When I was a little girl, it was such a treat to be allowed to braid my mother’s long hair. Better than a doll’s little locks, her life-sized hair was sleek and black, and I liked to make rows of tiny braids and loop them around her head like a crown. Mom, a working single mom, was not the princess type in her business suits with sculpted shoulder pads, and she tried to be patient at the weak cosmetological skills of her 10-year-old. Still, I remember the treat of it, the heavy silky strands, the conversations we had as I brushed and braided.
Twenty years later, it was my daughter’s hair running through my fingers. Naomi’s corn-silk hair, golden and wispy, needed to be braided tightly to withstand a big day of preschool and park. I learned to pull the tangles gently to avoid tears, and to change the style of braids to provide variety. Sometimes it felt like a chore and other times it felt like a privilege, to care for the halo of curls that would escape even my best efforts and turn into webby tangles overnight. Over time, of course, Naomi brushed her own hair, chose her own hair styles. And now those locks I used to try to tame run down her back like spun gold as walks through her life on the other side of the world. When I see her for holidays, I hold her and run my fingers through the silk, thinking of time once before, now over.
But I am learning that life is not made of lines but circles.
Forty years later, I have been at my mother’s bedside, brushing and braiding again. Mom’s silver hair is silky in my hands, the back of her head a little hard to get to in the crowded hospital room.
The stroke paralyzed her right side but mercifully left her speech and her whole mind intact. I have finally fully understood the difference between a brain—hers now seriously damaged—and a mind—hers sharp and gleaming. In this week, I was advocate, cheerleader, companion, errand girl, and hair brusher. I watched with profound admiration as she navigated hospital systems, occupational therapy, Medicare requirements, physical therapy, medication, hospital food. She reads up on the latest in stroke treatments, advocates for her next placement, and explains her medicine to the nurses after a shift change. And I sit by her side and brush her hair.
I have loved caring for my children, feeling the softness of their skin, plump cheeks turning sleek and, in Aidan’s case, prickly. While 12 hours on a plane behind parents with small children reminds me of all the ways I don’t miss the extraordinary demands of early parenting, I do find myself longing for the tactile nature of it all, the shampooing, the curling up together to read a book, the heads limp on my shoulder as they fall asleep. I did not imagine that I would get some of that back with my mother, her forehead cool under my lips, her motionless arm heavy in my hands as we try on new clothes for this new chapter.
I write about complexity, and wow has that helped me as I have faced bewildering pieces of my life. The death of a younger cousin, of an only slightly older friend, my own cancer, my mother’s stroke. I deeply understand the doctors when they tell me they cannot know if my cancer will return, cannot know if Mom will be able to walk again. I do not search for causes that could not be given to me, do not wonder what punishment or reward is bestowed and by whom. Life is made of uncertainty; to be alive is to be unsure of the future.
But there are times when it is simplicity that is most human, when what matters most are the repeatable manifestations of care. These most basic functions—holding my baby at my breast, cutting my mother’s food, watching my now-grown children fall asleep on a train—these are made of tenderness, made of the love we have for one another. The thing I have learned in this circular, braided week, is that underneath the complexities of what it means to be a family, there is nothing but pure love, shining, silky, as heavy in my heart and my hands as my mother’s silver braid.
(I think mostly I just said what Wendell Berry said, better, here:
Sabbaths 2000, III
As timely as a river
God’s timeless life passes
Into this world. It passes
Through bodies, giving life,
And past them, giving death.
The secret fish leaps up
Into the light and is
Again darkened. The sun
Comes from the dark, it lights
The always passing river,
Shines on the great-branched tree,
And goes. Longing and dark,
We are completely filled
With breath of love, in us