Fingernails and Stockings: On the Anointing of the Sick

Roy died last Saturday night.

It was Superbowl Eve, as America seems to claim it, but I don’t think Roy gave two shits about a game.  He seemed to make his bets on the sun.  He dared it in the mornings when he would step on his porch, testing the sky with a squint, hands to his hips, and pulling up on his belt in the classic way that old men learn through some sort of private schooling mandatory at age 65+.  Then, “Hey, hey, hey, you two!” he would call over to our porch.  And I would respond with an, “Uh-oh, here’s trouble,” before he would laugh and we would enter into the meandering patter of weather-speak and how-do-you-do’s.  He would end with a prediction of the sun’s next appearance, or insist that we enjoy it if it was already there.  Then he would holler to our big, sunbathing dog who had stopped barking at him within two weeks upon our moving in– her personal best– before politely excusing himself inside while we smoked and enjoyed the sun.  Or waited for it to come when Roy said it would.  Roy always seemed to know when it would.

It was overcast all day last Saturday, and rained all day Sunday.  While the rest of the country was fixed to a screen, my neighbor friend lost his last bet on the sun.

As a kid, I envied the Catholics for their ability to fearlessly enjoy their lives with the knowledge that they were going to rot in Hell at the end of it for not being an Evangelical Protestant like me.  When Roy died, I envied those old Italian Catholic women of my hometown.  They had not only the precise baked rigatoni dish to transition the remaining through their loss, but an abundance of spiritual protocol to keep the spectators from pacing their house and peaking through windows to catch a glimpse of the grieving family next door.  I’ve been lately creeping through Christianity and Catholicism’s windows, looking with the same intention: How is it that you intend to deal with this mess?  I want those beaded necklaces and thick smokey incense and rote prayers I was taught to be afraid of.  The sort of things that make death everyone’s business, and not the heavy undertaking of one family behind closed doors.  Throwing in that damned rigatoni recipe would be helpful, too.

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“Grandma’s going to need a lot more help like this,” she said, referring to herself in the third person.  I looked up at her from my place at the foot of her bed, where she had coached me on removing her sheer knee high stockings.  “She’s sick, you know.”  But I didn’t know.  Maybe I had caught the darkness moving in whispers and the bustling appointments my parents were keeping, but this strange announcement solidified in the act of aiding my grandmother with her night gown.  Our roles changed then, and my mornings spent reading her the same chapter in Matthew while I waited for sliced pickles would be transformed into requests for silence by hospice.  I was ten, and it was time to learn how to anoint the sick.

From what little I have gathered on this holy sacrament, I may be the least qualified to grant a clear conscience and good faith into the afterlife.  But I am also afraid we take on the anointment too late.  Maybe this lofty rubbing of oils and feeding of Jesus Christ’s body and blood is the reassurance we need before we fall into a forever sort of sleep.  Or maybe we also need the anointment of our granddaughter to help us get our stockings off our feet because the cancer is keeping us from bending over to do it ourselves.

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My ex-husband’s grandmother was getting frail, and may be frailer still, now.  It wasn’t long after my own grandmother asked for that small anointment that she was sung out on the hymns of a hospice nurse’s memory.  Then, on the eve of my future-sister-in-law’s wedding, a tiny grandmother of no relation sat in front of me.  It was me, she decided, who would paint her nails.  I objected.  I complained of my unsteady hands and tomboy nature.  I nominated her daughters and her granddaughters.  But she was a firm, persistent woman, and I sat and painted an old woman’s nails into pearls as she instructed, long even strokes.  She may not remember it, or be alive to remember it, but I can recall her exact delight as she inspected my wobbly work as the-finest-I’ve-ever-had.  This particular anointment brings me one of my few regrets in leaving that marriage behind.  I hope when we recall the ways that others have anointed us when we are sick or unable, that we can forgive long enough to allow that anointment to pass through to whatever awaits us after this.

Maybe the anointment we wait for as we age isn’t something we wait to receive from someone holier than ourselves, but someone even smaller.  Maybe the anointment we need isn’t even something we have to wait for.  Maybe we need to ask for it– sooner, more frequently.  Maybe we make a practice of anointing those who are well on the off chance that they are really sick and not telling their smoking next door neighbors about it.  Maybe all the anointment anyone needs is to tell them when the sun is coming next.

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