitely in. So each time we visit I unfurl her clenched hands, made tight as a side effect of psychotropic medication, and clip her nails to a manageable length. I am the only person she allows to touch her nails. It feels sacred to do something tangible for her and share some physical manifestation of love and concern.

“I think it is time for me to get ready for dinner,” she tells me two hours before eating. Mom has always been polite. In parting I sit on the edge of her bed and stroke her hair, telling her how much I love her.

With her face before me, I meditate on the text of Matthew 25 as I drive home. There is the epiphany of hearing words embedded in the text as if for the first time: “Just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.” This parable pushes outward, helping us to discover our common humanity and the need to find Christ in the most forgotten in society. It also calls us toward the familiar to bind the wounds of those in our ordinary, daily experience, the people who are literally our parents, brothers, sisters, children.

While so much about my mother’s illness remains a mystery, one thing is stark in its clarity. This is a gospel about life at its core -- flesh and fingers, bone and blood. Through the years, my mother’s hands have always been a path toward awakening to all that life offers, of confronting beauty in the midst of sorrow and confusion. In the kingdom God asks us to build in a society so broken, hands that are clenched become cupped, open, and a gift to the world.

Jan Pilarski is the director of the Justice Studies Program at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame Ind. She is a coauthor of Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships, and Service (Paulist, 1995).

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003

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