The Universal Sign

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It’s something I’ve noticed over the years; the casual settling of a mother’s hand on her child’s head.
It’s a precious sight, really; the familiarity, the comfort, the way the child’s head leans in to the shoulder of the mother, as if drawn by invisible strings.

It’s a universal sign.

It’s a sign that says, “You belong to me.”

It’s a sign that says, “I will keep you safe.”

It’s a sign that says, to anyone watching, “Harm this child and I will unleash a fury upon you, the likes of which will cause your worst nightmare to shudder.”

And it seemed to me, at one time, that it was some evolutionary thing, a biological connection, a sign of protection over our offspring. It seemed to be an automatic connection between mother and child, born in that moment of sweat and screams and struggle; that moment when a mother first settles her hand firmly beneath the wobbly head of her newborn. It seemed a connection that said, “You came from me, we are the same.”
But, I think it’s more than that.

Because I’ve seen this same act between a mother whose child came to her through the beauty of adoption, and when they melded together as a family that child was long past the wobbly-headed infant stage.

And I’ve seen this same act between a foster mother whose skin was pale as porcelain, and the child she chose to raise, whose skin happened to be as dark as his mother’s was white.

It’s the easy familiarity of this action that fills my soul when I see it, because there is so much in that small movement.
I have done this with my own children, until they seemed too big and teenager-y and independent to settle my hand upon their heads without awkwardness.

But I still have one little boy, who will snuggle into me in a church pew, or on the living room couch, and allow my hand to rest there, his small head leaning in to my shoulder and my hand sometimes fiddling with his hair…brushing it up between my fingers and unconsciously enjoying the silky feeling of the strands of brown with sunshine-y highlights.

And I have another boy who is perched on the cusp of manhood, with legs and arms too long and gangly for me to hold in my lap anymore, but if he is ill, or very sleepy, he will sometimes curl up beside me in spite of himself, and allow me to find peace and comfort of my own in that connection, in the noticing of how my hand somehow seems suddenly smaller when settled on the crown of his once-baby head, the head that is now adult-sized and sports hair gelled into a “style” because he wants to look good for the ladies.

And every once in a great, great while, more rare than a blue moon during a meteor shower, perhaps during a fever or after a horrific bout of stomach flu or in the midst of a thoroughly broken high school heart, one of my teenage daughters will allow me the pleasure of molding my hand onto the back of her head, twisting my fingers into the thick, curl-tangled hair (while I silently marvel at the way those precious heads were once bald) and with my free hand I will wipe some smeared mascara and eye-liner that has worked down a cheek in the wake of her tears.
And I don’t think it ever stops.

I had occasion recently to witness this beautiful exchange between a mother and her adult son, whose mental age is not quite as advanced as his chronological age, and she looked down at his face tenderly and up it went, her hand to his head, and he smiled back and leaned a little more closely in toward her, and she sifted his hair through her fingers like sand through a child’s plastic beach toy.

It wasn’t all that long ago we brought my sister home on Hospice, and we all stayed at my mother’s house until her final day. My sister’s children moved in to my mother’s house for the duration, and I would walk sometimes into the room where her hospital bed was set up and find that one of her adult children were kneeling by the bed, a cheek pressed against my sister’s stomach, and though my sister was barely half awake, drugged and ravaged by cancer, her arm would begin to move, her hand crawling, crawling, along the bedframe and then up the back and shoulder of whichever child happened to be there, until she made it to her destination and cupped her thin, weakened hand against the crown of the head of her own child.

And there they would stay, for hours on end.

And now, I think I understand.

It doesn’t matter how your child came to be your child. It doesn’t matter if they are hours or months or years old, or if they are toddlers or adults.

It’s just a universal sign.

It means, “Mine”.

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4 responses to “The Universal Sign

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