When Mae was just hours old, she held my hand. I knew it was just a reflex, like latching on or splaying her limbs when startled, but it made me feel motherly when her tiny palm encircled my index finger. It was like she was saying, Ok, Mommy. You lead. Where are we going? And right then I knew exactly what I, her newly-made mother, should always do: hold her hand back.
When I was a few months away from giving birth to baby number two, we decided we had to get Mae out of our bed. At first, we put the crib beside the bed and I would fall asleep holding Mae’s hand through the bars.
But then we moved her into the next room.
My fingers and wrist fit comfortably through the bars of a crib, but when Mae continued to cry, I had to rub her back or pat her softly. Night after night I held firm: I will sing to you, pat your back, shove both my arms through the bars to encircle you, but I won’t take you out of your bed.
The nights were interminable; after the singing and the patting and many firm Lay down, Maes, each night settled down to this—me, sitting in the dark, humming softly, holding my daughter’s hand as she drifted off and her world slowly shifted underneath her.
Walking next to a preschooler on a sunny day, as her downy blonde hair surrounds her head like a halo, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. She chatters constantly, words and songs trickling out of her mouth as quickly as they enter her head. You need only shorten your stride and slow your pace a little, because she bounces along at a cheerful pace. You hold hands companionably, pausing every now and then to explore a crack in the sidewalk or navigate an oncoming walker. She’s buoyant. She’s bouncy. She’s eager. She’s curious. She’s delightful. And as you look at her upturned face and feel the way her little hand fits so completely in your palm, your heart wells. She’s yours and you love her.
When Mae comes out of surgery, she’s groggy. She struggles to open her eyes and focus on my face.
“You can sleep, sweetheart. We’ll go back to your room in a few minutes, when you’re ready.” But Mae shakes her head stubbornly. She wants to be ready now.
“If she’s awake, I’ll call transport and you’ll go back to your room,” says the nurse both giving us information and orders at the same time.
I look at Mae and stroke her bangs across her forehead, a motherly gesture I don’t usually do. But I want to do something. A couple of surgery residents walk through the room. They give last minute orders to the nurses, as they wheel out the unconscious patients. Then they head out, messenger bag slung over shoulder, cell phone in hand, done for the night. I watch them and feel a stab of jealousy.
Slowly the children around us are waking up from anesthesia. We hear the whimpering and weak crying of inconsolable children. Mae is crying now—tiny, hot tears that squeeze out of the corners of her eyes and run down to the stretcher mattress.
“Are you in pain, Sweetie?” I ask her and then to the nurse, “Can we give her anything for the pain?”
“I’ve ordered some pain meds to be given to her up in her room. If you want me to give them to her here, she’ll have to wait a while longer so we can make sure she tolerates them. Whichever you want.”
I look around. We can’t stay here. But I can’t watch Mae cry.
Another patient, a girl older than Mae, is wheeled into the space next to us. She’s old enough to know that sometimes the best way to describe pain is with swear words. Her hair is matted and dyed red. The nurses are trying to shift her around and reassure her as she yells out.
“Oh, God.” She stretches out the words so they are somewhere between a moan and expletive.
Mae shuts her eyes. More errant tears slide down her temples and nestle into her hair.
“Can you hold off on the pain meds so we can get out of here, Mae?” She nods, quickly, her face contorting for just a second.
Wishing I could do something more, I grab her hand—sweaty and limp under the surgery sheets. She squeezes back.
I convince Mae to get up and walk a lap around the hall.
She winces slightly with each step and walks hunched over and tenderly, like the little old lady she will one day be. She hates doing laps and will shuffle slowly on the way out. But I know once we reach the final stretch, she’ll get a surge of energy and waddle faster. I like seeing that spunk, even if it is just to get back in bed.
While she walks, she lets me hold her hand.
It’s been years, and two smaller siblings since we held hands as we walked. Her hand feels a little strange in mine—bigger than I remember but still fleshy around the knuckles, like a child’s. It’s delicate, but grimy with dirt under the fingernails (because she’s too young to care or notice such things).
It feels nice to hold her hand and reminds me of when she was little and it was just the two of us walking down the street, looking for an adventure.
But this isn’t a sunny street.
And this doesn’t feel like an adventure.
Her hand kinda hangs there—it doesn’t have any idea where to go or what to do. Ok, Mommy, you lead. I’ll follow. Take me somewhere better than here. And I really, really want to. But I can’t take her away from this bleach-smelling hospital hall, from the pain of having her insides rearranged, from this rocky recovery process.
All I can do is hold her hand back.
Thankfully, it seems to be enough.
One of the perks of living in a foreign country is that your tween daughter will hold your hand. Her definitions of gross and embarrassing have ballooned to encompass nearly everything about being a small child. But holding hands, somehow, is not yet forbidden.
Not that she does it a lot. Mostly in crowded, open-air markets or when crossing busy streets. She runs beside you and grabs your hand out of fear or confusion or as a reflex and usually drops it once you reach the safety of the other side of the street.
But sometimes it lingers, like she’s forgotten she is holding your hand. Like she used to, when she was little and holding hands was like breathing. And you know what to do: you hold her hand back.
It’s surprising how much you missed this small reassurance, this gesture that whispers, “Ok, Mommy. I’m here. Let’s go.”
So you don’t let go first. You never let go first. You just hold it—this hand which is almost as big as your own and a little sweaty and it feels awkward but nice and you wonder if this might be the last time you ever get to hold your daughter’s hand.
Amanda Hamilton Roos was born a little bossy and always really liked school, so naturally she became a teacher. Now that she's also a mother, she has found her passion is helping schools and families work together to help kids learn better. She investigates the nitty-gritty of school/family partnerships at Building the Bridge. Also, since she was 10 years old, Amanda has wanted to be a writer and blogs sporadically at Call Me Mandy. She hopes you'll make your 10-year-old dream come true, too!