the little one is sick again.

nothing necessarily crisis-like but last week’s ear infection has morphed into a cough over the last few nights as the antibiotic packs its bags and takes its leave. his sitter’s little girl has been almost constantly sick since Christmas and so O picks up these bugs like a sponge, those vulnerable preemie lungs still lurking under the hale and husky toddler. the constant strain of illness running through the daycare situation frustrates me sometimes, setting off twinges of guilt…what kind of mother drops off her child in a pit of plague every morning? have a nice day, sweetie, try not to, ummm…inhale. but his sitter is kind and nurturing and clean and patient and he seems happy there, and thus he and wee Amelia pass their viruses back and forth while Dave and i watch inert, like flies in amber, unable to decide whether illness or change is the greater evil.

tonight, though, even with his inhalers in full force he has not yet slept for more than half an hour at a time, waking coughing and wailing, moaning in pain of undisclosed origin. around nine, i slipped into his room only to realize i was unnoticed, that this time he had not really, fully woken and was just mewling to himself. he was writhing in the bed, flailing and repositioning his body with the hopeless fierceness of the miserable. i crossed the room to his crib, murmuring sweet nothings. i reached down to pet him.

he batted my hand away, then stopped. warm little finger pads traced the back of my hand, feeling for the familiarity of silver bracelet, of rings. he noted these, declared “mama” and curled his hand into mine, settling, his breathing slowing into deeper sleep again.

and i stayed, holding his hand for awhile, through the next fit of coughs and whimpers, all the while whispering hush like i was auditioning for Goodnight Moon. Oscar’s small hand stayed in mine, and i rubbed it lightly with my fingertips, trying to soothe, to pass love and comfort through skin.

my grandmother spent seven years dying. she was the backdrop of my childhood, my second parent, the person i went to after school and on snow days and March break and all summer except when i was at camp, the person who watched my homespun one-girl-theatre extravaganzas with patience and encouragement, who took me to MacDonald’s every St. Patrick’s day for a bilious green Shamrock shake. she lived a long life, and a full one, but the end of her days was a slow and sometimes agonizing process filled with incremental losses of independence, with tears, with the physical pain of untreatable cancer, and with the indignities and loneliness of extreme old age. i lived away most of these seven years, though i did not leave the country until after she was gone. she was an anchor i would not quite pull away from. i knew there would be time, after. i feared losing her, this rock of my childhood.

what i remember now of those seven years, and especially the last two or three, the ones that stretched between hospital and nursing home and back again with the stench of urine and dying always in the air, is her hands. i cannot call her face up with any real clarity now, hard as i try, but her hands come to my mind’s eye like photographs, even still. they’d been small hands, in her day, but with knuckles swollen smooth by arthritis, marked by liver spots, the nails yellowed, the wedding rings that i wear now on my own ring finger gouged deeply into hers with the permanence of sixty-plus years. her hands were seldom rough, or sweaty…they were welcoming hands, good hands for holding. and that was what we did, whenever i came home…not often enough, i see now, my heart knows. there were visits where she did not know me, and ones where she did and cried for death and then collapsed into herself, shamed and exposed. through most, though, we just filled time, talked, in the early days doing the crossword puzzles from the paper or talking about my work, my latest move, my mom…later just sitting together, me telling stories if she was up for it. occasionally, wonderfully, she would become the lucid storyteller herself, passing on to my mother and i pieces of all our history, the women of this family. always i held her hand, rubbing it lightly with my fingertips…trying to pass love and comfort through skin, to memorize the feel of those light old bones.

tonight, with O’s hot little hand under mine, i felt my grandmother’s too.

there is a lot about mothering that i sometimes feel unequal to…a lot where i wonder if i’m lost and floundering, and if a good mother would just go ahead and find a new sitter already, dammit. but this core of it, where you sit with another human being when he or she is vulnerable and small, and where there is nothing to say but i am here and i love you dearly, hush, it’s okay and most of what is communicated is spoken tenderly and silently, through the stroke of a finger…this part i know.

someone’s child or someone’s mother, holding hands in the dark of a sick room, abiding, is when i know most surely i am blessed.