My grandparents with their first great-grandchild.
Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this. -Revelation 1:19
I love these words because they remind me why I need to keep telling my caregiving story—even when I’m tired, or unsure of what to say next, or afraid of the parts I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to share. But last night, after watching the incredible film The King’s Choice, (which documents a difficult part of Norway’s history, a part which my grandparents lived through), I chose to focus on my grandfather—specifically, his hands.
My grandfather had the most amazing hands.
As a skilled carpenter who built dozens of homes (among them, my childhood home and the home he retired in) and the church I grew up attending, he was also a gifted woodworker. In the church he built, he designed and executed a 15-foot-tall wooden cross which still hangs in the sanctuary, the place where we sang one of his favorite hymns, “The Old Rugged Cross,” at his memorial service. One year for Christmas, he made jewelry boxes for all eight of his granddaughters in a stunning rosemaling (traditional Norwegian woodcarving) design. When friends would visit, they couldn’t believe he had handmade the ornately carved mirrors, oversized trunks, landscape reliefs, and clocks which decorated their home.
But I believed it, because I saw those hands at work many times. He had the kind of hands that didn’t hesitate when cutting down and chopping up a fallen tree to use the wood for his projects, the kind of hands that didn’t flinch when guiding that found piece of pine, walnut, or cherry through his table saw—even though I would flinch from the shrill sound of wood hitting blade.
When he was happy to see his grandchildren and hear their latest news, he’d clap his big hands together in absolute delight and smile his broad smile. When he met someone for the first time or was greeting an old friend in church, he’d shake their hands firmly but with such a warmth and exuberance you felt like royalty. When the neighborhood kids rode their bikes past his house, he’d come down the driveway and put his hand out for a “low-five.” After they slapped his hand, he’d pull it away quickly, shaking it off as if it had been burned from its “intensity.” He’d usually wink so they knew he wasn’t really hurt; he wanted them to think they were tough and strong. Little did they know how tough and strong this man’s hands were—and how much pain those hands had experienced…
Though he hated talking about it, Grandpa was a prisoner of war when the Germans occupied Norway. He was taken to the northernmost part of Norway, hundreds of miles and many fjords and mountains away from his home in the southernmost coastal region of the country. His woodworking apprenticeship interrupted, his new “job” in the work camp was to use those skilled hands to build tunnels through the snow, tunnels through which the Germans would pass their weapons. As he told me, they were given little to almost nothing to eat, so he and the other prisoners would often dig through the snow to find food.
When he told me this story years ago, he had looked at his hands. He had looked away to hide the tears collecting in his deep set blue eyes. They weren’t twinkling as they usually did. I didn’t ask any more questions.
Over the years, those strong and sinewy, scarred but soft hands held the babies he helped his midwife mother deliver. Those hands held his own three children, countless nieces and nephews (I can’t tell you how many relatives have told me he and my grandmother were their favorite uncle and aunt), 9 grandchildren, and the two great-grandchildren he lived to meet. He cradled their tiny heads in those powerful hands. He clasped those hands tightly around us when he gave us the big bear hugs I still miss today. I never felt more secure than I did when wrapped in one of those hugs.
Over the eight-plus decades of his life, his hands probably spent the most time clasped in prayer or service. His faith was the foundation of his life, the core of who he was. Giving generously to others, especially his church and community, gave him great joy.
In his final months of life, bedridden by Alzheimer’s, Grandma held his hands around the clock. When we’d visit, we held his hands in ours, praying he’d feel the comfort we wanted to deliver, the strength we wished we still felt in his hands. He often experienced hallucinations as part of his dementia, and we’d see him raise his hand, motioning with his fingers at something on the walls. We couldn’t see what he saw, and it was devastating to see his fear and confusion and not be able to clear it. But then sometimes, we’d feel him squeeze our hands, and it was a fleeting but tremendous gift.
I can’t manipulate a piece of wood with my hands the way Grandpa could. But when I’m creating a new piece of writing (which Grandpa was always proud to read), or greeting someone new, or holding my daughter’s hand for comfort or safety, I hope I’m carrying on his legacy of craftsmanship, care, community, and compassion. And maybe that’s why years ago, when a dear friend complimented me on the character of my hands, the words went straight to my heart.