I was always hesitant to wake her up. After all, she was a night owl — the kind that stayed awake long past midnight, every day.
I'd look at the clock — 6:15 a.m — and think, maybe I shouldn't.
Then I'd take a breath and tap her shoulder gently, very gently. When she stirred, I'd whisper: Would you braid my hair?
She always said yes.
Photo by Reshot
Anchoring three sections of my long, thick hair between her fingers, my mother would then proceed to braid them, over and under, over and under, her pace steady and sure. She got the balance right every time — tight enough to remain neatly bound all day, but not so tight that I'd have a headache within a few hours.
I relished those moments of childhood comfort and calm, sitting on my mother's bed, feeling her gentle fingers, facing the first glints of sunlight through the window.
Somehow, as she anchored my hair, she anchored me, too, before I walked out the door and into a world (school) that made me cry and ache by turns. Belonging eluded me, and my differences dogged me — probably not helped by that very braid, so unlike the ubiquitous blondeness around me, managed fashionably by sparkly combs tucked into the back pockets of Jordache jeans.
Eventually, I learned to do my own braiding — how to comb, divide, then reach backwards down my neck, seeing the sections of hair in my mind's eye as I plaited, until I could shift them forward and complete the task over my right shoulder.
At age thirteen, I'd had enough of my long hair and my braiding routine, and I persuaded a reluctant hairdresser to lop twelve inches off my tresses. While the dramatic move was what I wanted, I also felt a sense of loss — of far more than just hair.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the Native American tradition of weaving ceremonial grasses, likening it to the act of braiding hair. One person holds, and the other person braids, and the joint enterprise generates companionship, warmth, amity, accord.
Kimmerer goes on to compare this manner of relating to that which should exist between humanity and Mother Earth — one of reciprocal honoring and respect, giving and taking, balancing and re-balancing. Elegant extrapolations like this one make Kimmerer's collection of essays a work of written art.
Normally, I would dive into her braiding metaphor, swim in it, drink up its gorgeous idealism.
But I can't. At this moment in time, circumstances have ejected me from my headspace, and placed my hands firmly into the sticky concrete of day-to-day living.
A Caregiving Cocoon
A few months ago, my mother came to my home for treatment for a rare form of cancer. Ever since her extensive and invasive abdominal surgery, our household routine has been organized around the taking of medicines, and the preparation of food, and the fetching of wet washcloths and warm blankets and fresh clothing.
Feeding, bathing, washing, comforting. In this caregiving cocoon, every action feels visceral; every gesture, personal; every moment, full.
And I am not a natural at it.
The wounds and bodily fluids scare me and serve as yet another reminder why I didn't attend medical school. The unavoidable uncertainties destabilize and unnerve me. And my mother, the most engaged and energetic woman I know, is quiet and vague. She is unfamiliar.
The current Covid catastrophe has reminded many of us of the heroism of nurses on the front lines of emergent care. But I am realizing that the quieter part of their work, the day-in-day-out caregiving, is equally heroic, requiring great patience, vast energy, and deep kindness to preserve the dignity of adult patients.
Did I mention that I'm not a natural at it?
But I am slowly getting better, less awkward, less blundering. I have learned to wash hair without pouring water all over the bathroom, to blow dry it sideways to keep it out of her eyes. And yes, I also braid it.
As I braid, I think of the aphorisms I've heard throughout my life, which I thought I'd understood implicitly. Life can turn on a dime. No one knows how much time they have. Don't wait to tell someone you love them. But now, this advice feels as immediate, as physical, and as tangible as my mother's hair in my hands.
Weaving the three sections of her long, dark hair together, I consider all the threes of the human condition, that I must accept and honor, simultaneously and with grace. Past, present, future. Childhood, adulthood, old age. Illness, recovery, (I hope I wish I pray) health.
Though I keep trying, I can't get the braiding balance right — the firmness, the tightness, the positioning.
I need to be a better anchor.
Today, my mother is having a good day, the best since her surgery. I am glad because the next round of medication starts on Monday. Today, she has an appetite. Today, she is clear-eyed and smiling — they way I've always thought of her.
She beckons me to the sofa where she is sitting after months of lying flat in bed, and she pats the space next to her.
I smile and curl up next to her, my head in her lap, my eyes on her face, feeling her fingers pass over my forehead. There is only one person in the world who loves me like this — who wishes me every good thing without expectation or condition or agenda. It is a momentary respite, a reversal of the reverse mothering of the past months.
I know tomorrow may be different. The days may bring more vomiting and nausea and pain. When they do, I'll hold her hands and bring her meals and read to her. When she asks — would you braid my hair? — I'll always say yes.