It shouldn’t be surprising to a daughter that her hands are like her mother’s, but it was a revelation to me.
It was a Friday evening. We were sitting in an audience of women, listening to a woman speak. She was saying that women didn’t acknowledge pain well. Then she started listing hardships, none of which I have acknowledged because I have never known them: disease, addiction, estrangement, depression. Some might have felt fortunate in that moment. I was feeling left out.
Then the speaker said, “the loss of a child,” and with that I was snapped out of my daze and looked over at my Mom to see, quite understandably, that her eyes were wet. She was thinking about Cathy, a sister I’d never met, a tragedy I’ve always known about without ever having to live through it.
Catherine Rose was born with a congenital heart defect at a time when the recommended course of action was to wait for her to reach her first birthday, when she would be stronger and more able to endure surgery. In the meantime, you just prayed that nothing went wrong.
It was a few days before Cathy would turn 1. My Mom and Dad, and their three kids had returned from a long trip back home to introduce Cathy to her extended family for the first time. My Mom had laid Cathy down for a nap when they got home. Later she found her baby forever sleeping in her crib.
All that I know about Cathy is that story, which has only ever been told to me by my Dad. Maybe my Mom couldn’t bear to tell it. Maybe my Dad couldn’t bear to hear her tell it, couldn’t bear for her to have to tell it, so he told it on the rare occasion when he thought it needed telling.
Cathy’s story was told so rarely, in fact, that it was easy for me to forget about it growing up. There were no pictures of Cathy in our house, no memories at all.
Maybe her things were all taken away. Maybe some things were stored and reused when I was born six years later. All that I have seen of her is her gravestone in our family cemetery, with a rose bush planted alongside.
When I was in my first pregnancy, after making sure that my Mom wasn’t home, I asked my Dad again about Cathy, so I could complete a family history. He told me the same story, no more detail, no less, and he said of my Mom, “She was only really getting over it when you were born.”
Seeing my Mom’s wet eyes on that Friday night, without thinking, I reached out with my right hand and took her left hand. I slid my fingers between hers; the way teenagers do when they’re learning to hold hands. That shared pain, hers so much deeper than mine, gave me the courage I needed to offer her comfort.
And she let me comfort her; she knew I understood why she was upset. And we sat there for a long time like that. It was really nice; it was comfortable. It gave me comfort too.
There are really only three people whose hands I hold. My husband, whose broad, solid, hand I hold for many reasons: for familiarity, to show affection, for strength, for guidance. My daughter, whose child-sized hand I hold easily as we cross a street or enter a place where she needs a little extra support. And my son, whose toddler-sized hand I hold either by squeezing because I’m trying to keep him near me, when he wants to be somewhere else, or gently, because he’s tired or overwhelmed or because he’s crying in the car and holding hands is the only thing that will calm him. But each one of those hands feels very different from my own.
When I was younger, I didn’t fold my hands when I prayed because I thought it looked too earnest. That’s right: When I prayed, I was worried about the people who might be looking at me, more than the one I was supposed to be praying to. I now understand that prayer is not for the self-conscious, and it feels good to fold my hands, so I do it. I also like folding my hands because that means they’re not writing a grocery list or unloading dishes. It helps with the concentration.
As I’m holding my Mom’s hand, I realize that it feels just like I am holding my own hand. Her hands have made more meals, more dresses, and more beds than my hands ever will, but I’m pretty sure I will get liver spots and freckles and wrinkles just like hers in due time. We both have bony hands, our tendons and veins are easily visible. We’ve both been sitting still listening to the speaker, so our skin is soft and warm.
On that Friday night, holding my Mom’s hand felt just like I was praying. Maybe I was.
Anna McLamb is an attorney for Brooks Pierce, Raleigh