Every mother knows the feeling of a 2am fever. Midnight cries and discomfort and the way we answer it with all the rituals we perform to make things better. Cool washcloths on the forehead and cuddling next to your child in the bed while watching the numbers on the thermometer.
So much of motherhood is responding. A crying baby brought to the breast. A skinned knee at the playground. A mountain of school paperwork on the kitchen counter. A constant flow of kids and dishes that never stops revolving in the kitchen. When one meal is cleaned up, it’s time for another one. Evening rituals of packing school lunches after the sun goes down when the whole house is sleeping but you.
The list is exhausting. It can feel like you are only useful for the tasks you perform. Like a stagehand clad in black clothing who moves scenery in the darkness of a theater. Invisible to almost everyone as she coordinates the moving pieces that make the show go on.
It’s easy to see the immediate purpose for our actions everyday, but it’s hard to see the Purpose with a capital P. It can be difficult to feel that thread that connects you to something beyond the urgent needs of your family.
My grandmother passed away this summer, and I was blessed to be with her as she spent her final days at home with the dignified care of hospice. As roles were reversed, I found myself doing all the things with her that she did with me throughout my own childhood. I pureed sweet potatoes for her to eat; I spread Vaseline on her dry lips; I laundered sheets, monitored her changes in body temperature, and prepared her bath basins at the kitchen sink.
I spent those days doing all the simple things I do for my own children, but instead of laying cool washcloths on their heads, it was on hers. And though the motions are the same, I was struck by how it all feels like a sacrament when you know it’s the end. These are our present bodies and our immediate needs, but there’s a thread somewhere else. And when you sit with someone who is so close to the other side, you can feel that link to the beyond with every mundane task you do.
In her final weeks, I could not stop looking at her hands, wrinkled and spotted and scarred from a life of work and love. All my life, she’d been so embarrassed of them. They reflected years of toil and sacrifice, not vanity or privilege. But they were more than that to me. They were my favorite thing about her because they were instruments of love and grace for decades as they tended to me. As children, we are on the receiving end of all of the rituals and daily needs that our mothers and grandmothers provide for us. And one day you see that all those tiny tasks somehow work to sew a seam to something beyond our sight. They become threads that connect us to those we love forever and ever.
It’s impossible to see yourself entirely from your own child’s perspective, but sometimes, when you are really lucky, you can see it in their eyes. When you bring them a popsicle without their request on a hot summer afternoon because you know it is exactly what they want, and they gaze back with shining eyes and pink cheeks. When you comfort those midnight fevers, and you feel the weight of a warm body leaning on your thigh as you sit and pat them back to sleep. When it’s cold outside and you wrap them in a soft towel after a warm bath, and they hang on a little tighter for the goodnight hug.
Motherhood can sometimes feel like a race with a never-ending to-do list, but when you pause to step back a minute and see things in a larger frame, you understand that these million small tasks are anything but mundane. They add up to something bigger and link us together with threads that become stronger as the years pass, carrying us somewhere beyond to a place we remember in our own bones, even after someone has faded from our sight. A tie that holds steady year after year. Made of the tiniest moments of a mother’s touch.