The Hands That Touched It Last

Our flight to Boston had been delayed five hours for operational reasons, we were told. The Istanbul airport was hot and thick with people, a hectic crossroads from which we all hoped we’d escape, eventually. We’d been there three hours already—essentially nothing, judging by the quantity of sleeping bodies slumped against each other on the ground, splayed across chairs, face down on tables. We paced the warm corridors, sticky with traveler sweat, past the food court, mosque, flooded bathrooms, Victoria’s Secret. We slumped over a table eating savory pastries, watching others in similar states of surrender.

This was the end of our travels—nearly. We’d spent the previous ten days in Vienna clearing an apartment down to floors and walls. In that time we had dismantled the physical remnants of a life that left us four months prior, suddenly.

There were the large objects, furniture upon and against which her body had rested: the sofa she slept on when we were visiting, the bed she slept in when we weren’t, the kitchen table with its chairs (very Viennese, we were told by each man who came to inspect and offer a price for the parts, the whole, all of it).

We were there, where she had lived and thrived, having relocated overseas 20+ years ago. We were on a deadline; return tickets purchased before we’d known the full extent of the task at hand. We were displacing everything. All the pieces of life she’d brought with her, the markers of accomplishments, memories, incidental moments gathered along the way.

So much paper, old and new—the material of life played out in bills, receipts, instruction booklets, mementos from concerts attended, trips taken, birthdays passed and cards received. Lists of what to pack, who to contact, who had been contacted, what had happened. Notes to self and aphorisms jotted down and posted. Pages of correspondence whose quantity, and the depth of connections they conveyed, humbled me. We parsed each piece—what to take, recycle, incinerate.

This was an action, an experience that I was a part of, but one I also watched from outside its essential core. This was the loss of a mother, but not my mother. These were the physical markings of a life—individual and shared—but not my life. I’d come into the picture relatively recently, not quite a decade earlier. It was a task whose difficulty I could see and feel only in profile.

There were the antique cabinets into which she had reached: the cupboards holding sheet music and family treasures (aging quilts, photographs, newspaper clippings, telegrams from the day she married), the vitrine holding handmade porcelain and linens, the tabernacle that was (apparently) not a tabernacle, all of it out of fashion Biedermeier for which no one would pay a premium, we were told. Each piece she’d loved, nonetheless fetching a price.

The quantity of parts was at once stunning and not at all surprising. These are the sorts of material things that one has when one lives as a physical body in a physical world. In every seemingly inconsequential object or scrap was a reminder of the totality of the life force that had carried it to its place. The hands that touched it last.

The records of banking and living we found in a desk, holder of that which has no other place or has not yet, will never make its way to its appropriate file. All the rocks and shells she’d gathered in her wanderings and travels. Each specimen bagged and labeled. Solid, time-hardened pieces that were not ours, though we held them.

That parts of the whole would eventually join us at our home, taking the extra space in another’s shipping container headed to the same port, was a small but important solace. Integrating her objects, large and small—table, rug, bowls, paperclips—into our lives, another memorial.


At the Istanbul airport, we shuffle from gate to gate, moving on when a crowd gathered for departure displaced us. Intrigued by the idea of a “terrace,” of fresh air, we follow signs up escalators, down hallways, only to find what amounts to a smoke-filled metal cage, crammed with people. At the advice of a gate agent, we petition the airline for access to one of several lounges. Beg for quiet and chairs. They offer vouchers to Burger King. We persist until, at last, they give. In the Millennium Lounge, we find ourselves a table, collect trays of complimentary lentil soup, pastries, drinks. Sit in the strangely hushed room. Are not-so-covertly observed by the child at a nearby table. His mother is completely covered—head to toe to fingertips. In my pants, t-shirt, sneakers, I feel bare—mess of hair, face, elbows.

When at last we have a boarding time, a gate, have passed through another layer of security, we sit by a man playing a left-handed oud. Music that reintroduces the idea of beauty. We talk with him, hear brief details of his life—as a Kurd in Turkey, a social worker in Boston. We eventually line up, make our way outside, ride a bus, stand together on the tarmac beneath an intense five o’clock sun. The mass of soon-to-be passengers crowd the stairway to the plane while we—the two of us, the oud player, and a Nigerian medical student making his way back to school in my hometown of St. Louis—huddle for a time in the shade of the jet engine, with the few others who prefer to wait out the rush. It would be another hour once we were on board, before the pilot would arrive, and eventually we would takeoff, and land.


Elizabeth Witte is the Associate Editor of The Common.

The Hands That Touched It Last

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