A Mother’s Hands


It is often said that you can tell a lot about a man by looking at his hands. It's true, in so many ways, a man's hands are revealing to the eye. They are simpler, much more straightforward than we are, aren't they? What you see is what you get. They wash them, of course, but not with anything special. There are no costumes on their nails, and little jewelry to distract from the truth of their knuckles.



For a woman, a mother especially, a story is also told by her hands. We try so hard to have our hands say certain things, to look certain ways, so you have to look beyond what you see. Some of us are always perfectly moisturized and manicured, others prefer to keep it simple, but most of us make efforts to remove signs of chaos.

Simply looking at our hands may not tell you anything real. The truth of a mother, the reality of her experience, often lies not in  the look, but in the very smell of her hands.

In those early, meticulous, fully immersed, first baby days, our hands may smell like sanitizer or the special lotion we use for infant massage. We are consumed with the care and maintenance of a freshly minted person, whose sacredness we must preserve, and whose flesh we must nurture. Then, there are those days spent in the trenches, caring for our sick little ones, where no matter what we do our hands smell like…well, sick little ones. Vapor rub or bleach if we are among the fortunate, body fluids and poop if we are not.

The glorious days of summer, where all is right with the world, our hands smell like sunscreen and citrus, barbecue sauce, pool water or the ocean. As time goes on, perhaps we devote more time to our professions and passions, whatever they may be. Our hands might smell like soil, old books, garlic, bread dough, or MacBook.

Today, my hands smell like surrender. Each time my hands carry this scent, it means I have turned one of my dear ones, one of my babies, over to the care of a hospital. I don't know why, but this smell is only carried by the serious hospitals. Community emergency rooms don't have it, urgent care clinics don't have it. These places don't need it. But children's hospitals, big ones, where children stay for weeks, and parents weep in bathroom stalls, they must utilize the aromatherapy of faith. Faith in medicine, faith in doctors, sometimes, faith in God. It is a deceptively mundane smell, a mix of floral chemicals and antibiotics.

I first became acquainted with this smell in September of 2003, when my newborn son was in the NICU. There was a ritual all of us NICU parents had to follow. It was oddly soothing and sacred, washing all traces of the outside world away, cleansing hands and weary soul, in order to enter the inner sanctum. We would form a line and wash fingertips, knuckles, palms and wrists, one by one, one after the other, waiting to gain entry to the holy chamber where the miracle workers and their acolytes performed secret healing rituals on our babies. We would don paper robes of purity, leaving all of our possessions behind, and silently tiptoe to the altars which held our children.

Some of us were not allowed to touch these tiny treasures, so fragile were they, but
we washed our hands anyway. It was all we could do, you see. If we performed the ritual well enough, enough times, every day, perhaps we would receive the goodwill of the Universe, and be permitted to lay hands on a tiny piece of Heaven. Rationally, we knew it was superstition, this idea that if we followed the rules well enough, if we simply had clean hands, that our babies would be safe.

But in those days where you are so very powerless, so very afraid, you take whatever lifeline you can grasp, even if it is only germicidal soap. I've smelled that soap exactly 4 times since the NICU in 2003. Each time was the same, cleanse my hands, enter a quiet, monastic chamber, and turn my child over to those with skills I do not possess.

Today, I smelled it again as I admitted my oldest son to a psychiatric day hospital. I was surprised to smell it today, at first. The smell of this special soap is only found in certain types of hospitals, the types where we are all most vulnerable…to infection, cross-contamination, or earth shattering loss. I was surprised to smell it today, but I am glad that I did.

It is a baptism for those who have no control, and thus, those who must surrender. It is a cleansing for the powerless, a marker that identifies any parent with a hospitalized child. It is a smell that separates us from the outside world, that creates a holy place where we can hope. It is a smell meant to remind us of our solemn duty, our hardest job as parents, to know when to trust. When to trust medicine, trust doctors, and sometimes, to trust God.

What memories do you have of your mother's hands?

Shannon Thomas is a Navy wife and mother of 4. Two of her children have special needs, and Shannon has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She's not a fan of “supposed to…” She struggles with consistency and structure. She has a perfectionist’s brain, but a rebel’s heart. Shannon blogs at Mishmash Mama. You can contact her here.

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