There is just the smallest sliver of light pink nail polish left on my two big toes. Each time I’ve cut my toenails over the past five months, I’ve wondered aloud, “How long does it take for toenails to grow out?”
The smaller toenails grew out first, of course, and others were lost early due to a long run here and there. The big toes, though, have persisted and left me with the oddest, but most tangible reminder of my mother.
The day before she drove herself to the hospital because she was having trouble breathing, my mom and I went to get a pedicure. I picked out the light pink color, thinking I’d be able to show them off in sandals for the next day or two before I flew back to Alaska.
I wish I could remember what color she chose, but I don’t. I do remember that she complained of a cramp in her leg and asked the woman doing her nails to turn up the heat on the foot bath, hoping for some relief.
The relief never came, though, since the cramp turned out to be a blood clot and in less than 24 hours it would dislodge, shoot up her leg to her lungs, and spread across both arteries — a saddle pulmonary embolism.
Over the course of the next week, I sat beside her in the hospital waiting for good news that also never came. Each morning, as soon as visiting hours started, I walked into her room, popped off my sandals and got cozy in the seat beside her bed.
In between crossword puzzles, long and arduous conversations with family, friends and insurance companies, I would try to get close to my mom. I wanted to remember what it was like before, but it was a struggle to find a place to hold her, to touch her in spite of all tubes, cords and mechanics going into and being sent out of her body. I tried to grab her hand, but it just felt wrong. She was never one for physical touch anyhow.
Instead, I grabbed her toe through the sheets and gave it a little squeeze with my thumb and forefinger. It was a small gesture, mimicking the way she would always grab and pull my toes until they popped, and reminding her that I was there again that day. I was still waiting for her to wake up.
After she died and we were setting everything up for her funeral, we realized that she needed an outfit to be buried in, just another one of those things you don’t ever think about until you’re forced to. But, it was an easy answer since she often wore the same outfit, a flowy dress and flip-flops, and I was, again, so grateful we had gotten a pedicure. My mom would have hated being buried without one.
The pedicure we got together early that morning five months and one day ago was supposed to be just one of many more pedicures we got together, not the last one ever, but I’m grateful for that last salon appointment. Of all the things I’ve thought in my head that I would change from the last week we spent together, this is a moment I would keep the same. It was perfectly simple, and characteristically us.
Within a few days, all that pink nail polish on my big toes will be gone. Then, one day soon, I’ll sit down in a pedicure chair. The manicurist will see my haggard toes, blisters, calluses and say, like they always do, “Looks like it’s been awhile.”
And even though the memory of my last pedicure is so well-loved that it feels like it was yesterday, I’ll agree.