Holding Her Hand
I had a dream the other night I was holding my writing partner’s hand. She’d been very supportive of me recently, and so it made sense she’d take my hand to show me we really were on this journey to make a life as writers together, to show me that we really were learning to depend on each other, to love each other even though we were both afraid of abandonment and loss. I was surprised by how cool her hand was, how delicate, how narrow the bones. It reminded me of my mother, and, the next thing I knew, in my dream, I was holding my mother's hand.
I was so hard on my mother when she was alive. I’m still hard on her now that she’s dead.
Earlier in the day, I’d been at the march in San Jose, and my friend Karen had taken my hand so we wouldn’t get separated in the crowd. Our phones were low on batteries, and if we lost each other, chances were good we’d have neither text nor GPS to reconnect us.
I walked with her hand in mine and thought, So now people will think I’m a lesbian. Minutes before I’d seen a student of mine, and it was possible she was close enough to us still to see our hands. Karen’s hand was cool and delicate. The bones were narrow.
My friend had taken my hand so she wouldn’t lose me. This was what being over fifty years old was turning out to look like: love and acceptance and the surprise of how close to death we all are along with the mutual surprise of how strong we all are.
Last year, even, I might have pulled my hand away, but this year I held on. I felt the pulse in her wrist against the pulse of mine. Love was so confusing. I thought if I didn’t have something to eat soon I might pass out.
I don’t remember when I first got angry at my mother for not being the way I wanted her to be. More like me. These days, when I look back at our relationship, I don’t think about my anger: I think about how much I loved her, but when I let myself get still and hold her hand in mine and think about how I really felt in the presence of my mother, I am full of disbelief. How is it that you were my mother? And in that awful betrayal, I turn the full force of hate upon myself. This person, my mother, who said she loves me more than anyone, I reject. I rejected. This lack of feeling is unthinkable. And so I loved, love, her, hard.
I have no idea what it means to love. To me, love means trying to make a person’s life better, trying to make him or her happy. It is not about sitting on the front porch swing, holding hands, breathing, feeling, existing. It means, how do you hurt and how can I make it better?
Many people adopt because of infertility, and the wound of we couldn’t have children of our own goes unaddressed in the rush of Let’s adopt. The baby will heal us. The baby will make things all better.
Being adopted is such a strange experience. And if you are a thinking person and a feeling person, it just gets stranger. Adoption is about strangers pretending they were never strangers. At least mine, a closed adoption in the 1960’s was.
How is it that the person I love most in the world aside from my daughter could have just as easily been someone else? In many ways, my adoption was like an arranged marriage. What if your parents had picked a partner for you? Quite possibly a stranger. You have no say, and so you say yes.
Now you can say that it’s the same situation even if you are born to your parents: it’s still a crap shoot. They and you have no idea what they are getting. Only that’s not exactly true. Flesh of flesh, blood of blood is different from “I loved you the minute I saw you.”
How is it different? Why do people spend millions and millions of dollars researching who belongs in their family tree? (The funny thing is I can’t even think of the words for what I’m trying to describe here. What I want to say is that people spend time and money finding out who their genetic great-great-great grandmother is, and yet people still ask me why, really, it matters if I know who my birth parents are.)
My daughter, who is flesh of my flesh, is a given, there is no disruption in the narrative line that starts the day you were born and continues to the day we took you home. I made her. I didn't sign papers or give money to get her. I pushed her out. We were literally connected by a cord.
But I drift.
I am holding my mother’s hand. And it is smaller than mine, thinner. It feels like something I am supposed to shelter, something I need to protect.
If my mother were alive, I would fly to Boston, rent a car, drive to New Hampshire and walk through the front door of her house. I would hug her and ask to sit down with her. I would take her hand in mine even though part of me would want to go straight upstairs to my bedroom and be both alone and with my mother.
I might cry because I would be afraid of what would happen next (What if she pulls away? What if I cry even harder?) but I would wait until I could feel her pulse against mine. And I would let myself feel all the sadness and joy that would well in my heart. I would hold her hand in mine and I would feel both the strength and the weakness.
Loving someone is so frightening. So real.